Can peer grading actually work?

17 02 2014

Longtime readers may remember an essay I did for Inside Higher Education last year called “Peer Grading Can’t Work.” It came about as a result of my experiences in Jeremy Adelman’s World History MOOC and I think it may be the second best thing I’ve ever written (after this, of course). Therefore, I was intrigued to learn that Stephanie McCurry’s History of the Slave South MOOC from the University of Pennsylvania/Coursera has tried to fix the flaws that their MOOC predecessors found in earlier peer grading systems.

Since I have no time for anybody’s MOOC these days, Ben Wiggins, Associate Director of Online Learning at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Arts and Sciences and Lecturer in Penn’s Department of History and Department of History and Sociology of Science, graciously agreed to describe their peer grading system for MOOC-obsessed MOLB readers of all stripes. I have promised that there will be no rebuttals from me here. I simply asked Ben to come back later and tell us all how their system worked.


It is immensely difficult to create a massive open online course in the humanities and social sciences that approximates a traditional brick-and-mortar offering. This should come as no surprise given MOOCs’ origin (or to anyone reading Jonathan’s site). All three major MOOC platforms (Udacity, Coursera, and EdX) have their roots in computer science departments. And even their connectivist predecessors were created by academics in computing, too.

MOOCs emerged from the sciences because the sciences are scalable. They’re scalable on campus and they are scalable beyond campus. Sure, labs and more nuanced evaluation based on shown work are lost in multiple-choice examinations and task-based programming assignments, but the core forms of STEM assessments translate well to MOOCs. The humanities and social sciences, however, resist machine grading. Writing—synthetic expressions of the complexity of histories, societies, cultures, and creative works—rests at the center of evaluation in almost every single discipline and interdiscipline in the humanities and social sciences.

MOOC platforms are not ignorant of the centrality of writing in the humanities and social sciences, but their approximation of the campus experience—essentially relying on peer grading—has left much to be desired. I’ve never liked peer grading in my classroom and I think it’s even worse when also decoupled from instructor evaluation, as is the necessity with course enrollments regularly in the tens of thousands and instruction teams regularly less than half a dozen.

When grading is left to students, the results are mixed. Indeed, mixed may be a perfect term for peer assessments, since, as Jonathan has shown over at Inside Higher Ed, the quality of student grading varies widely. Efforts have already started to calibrate peer grading—Coursera has been a leader here—but this process takes a great deal of labor on the instruction team’s part and requires multiple offerings of the course before instruction team grades and student grades begin to correlate with much significance.

When I came to Online Learning in Penn’s School of Arts and Sciences early last summer, the first project that landed on my desk was to guide production on a new MOOC entitled History of the Slave South to be taught by history professor, Stephanie McCurry. I was excited by the assignment since my background is in the historical study of race, but I knew early on, too, that it was going to be a difficult course to construct. How would we keep the discussions respectful and on point? How could we teach historical skills in a class in which we could not assign any closed-access secondary sources? How could we assign essays without instructor or TA grades?

From the beginning of my work on History of the Slave South, that last question gnawed at me. How to construct an effective, enlightening peer review became one of two questions—the other being the translation of lab sessions to an online environment—I began to ask everyone I met with an interest in online learning. The months ticked away on the calendar and the January launch date approached. It was not until the Educause Conference in October that I found a promising lead.

There, Thomas Evans, Evonne Halasek, and Jennifer Michaels, all of The Ohio State University, presented on their experience with peer review in their MOOC on writing. This team had put a great deal of effort into constructing a peer review process that would benefit student learning, not simply replace instructor grading. And though they did not find a magical secret to perfecting peer assessment, they did find some promising directions to take the process in. The one that caught my attention was the success they found in description. Their peer review had students complete three tasks: description, assessment, and suggestion. In this describe-assess-suggest structure, they found high praise from students for the utility of descriptions their peers offered. It acted as a sort of mirror. It allowed students to see if they accomplished what they set out to accomplish. This focus on description immediately reminded me of a tactic I had used in my own on campus courses—the three questions of The Ignorant Schoolmaster.

Written by French philosopher Jacques Ranciere in 1987 (and first translated to English in 1991), The Ignorant Schoolmaster: Five Lessons in Intellectual Emancipation builds on Joseph Jacotot’s early-nineteenth-century panecastic pedagogy to argue for the “equality of intelligences.” Jacotot—the protagonist-muse of Ranciere’s text—was subdirector and professor at the École Polytechnique in Dijon and it was there where he crafted a pedagogy of “universal teaching,” which posited that each student is capable of teaching oneself as well as all others. We must free ourselves from the “masters” of traditional classrooms argues Jacotot and echoes Ranciere. Only then can we can achieve “intellectual emancipation.”

All a bit heady, no? And certainly a critique of expertise that does not sit well with historians like myself who reside in an institutional economy based so deeply on demonstrations of expertise.

For History of the Slave South, we did not leave behind the “master.” I cannot imagine a course like this without foundational lecture videos, highly curated texts, and refined discussion questions. Leaving students with no prerequisite knowledge of slavery’s history to teach each other is a scary proposition (though, a MOOC community might do better than “masters” in Texas). However, there is a place for Jacotot’s method in humanities and social sciences MOOCs—in peer review.

To teach his “students,” Jacotot asked them only three questions:

o What do you see here?
o What do you think about it?
o What do you make of it?

These questions, like the first stage of the Ohio State MOOC’s peer review, promote learning through description. This is an ideal method for a peer review in which the level of historical context about the subject at hand varies greatly from student to student. Our first assignment, for instance, tasks students with building tables from the Slave Voyages Database and interpreting them. We can’t assume whether or not a student knows if a peer’s interpretation is “correct.” Indeed, much of the point of the assignment is to expose the limits of interpretation in numerical representations of human lives. In essence, there is no correct answer. So rather than make our MOOC students into an army of pseudo-experts or TA proxies, we’ve tried to make their feedback more useful than judgmental. We’ve stopped calling it peer review or peer grading and, instead, termed it “peer reflection.” We want these reflections to act as a mirror to their peers. We want our writers to view their peers’ reflections as a way to see if they accomplished what they set out to accomplish. We significantly tempered the grading of our writing assignments so that it is now simply an “unsatisfactory,” “satisfactory,” “accomplished” scale. It is our hope—and here I must thank Stephanie and her teaching assistant, Roberto Saba, for fully committing to what I’m sure was a strange-sounding pitch with a radical nineteenth-century teaching method at its core—that a peer reflection system based in description will create a more useful experience for our learners.

After months of fretting and weeks of refining, Stephanie, Roberto, and I crafted the following instructions:

When assessing your peers’ work, please follow the instructions below:
1. Identify and describe your peer’s argument; what does it communicate to you?
2. Identify and describe your peer’s use of historical evidence; how does the evidence support the argument?
3. What makes your peer’s analysis persuasive? How could it be stronger?
To receive credit for your peer reflection, you must answer all three questions. Your reflection is required to be at least 150 words long and should not exceed 300.
In addition to this narrative feedback, please rate your peer’s essay as “unsatisfactory,” “satisfactory,” or “accomplished.”

