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On Online Teaching and the UVa — the long(er) version of why the BoV has its collective head up its collective arse

21 June, 2012

First, the best thing I’ve read so far regarding the current fiasco at the University of Virginia (UVa)* is this piece by Kieran Healey at Crooked Timber. It shouldn’t shock anyone that I am appalled, but hardly surprised, at what the Board of Visitors has done. After all, Virginia is currently the home of some of the most backward-thinking, pig-ignorant business people and politicians in the US. All one needs to do is look at what the legislature has been up to. Ok, it’s not Wisconsin, but still…

What you might not have considered, though, is my somewhat rueful amusement at the situation. The amusement is largely because I am teaching an online class at the moment. It’s the first such class I’ve taught in some time. I had forgotten how much work online classes are. They are far, far more difficult to teach than synchronous face-to-face classes, unless you are the sort of person who walks in, gives a lecture, and then gives a few exams that measure how well the students can synthesize the lecture and reading and parrot them back in slightly different words. That sort of course can be replicated online fairly easily. The only truly difficult part is ensuring that the students enrolled in the course are the students who are turning in the work. Students interact with the professor, but don’t necessarily need to communicate with each other. For the professor, it’s a one-to-many sort of teaching. Students who are motivated to work through on schedule can do well in such courses. Assessment is based primarily on whether the students have demonstrated mastering a certain amount of content, which demonstration is generally shown via content-based exams and essays that show the synthesis (with a bit of analysis) of information. In my experience, that is the sort of course many students taking online courses want. They are often trying to fulfill a requirement, rather than to really engage with the material. Moreover, if a first-year course is supposed to be content-oriented in the sense of “identify” in Bloom’s taxonomy, then it’s fine to have online courses that are set up this way.


I see certain problems with this approach, especially in terms of how and what I am meant to be teaching. First and foremost, this is a university course. Even though it is somewhat content-oriented (which my beloved Superdean keeps saying is level one/two stuff, but he is wrong on this), the outcomes are written so that we are supposed to make sure that the students are at least at level three: applying. To me, this makes sense. After all, at a university, students should be able to apply the knowledge they acquire, even if they do it at a rudimentary level. It’s also a fallacy to think that these levels are independent. After all, we remember and understand new information every day. The difference between the beginning student and someone like me is that I have much more experience in knowing how to apply new knowledge to an existing base, and tend to apply in order to develop the understanding. There is also an inherent problem in defining a course as ‘content-oriented’ when it must also fulfill objectives that are not particular to the discipline. This is very much the case with General Education courses, which are common to many US college/university programs.

Once upon a time, US universities usually had something called ‘distribution requirements.’ These were meant to make sure that an undergraduate education was based on a broader knowledge of the Liberal Arts. It was also useful for US students because they did not specialize much in their last years of secondary school, and so came to the university less prepared to focus on one field of study than were their European counterparts. The system also made it easier for students to wait before being locked into a major field, which is, I think, not a bad thing. I changed majors officially once, and unofficially twice. What I was very good at at school, English, was something I didn’t do particularly well at university. At school, we hadn’t really met any sort of critical or literary theory. Contrariwise, at school, I was not very good at history, and didn’t much like it. Memorizing names and dates bored me. By the end of the first year of university, I was doing reasonably well in my English courses (well enough that I won a prize for a paper), but I was beginning to struggle and really not to like what I was doing. By the end of that same year, I had taken two of my distribution requirements in History, and was doing very well indeed. In fact, I’d been approached to lead study groups for two of the professors, for which I was paid. History at the university level made sense to me. I was also fortunate in that I recognized that what I was learning in some of my other courses was relevant to my history courses, and vice versa. Apparently, not all students do.

By the time I was teaching, distribution requirements had been re-titled General Education. For most faculty, and I think most administrators, though, they were still seen as fulfilling the exact same purpose. The purpose had also changed somewhat. University budgets and faculty lines depended on numbers of majors and minors registered to each department, and then to how many overall FTEs the department generated. Distribution requirements (or even the re-titled “Gen Eds”) helped to ensure that every department could increase/hold FTEs through the introductory courses. Those were also used to draw students into major fields. Courses tended to (and still are) be defined as service courses or ‘specialized’ courses. In any case, the tie of FTEs to budgeting, and budgeting to academic departments, pretty much ensured that there would be no thinking outside the box when it came to “what should our students know?”

