Posts Tagged ‘Will Oremus’

When discussing issues related to funding, one of my school’s president’s favorite sayings is that we are “not for profit, but we’re not for loss.” I recently saw this phrase in a book somewhere, so I imagine that my school’s president is not alone in his affinity for this statement that is intended to justify whatever he is arguing for at the time (such as outsourcing various things, expanding degree programs for non-traditional students, and bringing in huge freshmen classes).  I am relatively certain that he makes these decisions based on what he believes is in the best financial interest of the school. When chasing money, though, one must be careful not to forget the mission, as a recent failed experiment in online courses at San Jose State University demonstrates.

Will Oremus at Slate reports that more than half of the students enrolled in SJSU’s first batch of five online courses through Udacity failed their final exams. Tenured Radical has a good take on this, writing:

I am not against online learning, and I am persuaded that under the right conditions it can be effective. It is, however, becoming ever clearer that corporate methods for extracting profit from education are exploitative and ineffective for students.  I don’t think any of these providers are honest about the down side of not having a real, live teacher — not to mention the absence of classmates who might help you learn.

Furthermore, what course open to thousands of random people could really teach all of them well? Part of what actual schools (where students are taught in non-profit numbers) can provide is some sense of what might be expected from a course. At my last job, it was reasonable to expect that students would devote themselves full-time to school, and when they didn’t that was a choice. At my first job, and my present job, it is reasonable to assume that students are pressured by work and family. That means, depending on which group I am teaching, I assemble different courses, different ways of using class time and pacing the semester, different ways of paying attention to my students, and different ways of choosing course materials. One is not easier than the other; they are different. Increasingly, I teach students differently within the same class.

David Silbey at Edge of the American West notes that “Not finishing or failing the course is – from a monetary standpoint – a feature, not a bug. Students who fail to finish or finish but fail have to pay again for the same (or an equivalent course). Profit!”

Both points underscore the importance of focusing on a school’s mission. What does the mission statement actually say about educating students. Whose responsibility is it to ensure that students are actively engaged in a course? This is something that I have struggled with over the years; as I implement requirements that students dislike but that force them to engage with a course or give very detailed writing assignments because many students cannot handle the lack of structure in more open-ended assignments it is inevitable that some students will complain I am treating them like “high schoolers” or that they should be able to skip class if they want to.

As Tenured Radical notes, being there in person I can adjust things, sometimes even for students in the same course. If I were responsible for thousands of students through an online course, though, not only would these sorts of adjustments be very difficult to manage, but requiring students to complete discussion questions or take quizzes about the reading themselves would be nearly impossible.

SJSU’s mission statement declares that its goal is “To enrich the lives of its students, to transmit knowledge to its students along with the necessary skills for applying it in the service of our society, and to expand the base of knowledge through research and scholarship.”  This, like most mission statements, seems fairly vague. If, as a job candidate, you are able to meet with a school’s president, I think that an important question to ask is how the president personally views the school’s mission statement and works to fulfill it. Is he or she focused on keeping the school afloat financially or on enriching the lives of students? The answer will likely tell you much more about the school’s direction than the mission statement itself.

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A recent campus e-mail asked for interested faculty to contact the administration about developing a MOOC, or massive open online course. Rather than traditional online courses at, say, the University of Phoenix, MOOCs are provided to (potentially thousands of) interested students free of charge and bear no college credit. Brad Koch’s* recent argument was similar to that of some of my colleagues. Koch states:

The difference between MOOC’s and liberal arts colleges is like the difference between televangelism and an old-timey tent revival; the message is essentially the same, but the experiences are worlds apart.

When institutions like Georgia College uncritically float along with the shifting tides of higher ed, they misallocate resources and dilute their brand. We cannot–and should not–compete with MOOC’s. We should instead own the value of our unique identity and fill our niche.

Serendipitously, an article by Will Oremus at Slate this week describes the failure of a MOOC on how to successfully plan and carry out online courses. Oremus quotes pupil Jill Barshay’s account of the course, who stated:

Within hours, things were going awry. Neither the “Getting Started” tab nor the “syllabus” tab offered much direction on how to begin the class. I wasted an hour taking surveys on my personal learning style. (One said I was a visual learner. The other said I wasn’t).

The biggest problem was breaking our class of more than 41,000 students into discussion groups. Dr. Wirth asked us to sign up using a Google spreadsheet. The only problem was Google’s own support pages clearly state that only 50 people can edit and view a document simultaneously. I was one of the thousands who kept clicking, but was locked out. When I finally got in, it was a mess. Classmates had erased names, substituted their own and added oodles of blank spaces. …

In the meantime, the video lectures were mind-numbing laundry lists of PowerPoint bullet points. A survey of educational philosophies left me no more enlightened than before I watched it. The readings were a bit better. One of my favorites, Teaching with Technology: Tools and Strategies to Improve Student Learning, linked to a hilarious PowerPoint comedy sketch about the stupidity of reading PowerPoint bullet points. …

Maybe this MOOC should have focused on irony! (Real irony, not the commonly misused meaning of “a strange coincidence.“) For more on MOOCs, Koch provides helpful links to some posts at Orgtheory available here, here, and here, and an article about why the campus experience still matters here.

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