“It’s in the syllabus.”

25 08 2011

I was going to spend this entire day working on a conclusion to a manuscript that’s due soon, but I got sidetracked. My first diversion was an unplanned rereading of Richard Hofstadter’s Age of Reform in order to spruce up my sections on the Populists and Progressives. [He writes much better than I remember.] The second was the discovery that Ed at Gin and Tacos has made me about as popular as I’ve ever been on the Twitter.

There must be something in this post that captures the zeitgeist of higher education today. Perhaps it’s Ed’s summary of the questions he tends to get from his students:

* Is there a website where I can read the Constitution?
* How do I attach something to email?
* Where can I order the textbook from?
* How do I find articles about ________? (x1000)

While I identify with this to some extent, the ones that get to me (particularly at this time of year) are all the questions that can be answered with the simple mantra, “It’s in the syllabus.” I always go out of my way not to sound nasty when I say that, because I don’t mean it to be nasty. It’s just that the syllabus is the most important document in any particular course they might happen to take. If they aren’t familiar with the syllabus, it’s likely to affect their grade in a bad way to a great extent. Therefore, rather than just give them the information they need, “It’s in the syllabus.” is supposed to serve as a not-too-subtle suggestion that they probably ought to go back and read the thing a little closer. I understand that syllabi are getting kind of long these days, but the books they have to read in history class are even longer. Even the short ones.

But that’s not really what Ed’s post is about. It’s about that study out of Illinois a few days ago which argues that most students haven’t gotten the faintest idea how to use Google, and the part I tweeted really does say it all:

Now I’ve heard concerns that technologically-challenged non-traditional students who can’t even pay their bills online might have trouble mastering the logistics of an online course, but this was the first time I wondered whether so-called digital natives might have trouble too.

Combine these two problems together for a moment: 1) Students have trouble reading long instruction-like documents. 2) Students might have trouble operating some complicated Internet applications, and don’t really understand how the ones they do use really work. Now move those students off campus, where they can’t get any real help using that technology. [Does Blackboard employ phone techs in India who can explain to students why they can’t access their class while they’re at home at midnight, trying to learn in their pajamas?] This does not strike me as a recipe for success.

Perhaps all this explains why students taking online course have greater non-completion rates than those who take those same courses in a face-to-face setting. But the online education charlatans don’t really care about that, do they?


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