Thursday, July 12, 2012

Dilemmas at the heart of academia - I

Two possibilities, neither acceptable

The Wikipedia entry on dilemma includes the following:

(Greek: δί-λημμα "double proposition")  a problem offering two possibilities, neither of which is practically acceptable. One in this position has been traditionally described as "being on the horns of a dilemma", neither horn being comfortable.

All of us find ourselves in dilemmas in our lives. Rarely are they foreseen and usually they are unavoidable. And so I found myself in a dilemma recently involving a student in an online section of the humanities course I am facilitating this summer (having long since dissuaded myself of the notion that one actually teaches much of anything online). It involved a student who ironically got caught by their own honesty and it has raised questions about online classes that are disturbing.

But first a little background.

Finessing the Cash Cows

It is important to note up front that, regardless of the noble spin put on it, the primary reasons for online courses are largely economic. Some universities use them to relieve overcrowding, having admitted far more students than they could ever house in classrooms, this in pursuit of tuition dollars to make up for those cut by state legislatures. They also use them to insure that basic classes toward graduation can be offered, often using adjuncts to do so. Not only is this a cheaper class to offer since adjunct pay is about as close to slave labor as one finds in the professional middle class but many universities add a technology fee for students as yet an additional means of fundraising. Clever, no?

Many universities have come to see themselves as competing with for-profit credentials factories who pioneered the use of online courses. But since brazenly ripping off a university’s cash cows is seen as unseemly for the manufacturers of professional middle class respectability, online classes must inevitably be packaged in public relations.

Online offerings are often cynically cast in terms of access. Occasionally that spin includes notions of making classes available to those who cannot physically attend courses on college campuses. On the surface, such claims sound as if universities actually care about students’ ability to obtain a higher education, particularly the working class. But such claims are hollow in the light of the reality that actual access to face-to-face classes for many students has been made difficult if not impossible by overcrowding, underfunding and the cutbacks to scholarships. 

The reality is, in most cases a majority of students in online courses are actually on campus but take them to avoid the obligation of having to attend class. But for the handful who actually engage in distance education, mostly for financial reasons, online classes are a college-lite bone tossed to those who will not be admitted to the full life of a university.

Of course, there are some students who find online courses appealing. The trouble is, the appeal is inevitably something other than educational. Full-time working students often feel they have no other options than online classes since they simply cannot take time off from work and family duties to attend classes on campus. This is a testament to the lack of support offered students in a culture with an attitude toward higher education that is highly conflicted on a good day. A culture that values educated members of society provides the means for its people to achieve higher educations.

Other students come to online classes with the presumption that they will be easy. The presumption is that a class which does not require a student to actually attend class probably won’t require much else from them. The reality is that few students have the time management skills to successfully complete online courses according to the current studies on this subject. Self-discipline is the determining factor in whether one thrives (about 1/3) or dives (all the rest including the up to 1/3 of the enrolled students who end up withdrawing).  

Sadly, most online programs are sold to working adults as hoops to jump through for career advancement. This is a testament to the successful construction of education as mere training for jobs and little else. What’s even sadder is that most American students have willingly bought into this minimalist vision of higher education today.

Online classes are “delivered” (the description used by most academic technocrats and their corporate managers) to consumers formerly known as students who are sold on such deliveries (all one has to do is open the package to enjoy the contents, right?) with promises of convenience. This teaches a meta-lesson in itself which has implications for every aspect of higher education: if students are actually consumers who are buying their credentials, don’t consumers have the right to make all kinds of demand on both the content and the process of that delivery?

Might that not include a presumed entitlement to cheat?

Cheating Encouraged?

It is hardly a secret that online classes encourage cheating on quizzes by their very nature. To begin with, one never knows who might actually be taking the quiz since the student is not physically present. The incidences of cheating in places like my alma mater, FSU, are fairly well documented and they are hardly confined to the athletic dorms. In an online quiz, one can have someone else take the quiz for them. Students can take the quiz as a group figuring out the answers collectively. And it’s always possible to use the text and one’s notes to answer the questions.

No muss, no fuss, easy A - one more reason for consumers to choose online courses to procure needed credits toward vocational credentials.

To make matters worse, the opportunity to cheat is virtually insured by the university’s discouragement if not open prohibition of requiring online students to come to campus to take quizzes in a monitored setting. Never, ever question the university’s avoidance of its responsibilities to provide actual functioning classroom space for instruction of students (that’s why the classes are online in the first place, silly). And never, ever question the student-consumer’s perceived entitlement to convenience - a premier value of consumerism - in the modern vocational credentials factory. The notion that a student might actually invest something of themselves such as time and the inconvenience of actually coming to campus so as insure academic integrity (so that their grade might actually mean something) is ludicrous in the light of consumerist presumptions which now dominate student perceptions of higher education.

I realized several years ago that the university was willing to countenance cheating when we were informed in a faculty meeting that unless one specifically told students a quiz was closed book, it had to be presumed to be open book. Clever move. The burden is now shifted to the instructor to tell students they cannot cheat and then to prove it when they do.

Perhaps more troubling than this failure in the university’s moral leadership is the presumption it evidences about the character of its students: that students will and – unless told otherwise – probably should cheat. And if they do cheat and the instructor has failed to tell them they couldn’t, it’s the fault of the instructor. As usual in public education, any semblance of accountability for any of the parties other than the actual teachers is completely absent.

Of course, this is one of the many open secrets one is never supposed to mention publicly in today’s academia. G-d forbid naked emperors be exposed. But the meta-lesson of this policy is hardly lost on students. In an institution which has told them repeatedly in word and example that “It’s all about me,” it should not be surprising that students would presume the right to cheat as a means of pursuing self-interest.

Hence arose the dilemma.

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. ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

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