Friday, June 03, 2011

Hidden Costs – Who Pays?

It’s late, much later than I want to admit being up. I couldn’t sleep and so I’m checking my online course site. While I tell my students I’m not on call, in reality I do check my site regularly throughout the day during summer sessions when I’m not in real classes (and yes, I am one of those stalwarts who have not drunk the koolaid about online classes being just as good as face-to-face versions).

So, I’ve just read a student discussion posting which included a link to an interesting website. I punch up the website on my google search site. OK. I see what he was getting at. Now I go back to the Discussion post and hit reply. Nothing. I click to close the window. Nothing. I wait, thinking I must be patient. Nothing. Finally I do the Delete+Control+Alt routine to escape Webcourses altogether. A couple minutes later, I’m back on the Discussion function reopening the student’s post.

At this point, I’ve probably wasted only three minutes. But that’s three minutes of my time. I am a college instructor, not a computer programmer. I am not paid to play technological games with sometimes working websites. I’m paid to teach.

But there is absolutely nothing pedagogical about those lost three minutes. I am paying for someone else’s incompetence and irresponsibility. And if those were the only three minutes I was going to lose in the next 24 hours, it would be no big deal. But it’s not.

The mail system on Webcourses is so flakey that I often copy my responses to students before trying to send them because I am anticipating it probably will not send the first time. I’m probably going to have to click out of the response and the original mail post, reopen the mail and try again. Usually works the second time. Another three minutes.

I may spend up to five minutes this day when a student alerts me that the grades are not showing for a given assignment. You see, computer people think in terms of security. So they don’t make grades available. You have to actually set the assignment to show the grades after you’ve created the assignment. But they also don’t tell you that when you’ve set up an assignment to provide those grades to the student, it won’t happen unless you know to actually go into the grades control panel and reset the settings to actually do that because they’re set not to show the grades. And you won’t know you haven’t remembered to do that until the student complains.

I long ago gave up on trying to put musical excerpts into Webcourses to test on exams. I’ve uploaded the excerpts several times now, uploaded the most recent players (both Realplayer and Quicktime), changed my directions to the students, recreated the questions with new inserts, and each semester I can anticipate that the music won’t work and if it does, I’ll field any number of complaints from students about how long they take to download. It’s simply more trouble than its worth regardless of the pedagogical value of requiring students to become familiar with some of the world’s most famous music as a part of their humanities course.

I also long ago gave up on relying on the assurances I got during my training for then WebCT that there would be people in tech support to help me. Initially, we were assigned a specific agent to help us with our questions. Today we’re doing good to get a live human being on the phone. What I have discovered is that the techs are rarely by their phones, often do not have the answers I need on the spot and frequently don’t return calls when messages are left. In short, I can depend on being on my own, generally. And I can usually depend on whatever the problem is ultimately being my fault, or so I will be told.

For the record, the current version of Webcourses was not the system on which many of us were trained, it was simply imposed upon us when Blackboard bought out WebCT. I had spent one miserable week in a face-to-face training for WebCT (isn’t it ironic that the training for teaching courses online must be taught F2F?) the first two days of which were spent enduring PR speaker after PR powerpoint on the greatness of “delivering services” online. One must always suspect that a product which feels the need to so intensely reassure you of its value up front must not be terribly certain that such value will be readily apparent to its consumer.

Webcourses was simply announced two years ago at about the same time that any semblance of technical support dried up and blew away. And the Help function online is simply an insult to injury for anyone trying to figure out why in the hell Webcourses won’t play your musical except or allow you to change your grades or why your discussion folder must either continue to be open for anyone to add late posts or totally unavailable or……

This is a great deal for someone. While the system does provide a basic means of placing materials online (and the greatest and highest use of all online course software is as an adjunct to a real class) it is poorly designed and constructed. Of course, you get what you pay for and most universities aren’t paying for much instructional these days. One must be a contractor for a new stadium or a Club Med dorm to be on the university gravy train. That or be one of the many, constantly proliferating administrative staff who feel the need to micromanage every aspect of the teaching their graduate educated instructors are trying to accomplish for larger and larger sections with totally unpredictable technologies for lower salaries than public school teachers.

What a poorly engineered and operated system like Webcourses means in real terms is that the cost of production is shifted onto the instructors. The three minutes here and five minutes there of our time is not instructional in nature, the job we are actually paid to do. What we are doing when we fiddle with nonresponsive response posts or multiple uploads of musical excerpts is paying the costs for shortcuts in design and production of computer systems out of our own life energies and personal time. And as more and more classes are forced onto the online venue because overenrolled universities have no space in actual classrooms for such students, that means instructors pay more and more of the cost of production of educational credentials for future worker drones out of their own pockets.