We are under no delusions that our peer reflection will ever be as rich as most instructor feedback. But to claim humanities and social science MOOCs as anything even nearing an approximation of our campus offerings, we need to experiment with creative solutions in spaces in which massive, open courses have the greatest limitations. If we cannot find solutions to the conundrums that plague humanities and social sciences MOOCs soon, then the humanities and social sciences will once again falter where the STEM disciplines excel.

PS You can follow Ben on Twitter at @WigginsBenjamin.


Faith is not critical thinking.

26 09 2013

We interrupt my merciless book flogging for a very important guest post. People send me stuff (MOOC-related and otherwise) all the time these days. If it’s good, I always ask if it can be a guest post here at MOLB…and my offer invariably gets rejected. The same thing happens when I try to get some of my best commentators *cough* Mazel *cough* to contribute guest posts.

That changes today. Thomas Castillo got his Ph.D. in American Labor History from the University of Maryland in 2011 and is on the job market. His topic is that crazy Northwestern adjunct teaching study which means that it couldn’t be more timely:

When I first read that non-tenure instructors were found to be better instructors than tenured ones in David Figlio, Morton Schapiro, and Kevin Soter’s “working paper,” “Are Tenure Track Professors Better Teachers” my training in immigration, labor, and African American history switched the warning lights in my head: be weary of such broad sweeping categories explaining complex social phenomena.(1) My most immediate reaction was that this ran counter to the idea of the MOOC turn.

I have to admit my head has been spinning with the racing images that are orbiting speedily by in the education world. With the rise of the new robust celebrity roster of professors—what some have donned super professors—this new study suggests that non-tenure track professors may actually be the missionaries in the trenches since they help best the weakest students. The study’s limitations and narrowness are reflected in the fact that it only looks at one elite institution (Northwestern University) and it relies solely on questionable quantitative data to comment on teacher effectiveness—measures that are actually not that significant even in the terms of the study’s own parameters.

The superficial reaction to this “working paper” (an article that has not been peer reviewed) has come on three fronts. At least one tenured faculty member I had contact with thought this study was quite revealing. Up to this point, he tended to hold a low opinion of non-tenured faculty. In fairness to him, he has tended to have a low opinion of tenured faculty who he has deemed to be less than dedicated to their teaching responsibilities. However, I believe his gut feeling unfortunately tends to reverberate in academia. Many tenured faculty often either scoff at non-tenured instructors or, equally bad, remain oblivious to the plight of insecurity and instability that these non-tenured professors (contingent labor) have to live with: including lack of health insurance, reduced pay, large teaching loads, little support from their home institutions, and general social and intellectual marginalization.(2) The best advice progressive tenured faculty usually offer is condescending: they give a weak nod to the right of contingent labor to organize wondering all along why non-tenured professors have not done so yet. In the process, they reveal their cluelessness about the obstacles preventing contingent faculty unionization.

Another tenured faculty friend of mine was not surprised but for the opposite reasons. She felt that all the other responsibilities on her plate (publishing demands, committee work, university service, etc.) disallow her from being as good a teacher as she could be. She is very dedicated to teaching and has been deflated with the reality of a large teaching load (4-4 of mostly first year history courses) and working with students who need more academic support and guidance. As you can imagine, she does not teach at Northwestern University. She is committed to great teaching but is frustrated by the challenge arising from the demands of academia and the institutional reality of a large teaching load, a situation simply not confronted by tenured faculty at Northwestern—and likely non-tenured faculty as well. In addition, she has always held a high opinion of non-tenured faculty because her personal learning experience with non-tenured faculty and the fact of what she has witnessed: many of her friends are contingent labor and are very good at what they do. The situation she confronts highlights that increasingly the only difference between tenured and non-tenured faculty in many institutions across the country are in the areas of job security, benefits, and expectations for publication and service.

These two reactions are from instructors who care about teaching and look always to improve its effectiveness. The third reaction is to take this study as further proof that tenure as an institution is problematic and needs to end/be reformed or that the condition of contingent work is just fine and actually is a good thing for students especially the weakest ones. While the articles reporting on this “working paper” have generally been “neutral,” they nonetheless report its general findings which in effect serve to fuel a wider political academic controversy and offer only an employer, organizational perspective in the sensitive student-faculty-management relationship.

The study’s findings and its coverage in the media supports and buffers a neoliberal argument against tenure or, more positively, for flexible work regimes.(3) As the authors of the study write, “the growing practice of hiring a combination of research intensive tenure track faculty members and teaching-intensive lecturers may be an efficient and educationally positive solution to a research university’s multi-tasking problem.” (p. 16, my emphasis). It is not difficult to see how such a conclusion will support attacks on tenure and justify an increase in contingent faculty and further splinter the professorial ranks into at least two castes.(4)

While likely conceived with the best intentions, executed with great integrity, and completed with high hopes, the paper’s many assumptions embed too many problematic evidentiary issues. The authors show little concern for complex social phenomena, namely the changing contexts confronted by individual instructors and students. The absence of qualitative data hides deep weaknesses in the methodology of the study. Their paper is a classic case of the old saying that there are lies, damned lies, and statistics.

For starters, the authors do not use any qualitative evidence to evaluate teacher effectiveness. They use meta-data, such as courses registered for, registrar transcript records of all first semester freshmen between 2001 and 2008, information on faculty status, GPA, SAT scores, and vague and unclear measures used by admissions to rate accepted students (“a five point academic indicator scale” which is never described), to make their analysis about teacher effectiveness. Three huge assumptions they make that are qualitative in nature are student preparedness (based on the academic indicators and SAT scores), non-tenure teacher’s inspirational powers to motivate students to take a second class in a subject (9.3% more chance in subjects outside one’s stated intended major as listed in the admission application) (5), and a single non-tenure teacher’s power to shape a student’s academic performance in a subsequent course in the subject (a little over one-tenth of a grade point better in the next course).

One may begin to see the problem unfolding here. It may seem like a great idea to organize these data into a useful study. Certainly, access to such meta-data could inspire a group of researchers to look for neat linear causality particularly if motivated to find “a solution for a research university’s multitasking problem.” The attractiveness of the authoritative nature of the meta-data was clearly too much temptation to not try to tackle a topical and current problem, even if the data is useless when treated in a vacuum.

Let me state this as clearly and directly as possible: we do not learn anything about varied student experience outside generic aggregate meta-data (GPA) and this data does not account for specific semester context and other qualitative differences among students and/or instructors. Readers will likely interpret what they want from the study. It still will not correct the flawed logic. The model is very monolithic and traps students and teachers into rigid theoretical boxes. The authors bulldoze over relevant data for no apparent reason except what seems to be statistical convenience and/or lack of vital qualitative information.

That apparently weaker students can get stronger over time is not a surprising finding even if they happened to take their first class by non-tenured faculty. Indeed, as educators it should be expected. However, a student’s education is part of a collective effort. A student’s growth and development intellectually and emotionally are a function of the entire college experience not merely that of any one teacher. If you accept this premise then the entire study by Figlio, Schapiro, and Soter crumbles. It will be nearly impossible to identify any cause and effect relationship without a deeper and richer social study.