Enter the new age of Gen Ed. Gen Eds, we were told, should be based on real-world competencies and values. So, for example, Critical Thinking is important! (duh). Global Awareness! because our students have lost their ability to read maps and don’t have to take geography at school any more, and we live in a Global World with a Global Economy, and business is Global, and technology is Global, and people in other countries who are happy not to have to bow to the US/USSR split now that the Cold War is over live in other parts of the Globe and We Must Understand Them!!! (Except, of course, we don’t really have to, because they are not as industrialized, and really, it’s only whichever East Asian country is experiencing a boom that draws our attention. It’s not about understanding for the intrinsic good of humanity, after all — it’s about success in the business world). The best thing about Gen Eds, we are told, is that students can fulfill a particular set of outcomes (generally called Domains) with properly constructed courses in any number of fields.

As it happens, I think that last part is pretty much true. I think that students can learn to be more globally aware in history courses, in anthropology courses, in literature courses… as long as they are asked to contextualize the information independently from their own narrow experiences and value systems. I think students can learn scientific method in any number of science courses. So if what’s important is getting how scientists learn and do things, it shouldn’t really matter if a student takes Biology or Chemistry or whatever. As an historian, I do have a problem with the idea that many Gen Ed programs don’t require some sort of historical background. At SLAC, the domain for “historical perspectives”, which could be satisfied by taking Music History or Art History or Theatre History (and if we’d had it, History of the English Language) as well as, well, actual history, was sacrificed to make room for some new program created to make the accreditation agency happy and in a misguided effort to “protect” foreign languages. I don’t really blame the people who made the decisions. After all, SLAC, like most universities making such fundamental changes, has done nothing to adjust the allocation of funds and faculty lines to support what could and probably should be a radically different understanding of the baccalaureate degree. So most faculty decision-makers and the administration are working to a distribution requirement model while requiring that courses be taught to non-discipline specific outcomes. Not that the discipline-specific outcomes have disappeared: they are just another layer. Rightly so –after all, I’m a historian, and want to teach history. But I also find it not at all a problem to incorporate these broader goals into my teaching. Given what I believe is one of the purposes of learning history, my courses tend to lend themselves to asking students to look at things in the contexts of other cultures. I don’t think that history can be done well without trying to see the context and perspective of our historical subjects.

So what does this have to do with online courses?

Well… it’s just that… the sorts of outcomes I’m asked to address aren’t best taught by lecturing and regurgitating. I’m supposed to ask students to articulate other perspectives, for example. And, in online courses, I’m supposed to help to create a community. Because online courses are proven to be most effective when there is a sense of community. For me, this is a no-brainer. I read blogs, and list-servs, and facebook. I carry on conversations with friends and complete strangers, and have made friends with people I’ve chatted with online for years before meeting in real life. Conversation is conversation. But many students simply do not converse, either in class or online. They see their relationship with the faculty member as one-to-one. They see their relationships in relative isolation, much as they see each course in relative isolation, seldom connecting the one to the other. The students I have now either want to be left alone to work at their own pace, as if this were an old-fashioned correspondence course, or want something that allows them to look up information rather than internalizing it. The way the students want to interact, they way they think they should be learning, and the way they use the internet are none of them conducive to an online course designed the way I’ve been asked to design it. The result is mutual frustration. On the one hand, I can see that I will have to create more “content delivery” that helps the students to get a better narrative picture. On the other, well… if students don’t see the value in discussing things online, even asynchronously, then they simply won’t do it. In fact, many will simply not take a course that requires them to check in on a daily basis.

Obviously, my course is nothing like the ones that the BoV of the UVa are thinking about. They are thinking about the superstar lecture courses. The problem is, those courses are not courses. They are canned lectures. Yes, anyone can take them. But they only count for degrees if the students pay, and when they pay, they will have to do more than watch the lectures and take the exams. Or maybe they won’t. Because the sort of online course that the BoV seems to envision runs counter to every pedagogical change we have been asked to make in the last twenty years. If we are to become once more the so-called ‘sages on the stage,’ then so be it. It’s far easier to deliver lectures, assign readings, and expect the students to put it all together for themselves. But our students are not able to do that. They haven’t been taught to synthesize, summarize, paraphrase, analyze, or any of the other sorts of things that a person needs to succeed in a lecture course. If the point is to acquire a lot of content knowledge in a field, that’s the way to go. And, as I said, it’s far less hassle in the long run, because once the lectures are canned, they don’t need much changing. The hard part is the grading.