Cui bono? Good for whom? And at whose cost? It’s a good deal for someone, but it’s not us.

Of course, what this means is that those of us who are required to use these sloppy systems are inclined to do only the very bare minimum when it comes to using them. My students this summer no longer have to buy the musical CD that comes with the text for the humanities course because I simply cannot find a way to actually test the music online. So students save money. They are responsible for less material on the exam. The tech folks don’t have to be responsible for their system. And the university makes money on mass produced online classes that don’t require actual classrooms to hold actual classes which actual students actually have to attend. And as an added bonus, instructors are required to pay for the remaining shortcomings of the system out of their life energies and personal time.

Such a deal!
The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Orlando

 If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.
Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes. ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++


Amy said...

You know, I think this development (creeping Blackboard monopoly) is probably worse on the student end, if you're like me and trying to take some science courses at VCC. You pay tuition, you pay for the textbooks, and then you have to pay for additional online access -- through Blackboard, of all things! -- to publisher content, anywhere from fifty to a hundred bucks. The instructor doesn't have to do jack, so I want to know: What's the *tuition* for if the whole course is run by the publisher? They wouldn't dare charge an extra fee at the door to the classroom, but that's what's being done here.

frharry said...

"The instructor doesn't have to do jack..."

1. That has not been my experience. The instructor must endure enormous time consumption on just the technical quirks of this cheap system.

2. How many classes have you taught using Blackboard?

Amy said...

I believe that you have to spend time on this, because of the nature of your courses, but I just don't believe that the system is always set up to exploit the instructors. I'm trying to point to classes that don't fit your generalizations; I'm referring, very specifically, to classes where the online content is in a purchased BB cartridge or e-pack. There is no instructor-created content in those courses and the VCC instructors are in fact not empowered to change them at all, to correct "quirks" or otherwise. Any questions are directly to the help desk, which, as you note, is profoundly unhelpful.

I don't even blame the publisher; of course they want to make more money by selling 15 weeks of internet content instead of a book that could be resold and undercut the market. I do blame schools for falling for it.

And maybe I haven't taught any online courses, but I've been taking them for 11 years, so I think my perspective on the industry is at least a little bit valuable. You do constantly assume that all instructors are as dedicated as you, and that is flatly untrue, as well as not particularly restricted to online courses. And I think you may tend to dismiss criticism of other instructors as coming from a consumer mindset, which seems like a good way to ignore a problem; consumerism can be a problem along with inept instructors (like the chem teacher who told me "protons are red" -- genuinely unaware that a stylized diagram of an atom isn't a fact, per se).

frharry said...

You raise some good points here. It's probably not safe to presume that all classes are created equal in terms of demands the instructor faces from the technology, particularly if the course itself is designed not to be terribly demanding.

On the other hand, even when creation costs are minimized by pre-packaged programs, there are still operational costs in terms of time and frustration. Nothing comes for free.

I share your concerns about schools becoming exploitative money makers by any means possible. That's particularly of concern in a community college setting where the working class student finds there only real option for attending college the first two years. (And for the record, I am a community college product and strongly believe in their mission).

But we also live in a state that is socially irresponsible. We have made it possible for the 20% of our population who is retired to live off the backs of the working and middle class. We've given corporations and millionaires tax breaks while we soak the plumbers and secretaries with regressive sales taxes, expressway tolls and processing fees. And we pop it to the working class students in the form of technology fees.

The worst part is that we let our state government do that. The cuts to the privilege have been matched by the cuts to public institutions from NPR to libraries to universities. Little surprise that universities and colleges turn to the only remaining cash cow they have for funding - students.

frharry said...

One note on your final comment above. I do not think that students have nothing to contribute to the evaluation of faculty. There are valid inquiries to students which could provide useful information: Was the instructor audible, comprehensible in lectures? Was the instructor available for consultation as noted in the syllabus? Did the instructor meet classes on schedule? Note, all of those questions have to do with performance rather than customer satisfaction.

Moreover, clearly I do read my evaluations, even the scandalous ones on drive-by websites. And I do take the comments seriously, even the ones arising from immaturity and lack of good sense. The question I raise here is simply one of utility. The fact a student doesn't like to work hard doesn't make that a defect in the instructor who requires the same. The fact an honors student presuming they'll make an A in every class simply because they are, after all, an HONORS STUDENT, doesn't make their failure to do so in my class a failure in the instructor. When we ask consumerist questions, we get responses that are not terribly helpful to instructors because they have little to do with pedagogy and much to do with what the respondent brings to the transaction.

On the other hand, you raise a good point about my experience as instructor not being somehow normative for all other instructors. And I admit to taking personally broadsides against instructors generally when there are probably some who deserve the criticism. So, point taken.