Generally, I try not to blog about my own students or my own campus. As you’ll see if you read through what follows, neither are really the subject of this post. Nevertheless, when the illustrious Historiann namechecks your blog and others to get our “own detailed descriptions of our universities and what the problems look like from our vantage,” it’s very hard to say no. Moreover, I can even specifically link my chosen complaint to both the Grafton essay that led to Historiann’s crowd-sourced venting experiment as well as educational technology, the not-so-new anymore general subject of this blog.
So let me begin at the beginning…
At the start of this semester, the interim President of our university suggested that our semester was too short and that we would soon have to increase the number of contact hours we had with our students by an entire week of additional classes. Since no mention of increased pay for this change accompanied this message, the suggestion was not particularly popular amongst we faculty.
While this issue has yet to be fully resolved, the special blue ribbon commission report on the issue has already been released. It turns out that not only is our semester just about as long as all of our peer institutions, but increasing the length of the semester is extremely unpopular with students too. Unfortunately, the committee that issued that report has found a different problem: apparently our students don’t spend enough time studying. The report states that 65.6% of our students surveyed self-report spending less than two hours out of class working on their academic work for each hour they spend in a typical undergraduate class in their major. Apparently, this is a problem because the U.S. Department of Education is requiring that by 2016 every student must spend that two hours on academics per credit hour in order to be eligible for federal financial aid.
I never really thought about how much time my students spend studying before I read this report. I do fell like I do my part to keep them occupied, assigning anywhere between four and seven texts (usually monographs) for every upper-level history class I teach, plus outside documents. I then design my assignments around that reading in order to assure compliance. I also assign research papers whenever possible.
History is a very self-selective major. If you don’t like reading, you go somewhere else. The rest of campus? I really don’t know, but the Grafton piece strongly suggests that this problem goes far beyond my university:
[V]ast numbers of students come to university with no particular interest in their courses and no sense of how these might prepare them for future careers…Even at the elite University of California, students report that on average they spend “twelve hours [a week] socializing with friends, eleven hours using computers for fun, six hours watching television, six hours exercising, five hours on hobbies”—and thirteen hours a week studying.
Before anyone starts kissing their financial aid goodbye, they should familiarize themselves with a social science term so familiar that even I know it: sample bias. At my place, for instance, it seems only natural that the students most likely to oppose an extra week of class each semester would be the ones who report the least time studying.
But let’s stipulate that all these surveys are an accurate reflection of how students spend their time. What are we going to do about it? Well…I’m not sure exactly. I do know this though: The folks who wrote our academic calendar report rightfully describe the problem as a need to change the culture of our university. Even assuming that most professors are part of the problem, they can’t change that culture without the students’ help. It takes two to tango.*
When it comes to the culture of online courses, the students might even have to take the lead. I haven’t looked into it, but I’ll bet you almost anything that those Department of Education rules won’t apply to online courses. How could anyone even tell the difference between work and studying? The NYT had a brutal takedown of the entire concept of online education yesterday that can be summed up with this quote:
Faculty quality counts, but online is more about guiding than lecturing. Ph.D.’s and brilliant campus lecturers do not guarantee strong online instruction. “It really takes a different set of skills,” says Ron Legon, executive director of the Quality Matters Program, which works to improve online learning. “The online classroom turns them into coaches.”
In other words, everything is homework in the online classroom and the teacher’s job is not to teach them anything in particular but simply to help them get that homework done. If students aren’t doing enough of it now, what makes anyone think they’ll do more if all their classes are online? Who’s going to be around to crack the whip?
In fact, does anybody think our glorious all-online future is actually going to make any of the problems that Grafton cites better rather than worse?
* Or perhaps three in this case: faculty, students and administrators – but I’m still not changing the title of this post!