Of course, this takes us back to the sticky position of explaining why students need to learn any particular disciplinary information, unless it’s immediately pertinent to their degree. The Baccalaureate no longer reflects the Liberal Arts; instead, it is a vocational degree. And since most jobs don’t tie directly to degrees in the Liberal Arts, well, why have them? They’re just elitist things anyway. Classics? where’s the use in that field? No one needs Latin or Greek anymore. And once again, we run smack into the underlying problem with the BoV’s thinking: they are confusing “use” with “value.”

They, and so many of our leaders in business and government cannot see, that the Liberal Arts are useful because they are valuable.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. J Liedl permalink
    22 June, 2012 1:38 am

    I agree with you that online courses need to be thought out carefully and require a boatload of work from students and faculty to accomplish their goals (if their goals are more than providing credentials for payment of tuition monies).

    I’m thinking about preparing another course for distance offering in the next year and worried about how to design the course so it achieves our goals of educating students about the period and sharpening their skills as historians while also stamping out cheating as much as possible: not an easy proposition!

    I’ve been following the UVa news and am heartened by word that the BoV is being forced to back down on their hasty power play. Nevertheless, it’s going to hurt the U for quite some time and no amount of “strategic dynamism” will make up for their missteps. If they’d studied more of their history, perhaps the BoV would have realized that!

  2. Contingent Cassandra permalink
    23 June, 2012 12:10 am

    I agree that online courses tend to end up being even more teacher-to-student focused than face-to-face ones (though more and more students seem to treat traditional classes that way, too, if the tendency of an increasing number to talk to me but rarely, unless prompted, to each other, and to do things like plant themselves directly in front of me and start asking individual questions just as I’m trying to begin class is any measure). I’m actually fairly comfortable with the one-on-one dynamic, since I’m an introvert who is in some ways more comfortable with directing individual projects than leading group discussion (though I’m perfectly capable of doing the latter, and do do it regularly). That, and the fact that I teach writing, are probably also reasons that I like teaching online and hybrid classes, even though I agree that they are in some ways more work (for me, it’s a matter of actual time spent vs. energy required; I find one-on-one interaction, especially online, more time-consuming but considerably less draining than trying to divide my attention among 20+ people for 4 75-minute periods in the course of a day). The workshop-focused nature of writing instruction also makes it easier to design online exercises that require students to interact with each other — and each others’ writing — on a regular basis. Some do it better than others, but really specific numerical instructions (“in a comment of at least 150 words, name at least 3 strengths and 3 weaknesses,” “add at least 6 comments to the margins,” etc.,) seem to help, even if it all can feel a bit mechanical at times).

    I also agree that even the most elementary college classes should ask students to apply knowledge, at least in a rudimentary way. For one thing, they won’t learn to do it well until they’ve had a chance to do it badly a few times. One of the major points of a core curriculum is for students to understand how scholars in various disciplines think, and they won’t truly understand that unless they’ve at least tried to to think that way, in however preliminary/amateur a fashion, themselves. Giving them discipline-derived “information” without giving them a sense of where it comes from (and, therefore, how and why it might/will change) undermines one of the major purposes of a college education. Any approach to education, online or in-person, that focuses on “content delivery” rather than giving students a chance to make knowledge (or at least re-make/rediscover current disciplinary knowledge using the methods of the discipline) isn’t really fulfilling its purpose. And any approach that *does* ask students to make/remake knowledge is going to be labor-intensive, in part because, as J Liedl points out, it’s getting harder and harder to design exercises that get around a “look it up”/plagiarize it approach to answering questions and problems posed by teachers) In history as in literature, I suspect that one workable approach is to ask students to make connections between well-known and studied texts, the approaches commonly used to interpret them, and the conclusions drawn through such interpretation, and far more obscure ones, but that means putting work into finding new but meaty and thematically appropriate obscure texts every time the course is taught — once again, very different from the create-it-and-run-it-for-years assumptions behind MOOCs and many other cost/labor-saving visions of online education.

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