In online education, nobody knows you’re a dog.

28 06 2011

The above, of course, is one of the most famous New Yorker cartoons of all time. The discussion on this post has made me realize that the same principle behind that cartoon applies to online education too.

Over at that post, me an Historyguy were discussing the Margaret Soltan argument that students can take your tests for you and the professor will never know. He writes:

You raise a valid point about not being able to guarantee that students are doing their own work. I suppose it is possible that a friend, a partner, etc. could be a phantom student. However, this would take an extremely large commitment on the part of that person to complete all of the work required to receive a high grade in our courses. Just doing an assignment or two wouldn’t really work, as a notable variation in the quality or character of a student’s work would be just as much a tip off to a professor at an online university as at a traditional institution. I don’t believe that students turning in work done by others is any less of a problem at traditional institutions as it is in online institutions (I should know, based on many years teaching in both settings).

I probably would have written the same thing in his position. In fact, putting the shoe on the other foot for a moment, he is certainly right about this kind of cheating at traditional universities. Have you ever heard of Ed Dante? That’s the pseudonym of a guy who wrote a devastating piece last year for the Chronicle about life working in a college student paper mill. [He’s interviewed in a recent Lapham‘s podcast that I’ve been meaning to listen to, but haven’t gotten there yet.] What’s clear from his story is that if somebody with enough resources wants to cheat in your class, they can do so.

The best defense I can muster against that kind plagiarism is that I assign almost all of my papers in stages: proposal, draft, second draft, etc. It’s not just that people who cheat tend to do so at the last second.  It’s, as Historyguy suggests, that you can get a feel for changes in the quality or character of a student’s work that way. The problem though is this: If I think someone is turning in someone else’s work (and I can’t find the original using Google), I can call them in and ask them questions about it to see if they fess up. If I’m in Colorado and they’re in Massachusetts, that’s not going to happen.

More importantly, the whole gold rush mentality of American online education discourages people who participate in this system from doing anything about cheating, assuming they can pick up on it at all. And if students are feckless enough to pay people to write whole papers from scratch for them, they’re certainly capable of paying people to take entire online classes for them too. While looking for a post at College Misery about a Craigslist ad soliciting customers along those lines which I remember from a few months back, I accidentally found four more. This problem is sitting right under the online education movement’s nose.  My problem is that nobody associated with this practice seems to care.

On the other side of the equation, I’m not sure if I’m answering Dan Allosso’s question, “Can they stop us from teaching online?,” in the way he intended, but how can well-meaning online students know whether their professor is actually a dog? While there are obviously many competent and dedicated online instructors out there, the beneficiaries of the online education gold rush have no incentive to check their credentials. Like MfD says in the same string of comments, “for-profit” might be the primary problem here, but if I’m in Colorado and you’re in Australia performing due diligence when I’m hiring you isn’t exactly easy. It’s like the contingent faculty problem at traditional universities writ large.  At least with adjuncts, the department chair might visit your classes once a year.  At my university, the online education arm (as it currently stands) that teaches history classes that way isn’t even in my department.

Perhaps tenure would be a tremendous boon to the quality of online education as it would incentivize instructors to take their pedagogical responsibilities as seriously as Historyguy obviously does, but I’m afraid that one of the primary reasons that administrations everywhere seem so keen on online education these days is to get around tenure in the first place.  I bet tenure arrives in the for-profit sector of online education about the same time that dogs start frequenting chat rooms.



6 responses

28 06 2011
That’s right, we’re not from Texas … | Music for Deckchairs

[…] was being in an online class that made it possible for them to participate at all. Given the rising panic about universities playing Titanic to the iceberg of online learning, these are voices that […]

29 06 2011
Dan Allosso

Thanks for addressing my question, Jonathan. I agree that the inability to evaluate a potential teacher face to face poses the same type of problem you mention regarding getting students to “fess up” to cheating. But on the other hand, I think it also suggests dependence on a hierarchical structure I’m a little uncomfortable with. It’s like the Kulikoff article you referred to on THS ( scroll down past me and CB) the other day, where he tries to reserve writing popular history for tenured faculty working toward full professorship.

My response is, you will know them by their work. A talented, motivated historian (or scientist, artist, mathematician, for that matter) who feels strongly about saying something to students can only see the availability of new media as an opportunity. I’m looking at a very bleak market for traditional employment. I’ll have a PhD, I’ll have teaching fields, and possibly most important, I’ll have the all-important “platform” that agents and editors look for when processing non-fiction queries. But I probably won’t have a teaching gig. What’s to stop me from going direct to the market, with my own content on the web?

Students at traditional Universities don’t pre-evaluate their instructors. They depend on the institution’s credibility and authority. But a lot of the time, they don’t care. They’re often taking the history survey because it checks a box on their core requirements. They’re often enrolling in an undergraduate program because they’ve been told it’s the key to a better career, and it’s a way to delay jumping into the chilly waters of adulthood for another couple years. But some students want to learn. Some are choosing their classes not because they’re required. Some see a connection between what they’re studying (even history!) and their lives and future careers. But they aren’t necessarily the traditional four-year residential students anymore. Which leads us to the real rub: degrees and accreditation.

29 06 2011

I’ve been following this discussion with interest. Not sure where I come down, as I’ve only ever taken one purely online course and had no strong feelings about it either way. It was less engaging than an onsite, warm-blooded type class, but that’s what I’d expected, so no disappointments. (6.5 stars out of 10, let’s say)
The reason I’m commenting is to speak as a character witness for our host. At the risk of brown-nosing: I took his modern USA class last semester, and he made the most, and best, use of the internet of any class I’ve ever taken, by far, even requiring each student to create their own blog here on WordPress, and holding two classes (that otherwise would have been cancelled) online. The extensive use of the internet was an education in itself for those of us who’d never blogged before.

Hopefully this will be worth a few points if I take his class in the Fall…

30 06 2011
Jonathan Rees

An excellent piece of non-brown nosing that is, Matt; the short version being that I’m not anti-Internet. I’m anti-Internet only.

And I think Matt would agree that those two snow-day classes last winter were alright as alternatives, but the live discussions were much better.

4 07 2011
A machine that would go of itself.* « More or Less Bunk

[…] machine that would go of itself.* 4 07 2011 Last week, I took a question from Dan Allosso, “What’s to stop us from teaching online?”, the wrong way. I […]

24 07 2011

Great post- I am putting off doing my homework for an online class as I am writing this. I am also going to be teaching my first online course Fall semester, so I found your blog to be great! I am really looking forward to reading more- what a gem!

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