Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Actual Conversation I Had Yesterday

Our faculty council met with the Consultant yesterday, who, by the way, is a tech person and not a teacher. She was supposed to get our "feedback" on this ill-conceived plan of making all sections of our online courses exactly the same.

Rest assured, I asked our faculty council president if they did indeed want "feedback," or were we supposed to fawn all over the plan or keep our mouths shut. She said, "we are expected to give our feedback on this stupid plan for Big Brother to have full control." I knew that I was in.

Now before anyone gets their knickers in a bunch about, "but shouldn't all sections of a course be the same? Is it right that one teacher is going off on one thing and another is going off on another and what about the old deadwood?" First, most of your stereotypical deadwood -- if they exist -- won't use a word processor, much less teach an entire course online. Second, we aren't talking about ensuring that everyone teaching the U.S. history survey includes the American Revolution, or World War II, or anything like that. We are talking EXACTLY THE SAME.

According to this plan, a Team Leader -- who will get the dubious title of "coordinator," but actually will be acting like a combination of a chair and Big Brother -- will design the course. She (and, at our school, we have far more "shes" teaching than "hes" teaching) will write all of the assignments, write all of the exams, make up all of the lessons, choose ALL of the readings (not just the textbooks, but also the supplemental readings, the online resources, and so forth), and generally create her own class from the bottom up.

That's not the bad part. That's what everyone does. No, the bad part is that, in order to save on the cost of training new faculty for the online platform and in order to save on the cost of paying the faculty extra to design their course -- an argument for which I would have much more sympathy if the online learning department was actually paying for that instead of failing to inform anyone that faculty are supposed to be paid for that (a long story that ends with everyone in the meeting pissed off because they were bilked out of about a full semester's worth of pay by the online learning department -- but I digress -- the bad part is that any other faculty teaching that class will now have to use that very same class and will have absolutely NO authority or power to change even a word on the syllabus.

Maybe I'm being unfair. The non-designing instructors CAN change things, they just have to go to the designing instructor. The designing instructor then calls a meeting of the "team." The team then debates the change. Then, if the change is accepted, everyone must adopt the change. A year later.

This is how the consultant explained it. "The coordinator will design the course, set everything up," she said. "The other instructors on the team will still be doing just what teachers do. They will have contact with the students and they will grade assignments."

Already pissed off because I had only moments before found out that I was supposed to have been payed not double, but quadruple what I was paid for developing four separate courses, I said, "that's not what a teacher does. That's what a t.a. does."

"No," she said, "you still grade and meet with students."

"I also design my own course," I said. "This is the online equivalent of me going to a new teacher and saying, 'here are my lectures, my assignments and my tests. You have to use these and you can't do anything new or different.'"

I continued, "We have highly talented, highly educated, highly experienced people working for us -- even as adjuncts! I don't want to make them my t.a.s I don't want to lose the unique perspective that they bring to their classes. For instance, we have an adjunct who can teach the Civil Rights Movement using popular music and hip hop. He can weave the history of hip hop through his entire course. He can't do that under this plan. You are killing the creativity and intellectual expertise that makes these courses interesting to teach or take."

"Well, he can still do that," she said. "He'd just have to go design his own course."

"But you wouldn't pay him to do that," I said, "so where's the incentive? Where's the incentive to teach any of these courses, aside from being desperate for the money and maybe a line on the c.v.?"

"Well," she said, "he could get around the designed course by e-mailing students directly or using the discussion boards."

"A teacher shouldn't have to 'get around' anything in their own course," I said. "What we are talking about here is academic freedom."

A chemistry professor, who has had to teach in this way, jumped in and slammed the whole program herself. "All I did was grade," she said. "I only had student privileges in the course site. I'm the teacher! I've been a teacher for 25 years!" Then, she went into great detail about how this whole plan deteriorates the quality of teaching.

Other faculty in the meeting proposed the idea of an adaptable template. A template course set up in order to have the flexibility to assign someone an online class at the last minute, without freaking them out with the prospect of designing a whole class from scratch; but allowing that new instructor to change as much, if not all, of the class as she goes along. I'm cool with that. Heck, I have a vested interest in that what with my trouble in being the only person at our campus who can teach online. The faculty council president is in the same position in her own department. We aren't unreasonable, but we also know a stupid idea when we see one.

The biology teacher who proposed this might as well have said, "and then let us pass out joints and cocktails to everyone." The consultant looked horrified. At least she put the ideas in the notes to take back to Big Brother (the flexible template, not the joints and cocktails -- although that would be cool, too).

That, or she wrote, "Trouble makers at the hippie campus. Schedule for extermination."