What is surprising is that the authors have the audacity to imagine such a passionless form of inspiration; that they can isolate a student’s growth and development in such linear and isolated fashion. The enormity of the data apparently infused the authors with lots of chutzpah. It really is irrelevant whether or not a student took a course with a tenure or non-track instructor in their first semester—that is, if one is not weighed down by preconceived notions about an instructor’s ability and skill being somehow related to arbitrary categories of job security and status.

It is a misfortune that Figlio, Schapiro, and Soter found it worthwhile to craft a study looking for differences among these apparently different populations. Each instructor I am assuming earned a Ph.D. which means that all instructors have been trained, in theory, equally the same in their respective fields. Each student is unique and each semester context likely varied for each instructor and student. The very assumption of the study should be offensive to each and every instructor and it should be to each and every student as well.

The authors assume much about the significance of grades and the next class experience. Students are treated as monolithic on this front. We have no sense what may be causing a reduction or improvement in grades and how that may vary by subject, time, course load balance, and personal subjective factors disconnected from instructor input. We are expected to accept their assumption that we only isolate teacher impact in either preparation or inspiration. That is a very large assumption. I for one simply do not hold this belief. Figlio, Schapiro, and Soter need us to have faith in this assumption in order for their study to have any credibility.

We are to assume that grades are a direct reflection of learning. When discussed in terms of outcomes and performance, learning (education) seemingly becomes quantifiable. Teaching in this context is not understood as a craft or art. Learning can be accounted by test results or GPA. As far as that is true, that is fine. But what is not allowed in the data are less easily quantifiable data or information not accessed such as teacher evaluations, performance in related subject fields, student growth and development, and performance (even on their terms) before or beyond that next class experience.

That final point hits a major flaw in their data: it isolates analysis of student performance/growth to the next class in the subject without following students in other contexts or even attempting to explain the semester context of the next class experience. The data therefore is too narrow to lead to sound conclusions on such a large subject as professor teaching effectiveness. What lessons, skills, and knowledge were actually learned and which of these are affecting student performance?

The model used in the study to evaluate student performance controls for two factors: student ability as defined by SAT and other unclear indicators and instructor standing (tenure vs. non-tenure). What is not considered are differences in students that likely have no record: student motivation, student identity development and degree it affects performance in class (how curriculum and/or major interest is connected to a student’s individual identity; sexual orientation; intellectual growth, etc.), and external factors (family, socioeconomic, and other personal issues). One may add to this the issue of student attendance, which has been shown to have a major influence in student learning outcomes but is not usually measured; in fact many universities disallow attendance to be graded so instructors often rely on class participation, something that is measured poorly if at all in large classrooms but evaluated more effectively in smaller venues.

The authors do not gauge the level of difficulty of a given semester by course load or individual course qualities or the weight of a student’s course load as determined by semester. They fail to follow variation over time: when does the next class experience occur? Do students improve, decline, or stay the same before and after the next class experience either in the specific subject or overall as a student in subsequent semesters. As any instructor and academic advisor will highlight, students’ academic performances (and major interests) change and change frequently depending on context.

It is clear to this reader that the authors simply were looking for ways to justify an existing system of a two-tier professoriate and perhaps even to expand its scale. They have little concern for the working conditions or professional development of professors. I would extend this lack of connection and empathy to the overall experience of students. They are driven by Northwestern’s self-interest of maintaining the prestige of the University regardless of the costs or real effects of the labor regime they have in place.

It would have been more scholarly and intellectually honest if the authors had produced a study with robust qualitative research, richer in detail, and more subtle and sensitive in its analysis. This would have led to far different conclusions and recommendations. Instead, the obfuscating nature of the statistics highlights the several poor choices made by the authors.

Given that the study addressed what amounts to an efficiency question (“multitasking problem”), it started with a blinding bias. This bias was articulated in the broad categories of tenure and non-tenure track professors. The authors failed to note that the non-tenured professors at Northwestern (over 80%) are full time with equal benefits as tenured track faculty, as the education blogger and psychologist Cedar Riener was told recently by David Figlio.(6) Riener’s point that job security and benefits are separate ethical questions and different than whether or how much students are learning is a crucial one. I do not take Riener’s response as an agreement of the study’s findings but rather an intervention to prevent confusion of two separate questions: workers’ rights and student learning. He does not analyze whether or not the study proves anything about learning and I think for good reason.

If we cut through the motivation for greater university efficiencies, what we get is an inadequate study that offers no real insights. In addition, it may very well be impossible to design a study to isolate such broad categories as tenure and non-tenure, weak and strong students if we accept the idea that student learning occurs as a collective experience. Studies designed on the micro level, however, may offer useful information about effective pedagogies, proper working conditions for instructors, good learning environments, and other relevant insights into student education and labor questions shaping higher education. Unfortunately, a perspective starting at the macro level with a clear emphasis on managerial prerogative and institutional “multitasking problems,” and lacking vital qualitative data, will not teach us anything on student learning or the condition of being a contingent laborer.

(1) David J. Figlio, Morton O. Schapiro, and Kevin Soter, “Are Tenure Track Professors Better Teachers?” NBER Working Paper Series, National Bureau of Economic Research, Sept 2013. Figlio is the Orrington Lunt Professor of Education and Social Policy and of Economics at Northwestern University’s Institute for Policy Research; Morton O. Schapiro is President of Northwestern University and an economist who has written on higher education; and Soter is said to be a consultant (see New York Times article cited below).

(2) James Monks, “The General Earnings of Contingent Faculty in Higher Education,” Journal of Labor Research, vol. 28, no. 3 (2007): 487-501; Monks, “Who are the Part-Time Faculty?” AAUP Report, July-August 2009; Gabriel Arana, “Higher Education Takes a Hit,” The Nation, April 13, 2009; Pablo Eisenberg, “The ‘Untouchables’ of American Higher Education,” Huffington Post, June 29, 2010; Claire Goldstene, “The Politics of Contingent Academic Labor,” Thought and Action, Fall 2012; Goldstene, “The Emergent Academic Proletariat and Its Shortchanged Students,” Dissent, August 14, 2013; Coalition of the Academic Workforce, “A Portrait of Part-Time Faculty Members,” June 2012; Kay Steiger, “The Pink Collar Workforce of Academia,” The Nation, July 11, 2013.

(3) Scott Jascik, “Adjunct Advantage,” Inside Higher Ed, Sept 9, 2013; Tamar Lewin, “Study Sees Benefits in Courses with Non-Tenured Faculty,” New York Times, Sept 9, 2013; Khadeeja Safdar, “Students Learn Better from Professors Outside Tenure System,” Wall Street Journal, Sept 11, 2013.

(4) “Should Tenure for College Professors be Abolished,” Wall Street Journal, Jan 24, 2012; Richard Vedder, “Time to Make Professors Teach,” Wall Street Journal, June 8, 2011.

