Wednesday, April 28, 2010

More Complaining about Online Teaching

Online classes require more writing. That's all there is to it. The students can only communicate with me through writing, which means that some of the interaction of the classroom that ensures that learning is happening has to go into writing. Writing takes more effort, both on the part of the students doing the writing, and on the part of me in creating the assignments, drawing up the grading criteria and doing the actual the grading. This is actually the greatest strength of the format.

Here are some of the problems inherent in the format.

First, being online, the classroom has no seats. Physically, the classroom size can expand almost infinitely. This is a very bad thing in a world in which the school budget was cut by $14.5 million (on top of a $12 million reduction) and enrollments are increasing. The higher level administration wants to expand class sizes in general, while the number of classes available for students shrinks. They want to "encourage" us to sign students in to our classes that are already full. For classes that are writing-intensive, this means a natural reduction in attention devoted to student assignments.

The higher level administration keeps sending down pronouncements that "our dedication to our students will continue" and "our dedication to quality education will continue" and "we shall all do our duties with a smile" becomes ever more ridiculous in the face of this. How many hours are in a day? How many days in a week? How much time can reasonably be devoted to each student on each assignment before the quality deteriorates, even with the most dedicated teacher?

Second, online classes require technology that often goes awry. This technology is also rather clunky. Since the platform is hosted by a vendor -- or however you phrase it -- then the help desk is located elsewhere. "Help" is often a misnomer. The student can't go over to a site on campus, pull up their account and say, "look: here's what's happening. What's going wrong?" That means that I have to troubleshoot tech problems about which I have absolutely no knowledge. That means that I often have to find alternative ways for the students having the tech problem to complete the assignment. That means even more work, an untold number of make-up types of assignments, and a total mess. This also causes me to question the fairness of these solutions in regard to the other students.

Third, most students take an online class for a reason: no time in the rest of their lives to physically sit in a classroom. They have full-time jobs and families. They sometimes take a full-time load of classes, too. They certainly take at least one more course. This is fundamentally ridiculous. I don't think that they understand that online classes will, in fact, be more work than a regular class. I don't think that they understand that, if they don't have time in their schedule to attend even evening classes, then they might not have the time in their schedule to devote to any class. As my chair asked, "do they sit down with a schedule and say, 'oh, here is an hour between mid-night and 1 am! I'll do my schoolwork then'?"

I get why they do this. Suffering for two years under this strain beats suffering under it for longer. Two years is ultimately cheaper than longer when you factor in charges other than tuition. Two years will also get you out before tuition goes up any higher, too.

Except now I'm getting a push-back. Two students have complained to me that the class requires too much work.* They told me that they have other classes and full-time jobs and that keeping up with my class is too much work. I've had this complaint one or two times before, phrased in the same way. One student told me that what I require is more in keeping with a 4 credit course, not a 3 credit course.

Part of me wants to turn into a drill sergeant and bark, "suck it up, maggots! Gut-check time! This is college, not a day at the beach!" After all, they knew what they were getting into from the start.

Part of me wonders what the other classes they are taking -- online, too -- require from them. Are they humanities courses? Are they math courses? Science courses? Courses in which the terms of evaluation are different from a history course? I know it can't be English! Maybe they are taking English, and think that is quite enough writing for one semester. This is history, after all! Just facts! Why write?

Part of me understands what they are going through because I've been in their shoes and because I am smothering under the weight of the grading. Part of me understands because I see it getting worse and am tempted to cut back on my assignments. Wouldn't we all be happy if there was less work for all of us? Yet, if I cut back, how do I know that they learned what they had to learn? Giving them multiple choice quizzes, a mid-term and a final will not do. This is, after all, college. This is community college, too, in which many students need work on their writing and analytical skills. They need lots of room to fail, and try again, and fail again if necessary, and then try again until they do get it right -- all within a semester.

My failure rates are higher in the online classes, mostly because many just stop trying part way through the semester. Of those who stick around, the average grades are lower. I can't decide if this is a failure on my part, or if I'm like that fired LSU professor who had high standards for her students. I think of these students going on to a four-year institution and want them to be prepared for what they will find there. I don't want professors there thinking, "jeez, these community college students are woefully unable to survive here." I want their college degrees to mean something. This matters, dammit!

Yet, I do want them to succeed. With 2 online classes for a total of 50 online students, I don't feel as if I have the energy or the time to even assess what they need to succeed. I was a much better online teacher when I had only one online class with 15 students.