By the time she left, we had eviscerated this whole plan, and proposed solutions to the gaps left by that evisceration. The consultant was not happy. I supposed I'd be unhappy, too, if I had spent many hours in many committee meetings revising many drafts of this proposal that now lay bleeding on the table.

Of course, in those meetings, I would also want actual educators who had actually taught actual classes online more recently than ten years ago (as opposed to sitting on so many committees and holding so many special assignments and administrative positions that they hadn't seen the inside of any sort of classroom since the 1990s). I would also want to actually ask actual faculty about their actual concerns, rather than anticipate them, and be aware of -- oh, I don't know -- academic freedom and the fact that there is some level of individual intellectual and creative innovation in the job of teaching. We don't all just grade papers, you know. That's like thinking all a librarian does is check books out; or all a tech person does is load software onto computers.

One last thing. One of the driving forces behind this plan has to do with the cost of training and development, as I mention above. Setting aside the fact that the online learning department has exhibited ethics so bad that they border on criminality in regard to paying for this training and development, I wanted to see a cost analysis of this whole scheme. You know, an assessment of their outcomes.

How much did the development of this draft plan cost? How much will implementation cost? How much has the usual course of training and development cost during this same period of time? After all, the online learning department will only pay for the development of a limited number of courses in any one discipline as it is. If the difference between the current practice and the development and implementation of the new plan favors the current practice, how long until the new plan has recovered the difference? In other words, is all of this b.s. going to actually be worth it, or are they just throwing that "cost" explanation out in order to shut us up -- it is the budgetary equivalent of "OMG will no one think of the children!" or "family values!" In other words, it's the sort of thing you really can't argue against, especially in a budgetary crunch.

Much like that Fellowship Coordinator who is slandering me without evidence (because she deleted it herself), there was no evidence available to us on the cost of this thing.

As the Church Lady would say: "isn't that conveeeenient?"


mebrett said...

I wish I could say I was shocked and appalled that anyone would treat educated, intelligent professor-types like automatons. I am, a little, but this whole attitude of treating all activities like a for-profit business seems to be endemic.

I will keep my fingers crossed that someone, somewhere along the line gets a Clue, just in case. Good luck!

annieem said...

Ah, Clio, what a treat to read about your successful coup. So much here to think about, to write about, to share with our negotiations team as we discuss the increasing pressure for more online classes, but too many papers to grade right now.

I'm actually signing up for right now so I can save postings like this to reread later (though yes, I miss the lightening fast response period of blogs).


Clio Bluestocking said...

Mebrett: I know! It's like business is the ONLY model for institutional behavior. Yeah, we need money to function; but not all of our functions have to do with making money. It's also a bit ironic that the business model is seen as so infallible in the midst of a great depression.

Annieem, thank you! I'm not sure that I would call it a coup, but I would say it was a stand for integrity against this top-down (in an allegedly shared-governance institution), anti-intellectual system.

It's not that I'm opposed to online education in general; but it isn't the cure-all for some of the ills that are used as the reasons to turn to online education.

Unlimited space in the online environment does not mean all students or teachers should be shoved into it. To teach online correctly, you actually need to take more time than you do for any other class, including English comp. In fact, online pretty much turns every class into English comp. Theoretically, that could be good given the poor writing skill of many of our students. The more writing they do, the better, right? Practically, however, that means that, to make it work well and not burn out your instructors -- to ensure that you give the students the best education possible-- you need smaller classes.

Similarly, not all students are prepared for online. They aren't as comfortable as you would expect in an online environment. They don't -- or won't -- get the concept of "online discussion." Or they don't have the discipline to do the independent work each week without having to be told by the teacher every other day. Or they really do think it is like a correspondence course in which they just turn in the assignments as they wish and get stamped as "passed" whenever they finish.

Also, many students are not fully aware of their physical and temporal limitation. So many online students take online classes because they have full-time jobs, full-time families, and full-load class schedules. If an online class is done well, it could even mean that there is MORE work than in a regular class, not less. Being able to work on a class at any time during the day from anywhere you happen to be does not mean that you are able to.

Then, not all classes are suited to online. I shudder to think that there are medical types of courses being taught online. I suppose they don't do clinical or laboratory sections online; but, still, what's there to stop administrations from saying "hey, you know what would be cool? The students buy the equipement and do the i.v. sticks or combine the chemicals or dissect the frogs at home!" Not just science, but what about speech, or theater, or art, or a whole host of other subjects that really do just work better in person?

So, to say "online classes means more students get served" (ugh: "served") is just foolish for the proponents.

feMOMhist said...

ok well I realized today, end of semester, that I left of Gettysburg address so you know, maybe the historians do need that pre-fab thing :) IMHO those darn consultants always come up with what big brother has always hinted they want. We had "stratgic" consultants last year who cost in the six figures. Nice use of funds.

