All manifestoed out, part I

I was just reading about how young Assistant Professor Newt Gingrich was booted from his History department and dumped unceremoniously on Geography because he was thinking too much about the future for a professor of history.  I fear I may be coming across as a bit Gingrinchy this week, as I just realized it’s only Wednesday and I’ve already written three mini-rants about the future directions of the department and university.*

I’m going to share versions of them here, as each really raises more questions than it answers, and I know my wise and worldly readers may have some wisdom to share in the comments.

Rant the first: On teaching and learning with technology

A senior colleague said The Powers That Be were looking to completely remake the university’s ways of teaching undergraduates within six years, and that this revolution would be brought to us by online courses delivered (I suspect) through Everyone’s Favorite Learning Management System. Online courses, it was suggested, would automagically improve the university’s ridiculously dismal graduation rates.

I couldn’t help but put on my Critical Thinking Cap** and ask these questions:

1. Does the data show whether taking online courses makes it easier for the demographic of students who enroll at Our Fair University to graduate in 4 to 6 years?
2. What are the completion rates of online courses vs. face-to-face courses vs. hybrid courses?
3. Is there a tipping point at which online courses become detrimental to a student’s ability to graduate?  So, for example, I know there are students who have overwhelmingly taken face-to-face courses, but who pursue their last course or two online in order to graduate. The availability of such courses, I imagine, increases the graduation rate for some students. There are also students who would prefer to enroll in a course of study that is predominantly online. Are students who take two courses online more or less likely to graduate than students who take eight or ten courses online?  How do the statistics at Our Fair University  stack up against other Idaho institutions and against peer institutions outside our state?  How does Our Fair University plan to identify those students who would genuinely benefit from online learning–and separate them from students who would likely abandon their courses and force the university’s graduation rate to decline further?
4. Are employers more or less likely to hire graduates of online or predominantly online programs?  Does willingness or hesitation to hire such graduates vary by discipline, geographical region, and/or the institution issuing the degree?
5. As a new faculty member, I’m also confused about the differing narratives about teaching and learning I’m hearing from various offices at Our Fair U. On the one hand, we’re told by Office 1 and Office 2 that we should be “guides on the side” rather than “sages on the stage.” On the other hand, I’m encouraged by Office 3 to take advantage of lecture capture technologies. Such audio capture technologies can’t record the discussions generated by students when I’m being a “guide on the side.” (Nor, by the way, can the videos generated by Echo360 be easily captioned or transcribed for deaf students or described for blind students.) Similarly, I’m hearing how easy and beneficial it is to place “content” into learning “management” systems like Blackboard. A “guide on the side,” however, wouldn’t view students as vessels into whom content should be poured/downloaded, nor would she see student learning as something that should be “managed” with technology. I’ve been involved in teaching with technology, as well as teaching faculty to use technology in their teaching of undergraduates, for many years, so I want to emphasize that this issue isn’t merely rhetorical dissonance between campus offices. There seems to be a deep and profound divide between what we’re told are best pedagogical practices and the technology we’re being provided to help students learn. The university needs to figure this out before we advance further.
Honestly, I’m agnostic about online learning.  I think online learning can be done well, but that it is too often (usually?) done poorly.  If Our Fair University provided instructors with software like MediaWiki, WordPress, VoiceThread, and game development platforms rather than Blackboard and Echo360, I might be tempted to develop online courses. As it is, I don’t feel the university is currently providing me with the tools I’d need to meet the university’s own set of best practices in undergraduate pedagogy.
Academic readers, how are your institutions addressing these issues? Is anyone actually crunching the data to determine the relationship between online learning and graduation rates at regional public universities (or elsewhere, for that matter)?

*To be fair, all three were solicited, rather than imposed in a fit of manic delusion.

**Yes, humanists–even those of us with cultural studies degrees–do have access to such things.


  1. Contingent Cassandra says:

    I’m seeing very much the same thing. Our online learning office seems to assume that creating an online course involves uploading “content” (often from a textbook publisher or similar, but they’re also comfortable with the idea of lectures and/or powerpoints), or perhaps creating our own “content” for an online course that can then be taught be almost anybody for many, many semesters. On the other hand, the culture of the composition program in which I teach (and which has been one of the pioneers in creating online and hybrid classes in our university) is very much one of constant experimentation and tinkering. So far, we’ve just taught online and hybrid classes our way (which is to say, labor-intensive and ever-changing), but I gather we do get the occasional question from an administrator about whether they really have to be taught so inefficiently. Discussion boards and wikis and open-ended assignments are awfully messy and time-consuming. Some faculty in other departments seem pretty comfortable with the prepackaged-textbook approach (which may, in fact, work pretty well for some intro classes where learning facts is a big part of the purpose of the course — e.g. anatomy), but many, especially in the humanities, make it clear that they have no interest whatsoever in uploading prepackaged textbook quizzes and the like. The instructional designers, to be fair, seem quite willing to work with folks who want to do something more individualized, but the whole system seems to be set up to support a mass-produced rather than an individual-artisan approach.

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