(5) This statistic is at best perplexing. The authors state the percentage is actually 7.3%–that is, that a non-tenured faculty member will increase the likelihood to take another class in the subject of a student’s stated intended major (see p. 9). The 9.3% represents courses outside the student’s stated intended major. So how are we to interpret the disparity? Students are less likely to take a class in their intended major when they take their first class with a non-tenured faculty professor? This seems to suggest that students are being pushed out of their intended majors for some unknown reasons. Following the logic of the authors, one may argue that non-tenured instructors are negatively affecting students’ dreams and aspirations (their stated intended majors) by making them less interesting and thus are pushing students away. This, of course, would be an absurd finding.

(6) Cedar Riener, “Student Learning and Labor Policies, follow up,” Cedar’s Digest blog, Sept 25, 2013; Riener, “Student Learning Doesn’t Depend on How Much Teachers are Paid,” The Atlantic, Sept 24, 2013.

“I want to invest in people, not a computer screen.”

25 06 2013

Since I’m deep into the index-writing process now, I’m lucky that friend of the blog and CSU-Pueblo history grad student Britney Titus dropped another (scroll down here to see more) post on me today. While I can’t seem to talk her out of trying to become a history professor (and believe me I’ve tried), it’s nice to see her back me up on the notion that students, especially good students like her, won’t put up with MOOCification.

I have been pretty outspoken about my intolerance for online education, but this MOOC conversation has brought my frustration to an all-time high. Not only are Coursera and other MOOC-minded companies disregarding the true meaning of getting an education, they are doing so at the cost of students and faculty, all of which are profoundly affecting the future of higher education.

Let’s begin with Georgia Tech destroying graduate education with the help of MOOC providers. Last month, Inside Higher Ed released this article, explaining why current state systems are choosing to collaborate with companies like Coursera and Udacity. Ranging from increased enrollment to sharing capabilities, state systems across the nation are eagerly seeking to collaborate with these providers, Georgia Tech being one of the first to join.

In the next three years, that school will offer a master’s degree completely online to 10,000 new students for the mere cost of $6,630. Even though that sounds like a great deal, it seems rather steep to me, especially since nearly anybody will be able to get one. Then that $6,630 investment will eventually be worth absolutely nothing, much like my undergraduate degrees today, unfortunately. When did a master’s degree, or any degree for that matter, become something we buy as oppose to something we earn?

On to problem number two: what are students learning and how they are learning it? In reading up about this whole Coursera debacle, I came across this wonderfully ironic article about how the Coursera MOOC entitled, “Fundamentals of Online Education: Planning and Application” crashed and burned after only one week of instruction back in February. The problem came when the instructor tried to get the 41,000 students to use Google Docs for group work when Google Docs can only have 50 simultaneous editors on one spreadsheet. Even more embarrassing is the fact that the course was offered by Georgia Tech and had made the promise to teach students about how to deal with online problems. Guess it makes sense then as to why the 41,000 students were a little upset when they all received an email saying the class was cancelled. Group work is hard enough in a traditional brick and mortar environment. Take it to cyber space among 40,000 of your peers and it becomes impossible.

Even though I find it somewhat hilarious that an online course had to be cancelled because of technology problems it does raise more serious concerns, the first being this type of educational environment. How are 41,000 students supposed to learn at the same time and what happens when they, say, can’t upload into Google Docs? Like many of my peers, the first thing I do when I have a question is email. Well, multiply that times 41,000 and you have a professor who is drowning at a computer screen and at least a thousand students who never get an answer. When did higher education become a commodity as opposed to an opportunity? Furthermore, when did it become about quantity rather than quality?

Speaking of professors, they are the ones I feel for the most. It seems as though another main goal of Coursera’s is to gain all the credit and profit, while others (meaning professors) do the work. In that Inside Higher Ed article about state systems, Coursera founder Daphne Koller explained that institutions could create content and then share it among one another, with Coursera taking a chunk of the change. I just wonder how institutions and professors are supposed to do that, especially with accessibility hovering over their heads.

So professors are supposed to create content for the MOOC and make sure it is accessible as well. I fully agree with education being accessible, I just wonder how you are supposed to know what student among the 40,000 needs that accommodation? Oh wait, that’s right, professors are supposed to do that beforehand and just assume a student among the masses will need it. So that brings up a last question that if professors are sharing content with one another, as Koller obviously supports, how can one be sure that the information being shared is completely accessible, or even correct? Are the professors who have put in the time and effort to create the content in the first place supposed to double check one another?

So professors are supposed to not only create syllabi, create content, double check content they have had to pay for, answer thousands of emails, prepare for their own class lectures, and all the while trying to produce scholarly work of their own? I hear they have to eat, too. The fact remains that as a student, I want to invest in people, not a computer screen. In this MOOC day and age, professors are becoming facilitators, rather than teachers; a sad, but true reality for a student whose fondest college memories are the times she sat in class and just listened to her professors make history come alive.

This brings me to my last point about the goal of education. In reading all these articles about MOOCs and other online learning environments, it becomes clear that the only thing that matters to MOOC providers is how many students a class can hold, not what the students are actually learning. In a blunt, but very enlightening statement, SUNY Provost Carey Hatch said, “We hope to reach more students with the existing faculty that we have.” Yes, because that is a great goal, spread the faculty so thin that the content itself suffers and the students are just doing busy work as opposed to actual critical thinking in a social setting. I’ve always said that teaching itself in public education has become about babysitting and test scores, but it seems like higher education is not so far behind. It is no longer about credibility or how to make the students think on their feet, it is about how well you can manage a virtual classroom of 40,000 students. Probably, the best question is why would anyone want that? Whether it is student or professor, why would anyone want an educational environment that is overcrowded and makes learning hard? More importantly, how do you develop the one-on-one relationships and mentorships that are so critical to growing students?

Sometimes the only way to get what you deserve is to stand up for what you believe in. I think it is time that students truly start standing up for the faculty they respect and the education they deserve, both of which are vital in any real world of learning.

Why STEM MOOCs are a bad idea too.

22 03 2013

Jonathan Poritz is back! This makes me happy not only because it alleviates any guilt I feel over not live-blogging the Annette Gordon-Reed speech I’ll be attending later this morning, it means that everyone gets a different perspective on this whole MOOC thing. As I know less than nothing about teaching math, I was absolutely chomping at the bit to read the argument that follows:

So Jonathan (Rees) is allowing me to have another post in his blog, on a tangent from my previous guest post about the CopyrightX MOOC. My topic today is the old canard that MOOCs are more appropriate/effective/desirable/efficient for STEM classes than they are in the humanities and social sciences, because there are clear-cut right answers in STEM so these MOOCs can use computer grading to scale to great size.

There are so many problems with this point of view that it isn’t even wrong. (Well, OK, it is wrong. Let not the Internet trolls misinterpret.) Why this quackery infuriates me goes back to what I think education is about. Bear with me for a moment while I condemn all of current STEM education.