Clio Bluestocking said...

feMomhist, I've done the same thing. In fact, I'm about to leave off the Gettysburg address tomorrow morning, if I'm not careful!

Oh, yeah, 6-almost-7-figure consultants have made themselves know here more than once. Indeed, today I just learned of a Goal Attainment Program. How much, pray tell, did that cost? Again, I think we should just remarket ourselves -- we are no longer professors but Educational Consultants specializing in various fields of Learning Attainment. That should be worth at least 6-almost-7-figures, right?

feMOMhist said...

ok well now I don't feel so stupid. And really if there is anything the beasties MAY have learned about Lincoln (other than the false information that he started the Civil War to end slavery) it is the GB address.

We are now meant to convey our "learning objectives" directly to the consumer, oh I mean the"Student." So for their resumes I wrote "analyze, assess, and apply information." That about encapsulates the marketable skills of the historian, right?

Feminist Avatar said...

In UKland, one of the justifications for universities existence is that you show that new research is informing teaching. In fact, that is how courses for learning and teaching are assessed- is new research filtering through? And the idea is that the people teaching should be putting their research into teaching. Without this, they wouldn't need academics to do the teaching- they could employ teachers.

To me, this kind of straightjacketed course removes this possibility and devalues your labour! I think it's time to get Marxist on their ass! Strike.

Clio Bluestocking said...

FeMOMhist, "analyze, assess, and apply" -- we also collect, right? We are veritable private investigators!

Feminist Avatar, that sounds! That's exactly the point that was lost on this consultant and on a lot of other consulting type of task force people hired or assembled by the upper administration. It's what makes a university different from grade school. It's what makes a person with a PhD in a particular field different from a person with a bachelor's degree in education. It's, whether they know it or not, what the students are paying for when they attend college. How can we convince the students that they are purchasing the opportunity to be educated by people intimately and deeply engaged with their subject if the very people who run the college don't even understand that?

Susan said...

Funny, I had a more amicable version of this conversation last week, as online education is perceived as the silver bullet that will save money. So the idea is to invest lots of money in developing courses, and then put them in a resource bank. And my comment -- to which the colleague who was "consulting" agreed, was that "None of us ever change our courses, right? There are never new ideas or interpretations?"


Clio Bluestocking said...

Susan, so then, the stereotypical dead-wood-with-old-yellowed-notes-from-1963 would be the MODEL for college education, except now he would be online.

You've gotta wonder if people who come up with these ideas are really thinking them through! Or are they simply distracted by the "shinyshiny" of any and every technology that will save the world that they sorta forget certain realities.

RPS77 said...

I can easily understand the frustration of having a situation where the higher-ups say that they want your "input" but are then distinctly unhappy if you actually say anything critical of the plant that they have already chosen.

Grading and teaching entirely from a pre-prepared script is what I did back in the days when I was a TA. The fact that I wasn't any good even at that was one of several clues that I might not be cut out for an academic career.

The flexible template sounds like a good solution to me.

profacero said...

OMG. I'd say a whole lot if I weren't in such a crunch but the point about turning professors into TAs is really key.

Can you develop this into something for the Chronicle -- I mean, seriously ... ?

bitternsweet said...

Yea Clio! Way to fight the good fight!

We fought a similar battle at Unnamed U., and lost. The corporate honchos succeeded in convincing the administration that their little plan to produce many, many online sections of core classes to help a certain sector of students (from the sciences) more quickly & easily progress towards graduation -- even if it meant that those core courses were watered down and taught by severely underpaid/overworked TAs (actual TAs in this case) -- was an awesome one. Here, the admin. were swayed by the promise of an endless revenue stream and pedagogical values/academic freedom be damned.

So, it's a good thing that there are lots of folks standing up with you against this plan -- but be on the lookout for a covert work around. I suspect that Consultant has an agenda of her own.

Ink said...

Is it just me, or does anyone else worry about a secret plan for completely computerized online teaching in the not-so-distant future? First, design the every-class-the-same template. Second, implement of Scantron for grading all work. Third, fire the profs altogether!!!?

Bavardess said...

Huh, it never occurred to be before now how much additional writing is required of students doing courses online. And on your first comment above, Clio, even the language used - 'serving customers' by 'delivering education' - makes the whole thing sound like one big McDonalds operation. I guess that is their plan, but it is a terrible one.

Dr. No said...

Aarrgh! That's CRAZY annoying...passing you a cocktail and joint for reals now...


Unless noted otherwise, copyright for all written content held by Clio Bluestocking.