At the moment, I can't see my way through to a solution because I'm buried in grading (in fact, I feel guilty for taking the time away from grading to write these thoughts down). I can see that things are only going to get worse -- and maybe worse than worse. No matter how many times the higher-level administration says, "we will remain firmly committed to quality teaching," I don't see how there cannot be some erosion. As someone fairly highly placed said the other day, these budget cuts are a direct threat to the college's mission. What I'm describing are some of the tiny ways that will happen.

*For the record, over the semester, I have them complete a multiple choice quiz for each chapter of the text (it's a way to make them read the text since every task must have some sort of immediate gratification component -- a post for another time), four unit assignments that are essentially essays in which they should tie together information from 2-3 chapters (much like on an exam), a paper on a visit to a museum, and a running bibliography with five sources annotated. The bibliography assignment is new this semester and probably a bit on the too much side. I may just have them do only the annotated part next time. Still, the purpose is to get them to use the freaking library and databases. Google is forbidden.


Susan said...

This is interesting, and very useful... I was just told that the maximum enrollment for my fall course had been doubled.... I'm now wondering how I will have to adapt my pedagogy.

Courtney said...

This really doesn't sound like too much to me. I had plenty of in-person classes that had 3-4 take home essay exams plus a research paper, plus classroom attendance, which may or may not have included quizzes on the material. That sounds pretty standard for a history or literature course. I don't think keeping a bibliography for your sources is too much to ask. It's a good exercise in proper citation format.

How long are the unit essays and the museum paper?

Do you include an estimate of the minimum amount of time required per week for success in your course on the syllabus and a statement that this is a writing-intensive course? That might inspire the folks destined to complain that the course is too much work to drop before it becomes a problem.

annieem said...

Courtney's strategy has worked for me: our enrollment for online literature classes is now, finally, capped at 40, which is still too high, but better than the previous 50. I send every student registered and on the wait list a brief overview of the time involved in completing the course (the readings, the assignments), and I assign a tough reading and assignment from day one (due day 4): I usually lose a bunch with the initial mass email, and more with the first assignment, bringing the total down to a more reasonable 30 engaged students.

Not that this always works.

Digger said...

I'm teaching an online class for the first time this summer, so am absorbing everything I can about strengths/weaknesses/strategies. Oof.

Ink said...

Word to everything you said. I have been teaching online for awhile and have observed that there seem to be people who "get it" and people who don't. They have to step up in ways that they don't in classroom situations (i.e., participating EVERY week via written work whereas in a classroom they might be able to sit there without talking very much); they have to manage the workload and the deadlines without us being in their face in a classroom X number of times a week reminding them. It highlights just how responsible they must be for their own contributions to their learning experience in a way that is wholly unlike a classroom, and some students just don't want to -- or have difficulty -- accepting that.

I have a blurb on the syllabus that talks about online learning versus on-campus learning but it's often hard to stress JUST how different it is until they are already doing it.

That said, I have had lots of great students in my online courses and very much enjoy teaching online. I keep the workload the same as if it were an on-campus course. Then if they complain, I gently point that out. And if they're still upset, well, then they are upset. I am sorry that they're upset, but this is college where we provide opportunities for them to work and learn!

Ann said...

"Two students have complained to me that the class requires too much work.* They told me that they have other classes and full-time jobs and that keeping up with my class is too much work. I've had this complaint one or two times before, phrased in the same way. One student told me that what I require is more in keeping with a 4 credit course, not a 3 credit course."

My sense all along is that on-line classes feed the fantasy that you can get something for less, or for nothing. "Job and kids keeping you from finishing that degree? Just enroll at our uni with our convenient on-line classes!" The selling point is clearly the idea that on line = easier and faster than showing up for class.

I'm really relieved that no one has suggested that we develop on-line classes, or teach them. I think it's happening at my uni, but I have no idea who's doing it. Your post should be required reading for students who sign up for on-line classes. "WARNING: On-line classes will mean MORE reading and writing and MORE work for you and your teacher!!!""

Ann said...

p.s. Given the structure of on-line courses in the humanities, which are writing-intensive, it only seems fair that you be paid by the number of students, like piecework. Standing up and lecturing and making announcements is something that you can do just as efficiently to 50 students as to 20 students, but having to do all of that written communication seems to demand a different model of compensation.


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