Let’s have a go at this in the particular case of mathematics, since it’s my field. People say there is a fair bit of memorization in mathematics. Do you remember learning the times tables? [I clearly remember Mrs. Sullivan at Littlebrook Elementary School saying that she particularly liked 7×7=49, because 49 only comes up in the times tables as that particular number times itself … “How stupid!,” I recall thinking, “that’s true of the square of any prime!” I was a math geek at a young age, I guess.]

Later one gets to algebra where, for example, students are taught these days to do multiplications like (a+b)*(c+d) by FOILing it out: “FOIL” stands for “firsts outers inners lasts”, so you get a*c+a*d+b*c+b*d. I learned this technique when I taught “College Algebra” (don’t be deceived by the title, the course content is what we used to call “high school algebra”) at my current institution and the students were confused when I said the words “distributive law of multiplication over addition” while doing a calculation like that at the board– one of them said “oh, you’re just FOILing it out.”

Then in pre-calc, you would have to memorize some trigonometric identities. In calculus, perhaps some formulae for derivatives or integrals of particular functions. In more advanced math classes, perhaps you would memorize a few useful power series, or the definition of a mathematical object called a vector space, or the detailed statement of the Fermat’s Little Theorem.

Along the way from memorizing tables of numbers in elementary school to definitions in college, you were probably taught some algorithms: rote procedures like computer programs or cooking recipes which take certain inputs and produce certain outputs. The pattern of numbers you write on the page to do multiplication of numbers with several digits is an algorithm, as is something like “bring the power down out front and subtract one from the power” to take the derivative of a power function, or “always put a +C at the end of an indefinite integral” (with an implied “or your teacher may take off a point from your solution”).

Nearly all students actually like following algorithms, in my experience as a teacher. Thinking is hard, after all, and isn’t it nice that someone has done all the thinking for you, and figured out if you just keep your brain comfortably in the off position but follow these particular steps you will magically arrive at the right answer, which you can put in a box at the bottom of the page and get full credit.

(I do think there is a large element of magical thinking in this attitude, in the sense of magic as pre-scientific and pre-modern. An authority figure told you what to do, and it is your job to perform that action without asking why. Not unlike a ritual invocation or public declaration of fealty to your feudal lord, or some other pre-modern formality.)

But modernism, when it works, is all about asking why and contesting arbitrary authority. So I might encourage a child today: by all means, memorize some of the times tables, it could be useful if you have to calculate a tip in a restaurant or want to know how many pecks of pickled peppers Peter Piper picked … but ask why, the answer might be interesting. [In fact, your teacher might concede that the symbols for the first ten numbers are arbitrary but that multi-digit numbers are an invention, there are other ways to do things like base two (good for computers), base 60 (which the Babylonians used, apparently … you can see why they gave us 360 degrees in a circle), or Roman numerals (terrible for all arithmetic, no wonder the Roman empire fell).]

Because of students’ — well, all human’s — laziness, it can be much more accepted by the students to learn the rote, algorithmic [pre-modern] mathematics. It’s a lot easier to teach, as well: nothing is ever new in the classroom or the textbook, you simply run through a description of the algorithm and ten examples in class. Approaching the material in this way as alienated factory workers tightening the same bolt every time means that the learning is mostly a matter of muscle memory, not higher critical thinking, so it requires a great deal of repetition.

Hence the piles of homework every day, graded on the sole criterion of whether the number in the box at the bottom of the page is correct or not. Likewise the proliferation of computerized instruction and homework systems for math in K-12 in the US.

Since it is so easy to teach, to flagellate the students with this kind of homework, and to assess, math fit wonderfully into the whole No School Left Unpunished system of George W. Bush, repackaged but not dismantled as the Race to the Top under Obama, with disastrous consequences: my students come out of the public schools in southern Colorado *hating* mathematics, thinking it is both abstract and rote, that there is nothing beautiful or intriguing or interesting there, merely piles of factoids and algorithms to memorize.

[Sadly, the same computerized systems are proliferating in colleges as well, although there are some other issues factoring into the situation: On my campus, contingent math faculty are paid a criminally low wage per class. As a consequence, they must teach way too many sections to make ends meet. Given a chance to lift the entire weight of homework grading off their shoulders by using a computerized system, who wouldn’t fall to the temptation? I do not fault them for this, nor can I, since I’ve used the same programs when teaching our College Algebra, so as not to rock the boat, and to have the time to do the other things required of me. Although I do fault professors who say that college algebra is a “drill and kill course”, so we shouldn’t fight to change it.]

When is he going to get to MOOCs, you cry. Here we go: I contend that we are doing a terrific disservice in how we teach math in K-12 by frequently taking the easy way out of teaching algorithms without thought. To some extent this is also happening in some courses at some universities. And this is exactly what those who suggest MOOCs can do “well” for STEM courses see as a great MOOC/STEM combination.

It is a mistake to teach math this way in K-12, which was easy to fall into because it seems cheaper and easier to assess (yay NCLB!). It is a mistake to teach math this way in colleges and universities, which was easy to fall into because of the economics of underpaid contingent faculty. When fans of the MOOC lifestyle talk about the ease of automatic grading of homework and quizzes for the eager masses in math classes, they are making a virtue out of the worst current trends in mathematics education.

Jonathan (Rees) has pointed out the profound flaws in the peer grading and peer evaluation used by MOOCs to attempt to accommodate all comers without imposing impossible burdens on the MOOC staff. Automated systems, in MOOC mathematics at least, seem to offer another cheap way to scale up to thousands of students without much taxing server space or bandwidth, while offering the illusion of the real classroom experience.

As Jonathan (Rees) has written:

So online educators of the world, let me propose a truce: Instead of arguing about whether online education is good or bad, let us simply agree that all students, online or otherwise, deserve access to a professor. Not a teaching assistant. A professor, someone with enough knowledge and experience to help every student overcome the inevitable stumbling blocks on the road to educational enlightenment.

Let me add a corollary to this proposed truce: students need that knowledgeable and experienced professor and not just a computer program. Just because a solution to a math or science problem can be judged correct or incorrect does not mean a student who gets on that green check or red X will be learning how to think like a mathematician or scientist. For real education, in STEM as well as humanities and social science, in person or on-line, students need the professorial access Jonathan (Rees) proposes.

I should point out that much of what I have criticized here in the context of mathematics instruction is true in all the rest of the STEM fields. Here’s one example: A colleague of mine who teaches an intro-level biology course on our campus says that a very large part of the content is plain facts which the students must cram into their heads. This may be correct, but I don’t see why a potential student in a disadvantaged geographic location who wanted to learn this material wouldn’t just read a book, preferably a free one on the ‘net, rather than signing up for a MOOC. For a course which also teaches students to think about biology, to put ideas together in new ways, surely automating homework is just as impossible as it would be in a creative writing MOOC.

