The wired classroom as sweatshop.

25 01 2011

Last week, I wrote:

“If somebody told me they’re teaching history with Twitter, I’d hope I could keep an open mind about what could be a great pedagogical idea, but in truth I’d probably abuse them mercilessly.”

Via ProfHacker, I get my first example of how this can be done:

While the video does not offer all of the specifics about how Monica Rankin has structured her class at the University of Texas at Dallas, I can say for certain that I’m not laughing and will not be abusing her mercilessly in this post or in any other venue. Nonetheless, something bothers me about this, and it has little to do with Twitter’s 140 character limit.

Judging from the video, it appears that Rankin is running discussions through Twitter while all of her ninety history students are in the room with her and projecting them on the screen at the front of the class. The students interviewed seem to like it as they might otherwise be afraid to speak up in front of so many people. No mention is made whether the students tweet (or even talk) outside of class.

I mention talking here because the class has a teaching assistant. So what happened to sections? Rankin mentions that when she was away at one point the TA led the Twitter discussion, but I can’t for the life of me understand why they don’t have time at UT – Dallas allocated to talk in smaller groups than ninety people. Even if there’s no extra time allocated outside the normal class hours for TA-led discussion (perhaps an hour a week out of four?), why not just split the group in half and talk to each other that way?

In other words, why does the conversation have to be moderated through Twitter? Seriously, in the great scheme of things, ninety isn’t all that big a class these days. Get Rankin two TAs and the size of a regular discussion group would be eminently manageable. UD has convinced me that laptops and cell phones in the classroom are more trouble than they’re worth. In this case, I’m not even convinced that the technology is worth any educational benefit at all compared to doing things the old-fashioned way.

As usual in higher education these days, I suspect it all comes down to money. Tweeting is cheaper than hiring another TA so tweeting it is. I don’t fault Professor Rankin for trying to make the best of the less than optimal educational situation that her employer has given her, but what if using technology this way will eventually turn us all into that guy at Central Florida with 600 students?

It’s reminds me of Lucy and Ethel in the chocolate factory. Once you show management that you can handle the wrapping line at a reasonable velocity, they’re going to speed it up even more. Unfortunately, most of us are too dedicated to stuff the extra students under our hats. When the people on the line are forced to work harder for the same pay, quality control goes down.

I’m afraid that the 140 character limit might just be the first step on a long march down a slippery slope from which higher education may never recover.


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3 responses

15 04 2011
What would a post coverage model history survey course look like?, Part III. « More or Less Bunk

[…] that. And while I’m still worried that the need to run a class discussion through Twitter is the first step down the slippery slope to an academic sweatshop, if you HAVE to teach class with a hundred students or more it’s undoubtedly better to have […]

8 09 2011
Think of the children! « More or Less Bunk

[…] to a Twitter history class experiment at UT-Dallas. I wasn’t going to post on it (since I did before), but one of those links was brand new to me and well worth reading, the professor’s notes […]

16 10 2011
Creative destruction is still destruction. « More or Less Bunk

[…] the same dynamic as it plays out in higher education. Or maybe you’d prefer here. I’ve got a practically limitless amount of evidence here because the American example of […]

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