This story of the felicitous synchronicity of STEM and MOOCs doesn’t hold water. All of Jonathan (Rees)’s critiques of peer grading and poor interactivity for the masses in a MOOC on social science or humanities are equally true in STEM fields, and to say that at least STEM work can be graded by a computer program is to believe that STEM fields could be done by robot: If you can write a program to grade homeworks and tests for a MOOC, then I bet I could write a program which would get perfect marks on all those assessments. I don’t want to teach, nor do I think my students should or do want to learn, material which could equally well be done by a few hundred lines of Java code. Teaching them that way only cheapens what we do when we do STEM or teach it well.

Harvard lite.

21 03 2013

As I’m Richmond at the moment for the National Council for History Education conference, I wanted to turn over the blog to a few qualified people for guest posts and it appears that one of them actually took me up on the offer! He is the currently sabbaticaled, newly-tenured CSU-Pueblo math professor Jonathan Poritz, whose work I’ve recommended before. Besides being a most excellent human being, we both share the distinction of being natives of lovely Princeton, New Jersey.

This is Jonathan (Poritz), I’m a friend and colleague (and, oddly enough, alumnus of the same high school) of the other Jonathan (Rees). He has suggested I do a guest post in this, his very interesting and engaging blog. I hope the suggestion was motivated by more than merely our common first names (or current employer or high school alma mater); we’ll see.

Jonathan (Rees) has been discussing quite a bit in this blog the dangers of blind adherence to the “MOOCs are all new and shiny and technological, so they must be good” faith. I also have enormous concerns about the Rise of the Machines and, like Jonathan (Rees), I thought the best way to learn about MOOCs was to take one during my sabbatical. Unlike Jonathan (Rees), I decided to do a MOOC on a subject about which I have no professional knowledge: I’m taking edX’s course “CopyrightX” out of Harvard Law School, taught by Terry Fisher, while my home discipline is mathematics.

Why that course? Well, I’ve used and written free software (also called “free/libre open source software” = “FLOSS”; see my article in Academe) all my life. (You should too, and not only if you are a computer geek! It’s better in all ways than non-free software, and if you are an outspoken opponent of the corporatization of academia but you use non-free software, you are living (perhaps unconsciously, I’ll give you that) a kind of moral schizophrenia not unlike living in a jeweled Vatican palace while pontificating about the virtues of poverty.)

Free software, historically, helped pave the way for the Creative Commons approach to copyright. Also, the whole attitude of FLOSS that an owner of a piece of computer hardware should have complete control over their machine (well of course they should, you cry … but if you’re running Windoze or Mac or have an iPhone or Kindle then you do not control your hardware, alas) is what keeps the Recording Industry Association of America lobbyists up at night: how will they prevent peer-to-peer sharing of their *copyrighted* recordings if they can’t lock them up behind paywalls and encryption and fear of litigation if you so much as sneeze on your iPod wrong. The Digital Millennium Copyright Act made *public discussion* of DRM-circumvention technology (DRM=”Digital Restrictions Management”) illegal — I know people who own t-shirts with a one-line Perl program which is *illegal software*; cryptographers have gone to jail for their talks on such subjects at conferences….

So you could see how I would want to know more about the legal details of copyright.

I heard about edX’s CopyrightX course on a wonderful blog I read called And here is my first confession: CopyrightX is not a traditional MOOC. In particular, it is neither particularly “massive” nor completely “open.” It was not fully open in that one had to apply for a position in the course, nor very massive in that only 500 students were accepted.

Perhaps these differences make CopyrightX’s strengths and weaknesses different from those of other MOOCs. Oddly, however, the application process was not at all centered on prerequisites or any kind of background in the law, instead it asked basically how interested we were in the subject, e.g., did we have particular experience creating or using (in complicated but legal ways, I suppose) copyrighted works. Since I assume no one takes a MOOC unless they’re interested in the topic (well, *today* they don’t, although some of us fear a future in which campuses outsource some of their requirements to MOOC providers), it is unclear to me how the application process improved the student body for that class.

Perhaps Professor Fisher or edX merely wanted to have better retention numbers (don’t we all know that pressure), and assumed that weeding out those who clicked through to the sign-up page but really had no intention of doing the work would be a way to get the numbers up. I don’t have any official numbers which would tell if this was an effective ploy, but I can say that my weekly on-line discussion section, which was announced as having 25 students (and one Harvard Law student as leader) typically has around ten attendees (of whom six or eight contribute significantly).

Or perhaps they budgeted for 20 discussion leaders, felt that 25 students was the most each leader could be expected to work with, and wanted something more seemingly than first-come-first-served.

What CopyrightX represents, in any case, is a thing that Jonathan (Rees) has talked about a lot on this blog: a (very) low calorie version of the same course offered on the campus of Harvard Law School. Apparently there is an HLS course which is running in parallel with the MOOC, using the same lectures (?) — maybe this is one of those famous “flipped” classes — and reading materials.

Actually, I have trouble believing a Harvard course could be requiring so little reading: each week we have typically a few pages (at most ten) of a wiki document on some copyright treaty or procedural issue and sometimes an article or court opinion (often from a non-US journal or jurisdiction) of 20-25 pages.

(My mother went to Penn law school when I was in elementary school, an I still remember her bringing home stacks of *enormous* casebooks, which seemed to my eyes to weigh more than she did. Not so similar to today’s law school courses, at least in the edX version.)

We also watch videos of Prof. Fisher lecturing straight to the camera (well, he sometimes has something of a Michelle Bachmann thing going, but I suspect his is merely trying to keep closely to a lecture transcript without as much teleprompter practice as a US president, say), interspersed frequently with video of him driving a mouse over one of several mind-maps he has created for the class, or images (or short recordings) of copyrighted works which were subjects of litigation. The lectures are broken into three to five segments and total probably around a couple of hours each week. There are no interactive features, retention quizzes, or other decorations such as I have
read about in other MOOCs.

Another weekly feature of the class are the discussion sections I mentioned above. These are supposed to run 1 1/2 hours, but often go to more like two hours. We use a program called “Adobe Connect” which allows the section leader to speak to all of us and to call on individuals who can then speak — anyone who has a webcam can also be seen. The software is reasonably easy to use, although it took some getting used to and lag time for speakers coming from places with slower Internet connections is quite distracting.

Another thing that is distracting is a small panel in which anyone can type a comment, question, or joke while someone is speaking. This is liberating as people can quickly get in a response or suggestion without waiting to be recognized by the section leader and then fiddling with their microphone and webcam settings. But it is also very distracting, as the chat panel is always nattering off in random directions and tangents. Participation in the weekly sections is said to be required.

We are also required to maintain a steady involvement in the (written) discussion forum which is (mostly; this has be inconsistent) restricted only to participants of our particular weekly (live) discussion section. Certainly many people participate in the written forum who have spoken very little (or never) in the live section meetings. Contributions tend to be questions about how something should be interpreted or discussions of some event or case which is relevant to the course material but in the news at the moment.

Most threads have a number of respondents, but herein is a serious flaw similar to one that Jonathan (Rees) has pointed out for peer assessment and grading: the replies in discussion threads are by other students who also do not know the “right answers.” Our section leader contributes very little to the forum, Prof. Fisher far less, so in the end we are merely the blind leading the blind. In fact, my main enormous concern about the course is that I do not feel I am learning how to think like a lawyer, even on the specific topic of copyright. I’ve learned some specific facts about the laws and procedures, but I don’t really know how to go about setting up an argument which might claim or deny copyrights for particular works in particular

In any case, merely to finish the list of course requirements is quite simple: there will be a four hour, open book, written final at the end of the course, which will be graded by a section leader (not our own). If we perform reasonably on the final, have posted in the fora and attended (most of) the live sections, we are told we will get a certificate asserting our satisfactory conclusion of the course. We are encouraged not to worry too much about the final: “If you have participated in the course conscientiously, and if you review the material before the exam, you should have no difficulty obtaining a passing grade,” we were recently told.

Oh, there is one other part of the course which is optional I believe. That is, there are six special events, which are live in evening on the US east coast and which we can attend in our sections’ Adobe Connect rooms, where lawyers, law professors, and copyright content produces have speak about particular issues related to specific issues in the material. The events so far have been very interesting. A technical issue: the distracting chat goes like crazy in these sessions, and the long Q-and-A sessions which are part of each event have very little time, when it is sliced into (potentially) 500 parts, to answer any particular student’s questions.

So let’s get to some specific analysis of the efficacy of this mode of instruction.

“Are you experienced?”

9 06 2012

I’m delighted that while I’m not back to doing this blog thing quite yet, the ever-popular Britney Titus has sent another excellent post. Like any pushy editor, the title of the post is mine (as she is far too young to come up with the Jimi Hendrix reference).

For my student teaching, I was placed at a junior high where they assisted with online classes. During that process, I learned, once again, what it means to be a student.

One of the first things that caught my attention was the number of students who were in fact taking a portion or all of their classes online. As many of schools are now focused on standardized multiple-choice testing as formative assessments, I became even more surprised when I learned that nine times out of ten, the online students outperformed students that were in the classroom. However, before all of the online education charlatans out there rejoice, the face-to-face students completely outshined them when they were in the classroom itself. I think that’s because the missing piece of the puzzle for online students is socialization.

I began to think what exactly these online classes are preparing them for and I unfortunately could not think of anything. They will not need intense fill-in-the-bubble skills once they graduate. Furthermore, how will they survive a seminar-style classroom if they are not receiving the necessary socialization skills? They can know all of the content in the world and be able to take a multiple-choice test every single day, but if they do not understand how to use that information to reach a higher level of critical understanding then these students will not survive in a higher education environment. I may be coming off as an intense critic, but I just fail to see how an online environment transforms a child into a complete and well-rounded student.

Something else that the online students are missing inside the classroom is the idea of teaching life lessons through history. One of the lessons that I taught involved reading The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass to understand the conditions of slavery. Interestingly enough, many of my students came back with their response papers that specifically said, “If I have to read this again I will not come back to class.” After my fit of frustration, I looked at this as a teaching opportunity and simply asked the class the next day how they were ever going to understand the good if they fail to understand the bad? How could they ever fathom what the Emancipation Proclamation or Civil War meant for this country if they did not understand the ruthlessness and barbarity of slavery?

Even more so, there are things in life that they have to learn about or go through in order to remain humble and respectful. I explained to the class that if they do not go through bad things, then they would never be able to appreciate the good. We had about an hour-long discussion about this topic and related it to the rise of abolitionists and the reform movement prior to the Civil War. After the class finished, I just found myself thinking how do online students ever get this kind of instruction? Sure, you may be able to Skype or instant message, but does that really provide the type of atmosphere where students feed off one another and debate topics back and forth?

I was lucky enough (or so I thought) to be placed in a school with two Social Studies teachers retiring at the end of the school year. I interviewed and after about two weeks I got a phone call saying I did not get the job. Surprisingly, I was not bitter, but more critical of the bigger ideas in play. I have a crisp resume full of honors and community service, an impressive transcript especially in the Social Studies fields, and I had multiple student work examples that showed my various skills as a teacher, such as having the eighth-grade students reading and understanding college-level texts as well as writing complete six-paragraph essays in a forty minute timed period. I always said I am not perfect, but I thought I embodied a well-rounded teacher who would in fact teach the students to think at a higher level.

So why didn’t I get the job? I came to find out that at least one of the teachers who secured the job had more years of experience than I did as she had been an elementary school teacher in the years before. This makes me question what is more valuable: rigorous forms of education and study or an extended amount of experience? In my case, the latter came to be true, which brings me to my overall point. Why are we drilling over and over again the necessity of going to college if experience is going to be more valuable at the end of the day? I once got into an argument with some of the fellow teachers in the graduate program about students feeling entitled in this day and age to a job when they get out of school. They believed that nobody should feel entitled and should have to work at it like everyone else. Yet, I fail to see what motivation exists for working hard if it is not going to pay off in the end?

The hardest thing about student teaching was the student who just did not care. If he/she got an F, they got an F and it did not matter. I was so frustrated with these types of students, but can I blame them? If they just get pushed into high school even if they fail, why try? I feel like this is a problem that certainly needs to be addressed in the educational system given that thousands of students procure debt every year (including myself) to go to universities or graduate schools and that it starts so early now. I do not think students should be pushed to go to college or graduate school if it is not going to do what it is supposed and set them up for a career.

I am 22, graduated with two undergraduate degrees in history and Spanish (in three years) and am halfway through a Master’s Program, yet I fail to secure a job at a junior high school? What does this say about the value of education and the future of students altogether? I think I finally figured out why my master’s thesis is taking so long to even get off the ground and it is because a small part of me is very scared that in the long run all my work and dedication is not going to matter any more than it does now. That, for a dedicated master’s student who wants nothing more than to write well, is one scary thought.

I probably am being a little skeptical as this is my first job hunt experience, but I also see this happening to my friends outside of the educational field. One of my best friends just graduated from nursing school, yet received the same response when interviewing for a job: you need more experience. The fact that this is happening to graduates from multiple fields of study is what worries me the most and makes me think this is bigger than just myself in the educational field – that this is happening to students in fields of all kinds.

Thus, even though this post probably comes off as a critical temper tantrum, life experiences are not biased. Unfortunately, mine forecast a grim and dark future for education as a whole.

Circumstances beyond your control.

19 11 2011

Since I’m officially on Thanksgiving vacation now, I’ve farmed out this post out to CSU-Pueblo history grad student and friend-of-the-blog Britney Titus. What I write about, she has to live through in courses outside our department. Therefore, here is one student’s perspective on online education:

Now that the fall semester is drawing to a close, I can officially say that during the last four months I have had a constant feeling of disappointment with online education. But rather than throwing my computer against the wall as I wanted to do so many times, I made a more responsible choice and decided to take out my frustration here through the written word.

This past Sunday, I had to complete an assignment before midnight and after working on it for about three hours, the program I was working with completely deleted my progress to that point. Being as it was 9PM, I became angry and upset. I quickly realized, however, that my anger wasn’t towards the program that deleted my project, it was towards the fact that the online education’s key argument of “do it at your leisure” had failed me. I worked on the project when I wanted to and all I got was an intense feeling of wanting to destroy my computer, coupled with an hour of crying.

Some might say that this was my own fault as I waited ‘til Sunday night to start the project in the first place. Yet, does that not go against the argument of online education anyways? A student is supposed to have the “freedom” to decide when and where to do their homework, but what happens when a student cannot depend on that freedom? Not only do online classes have students adhere to “strict” timelines, but within those deadlines, students have the additional worry of actually being able to complete the task at hand.

In a traditional face-to-face environment, a student has to have time management skills in order to physically hand in a paper to a professor by 5PM. They know that no matter what, even if their computer breaks down, they have to hand in that paper even if it means going to the library and re-doing it. However, an online student cannot simply go to the library to re-do the assignment and moreover, an online student doesn’t prepare for that circumstance. They trust the online environment and the possibility of something going wrong doesn’t even cross their mind because their whole classroom is supposed to work in this system.

Yet, one must wonder how a student can have time management for something that may or may not happen? Can educators expect them to constantly plan for the programs to maybe not work and if so, does that not undermine the argument that online education works the same way as a traditional bricks and mortar classroom? Students in regular classrooms do not have to plan for the Internet being down or programs failing, but online students have to plan for all of the above. Furthermore, how does the teacher know whether or not they truly had a problem with the program in the first place? I am lucky that my professor knew me personally as a good student, but what happens when a student abuses that privilege? How can students ever truly adhere to a schedule or be held accountable for turning something in on time?

I wish I could say that not having the “freedom” to do my work when I choose was the only problem with online education. However, the aspect of “group work” is another huge cause for concern, especially pertaining to group projects and discussion boards. I am not sure how those two things can even be called as such, given that group projects are more like individual projects put together and dressed up as if the students actually completed it cohesively.

My friend, the one who is currently taking her entire master’s program online, told me just last week how she had been the group “leader” and despite her best efforts, with conference calls and constant emails, there were still individuals who failed to produce their portion of the work. Since my friend served as the leader and knew the grade she received depended on the work of the other members as well, she completed the portions of the project that the others failed to produce. Once again, this beckons the question of how an online educator knows who is really doing the work? Some may respond by saying to just not assign group work, but doesn’t that result in a lack of collaboration and brainstorming? It seems like an impossible task to establish human relationships and teamwork in a non-human environment.

Online educators may also say that this is where the infamous discussion boards come in. However, I can honestly say that not one of my discussion board posts this semester have embodied a passionate opinion or an effective argument. One reason for this is the discussion board questions themselves. Many of my posts are just answers to the questions that my professors pose, which don’t entail any arguments, just mere answers that can be found in the textbook. The second reason would be the fact that no matter what, discussion boards will always be work in an online setting. The students have to log on and physically write a response. Unlike a traditional classroom where the students just have to speak to stimulate discussion, the online setting makes the students type out their responses, making the discussion work rather than a natural activity. Discussion boards thus, in an online classroom, will never be as effective as one in a physical classroom because the students have to worry about all the grammatical and structural components of writing instead of just saying what’s on their minds. This not only decreases motivation to participate in the discussion boards, it causes the students to relinquish all creativity and impulsivity that they may have had otherwise in a physical classroom.

These are just a few of the many problems a student faces in online classes today. In talking with other online students, I find that they face most of the same problems I do on a daily basis. Like them, I find myself saying that I will never take another online class again, not because I hate anything technological or modern, but because at the end of the day, it makes me a worse student, whether it is convenient or not.

When the cat’s away…

18 08 2011

In the three and a half years or so that I’ve been writing this blog, I’ve never had a guest post…until now. Britney Titus graduated from CSU-Pueblo last spring, and will be starting our history MA program next week. [Yes, we’ve had that talk.]* What we on the faculty love most about her is her infectious enthusiasm for history and learning. You can actually see it spread from her to other students in class during discussions.

One sign of that enthusiasm is her willingness to read this blog voluntarily. Britney has been sending me the occasional e-mail on various topics posted here, but I don’t think she’s ever commented. When I got an incredibly long one earlier today, I asked her to adapt it into this post. Take it away Britney…


When it comes to the online education debate, it seems as though one of the most important factors has been left out in the discussion: the student. What a student needs and wants has largely been determined by administrators, who often have the preconceived notion of online education being the next big thing that will attract even more students to their university. They fail to realize what the student really wants, and, more importantly, how online courses are going to affect the student’s overall educational experience.

I have a friend who is attending a college based in Colorado for her master’s program, but she takes a lot of online courses. She brought up a good point to me the other day. Her school offers all of its courses online, so she has students from Massachusetts who are taking the same online course as her right now. The problem, she said, is not only the fact that there is no personal connection with people she will never see (making the discussions somewhat awkward because there is no common ground between people that live on opposite ends of the country), but also that there is really no authoritative body when taking an online class.

Sure the professor can get online later and say, “oh this is right and that is wrong,” but while they are engaging in the discussion they are all fighting and talking about things out of left field because there is no professor actually there. My friend says she does not get anything out of the discussions because there is no guidance or direction for what they are talking about. The professor does start out the discussion with a question, but by the end, the students have ended up so far off topic that they do not even realize the objective behind the discussion, let alone actually learn anything from it. It is not so much that the online education environment does not have the possibilities for discussion, but the discussions are misguided with the absence of an actual educated professor being present to direct them. They only conclude with everyone being confused about what the correct answer is, which they will probably find out five or six hours later and by that time they have already forgot what most of the discussion included.

What is even more disheartening is what the students are learning in the end. I asked my friend how she was doing in the class grade-wise and her response of, “I have an ‘A’, but I don’t know why,” immediately infuriated me and propelled me to write this post. Not only is my friend not learning anything in the course, she is not receiving the benefits and joys of learning. Being a student myself, I thrive on the feeling I get when I have worked so hard to get that ‘A’ and can look back on five months and say to myself, “wow I learned so much.” The fact that my friend is not only spending countless hours on pointless discussions, but also not understanding the objectives behind the learning demonstrates the ineffectiveness of that online course.

What scares me even more than my friend’s experience is the idea that this environment is beginning to trickle down to secondary schools. I noticed recently that my old high school district is offering K-12 education online. If kids are going to start online education that early, what will make them want to go to an actual college later if they’re already sick of online learning? I am frankly a little exhausted both at the collegiate and lower levels by administrators deciding what students want. Do they go out and actually ask, “Do you need/want an online alternative”? In K-12, it is the adults making the decisions for these kids. Yet, how are they ever going to experience the passion and personality of discussions in the classroom if all they do is grow up in cyberspace?

A log off button simply cannot replace the act of students walking out of the classroom still talking about the discussion that took place ten minutes ago among their peers and professor. At least some students, despite administrative interference, really don’t want that option anyway, even if it includes learning while in their pajamas.

* By the way, if you happen to teach in a history department with a Ph.D. program that can actually place people in tenure track jobs, have I got a transfer student for you (in about two years)!

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