Wednesday, May 29, 2013

More thoughts on MOOCs

(Back, after a travel break. Summer classes start next week.)

I read, in passing, of a school somewhere that wants to offer a "hybrid" degree (part traditional teaching, but largely using these MOOCs - Massive open online courses) that is sharply less expensive than a traditional degree. (More detail: Georgia Tech, the degree is claimed to cost $7000 rather than the $20,000 or some a traditional degree would cost. Not clear what proportion of the coursework is MOOCs) On my own campus, there's a movement afoot to offer a "three year BGS" degree (BGS = Bachelor of General Studies, meaning there is no specific major. When I was a snooty college kid in the STEM field, we used to refer to the BGS majors as "The Future 7-11 Managers of America." Not that there's anything wrong with managing a 7-11, but you shouldn't be spending upwards of $10,000 a year (yes, even back then) at a Public Ivy for it)

I don't know about this. I worry about the idea of making a "second class" of college degrees. From what I have heard of people's experience in MOOCs (students who have taken them, a friend on another campus who is doing one for fun), they are fine for enrichment learning, and they work okay if you are very self-motivated and have the necessary background...but I think any of us who teach know that those students aren't all that common. (And of the ones I've had, in informal conversations? They vastly prefer traditional in-person classes.)

I get that online classes serve a lot of purposes: people in remote areas, people who work odd hours (at least, if it's an asynchronous class you can "attend" at any time), people with medical issues that makes leaving the house difficult, possibly stay-at-home parents....but for the traditional college student, I think there are some hurdles they have to be able to clear.

Way back when, when I was a student, I had to take biochemistry for my degree. (Actually few biology degree programs, unless it's something really jazzy like Biotechnology, seem to require that any more. As an option, yes; as a requirement, no). Anyway, I had two choices: I could take the 15 minute walk three days a week to the med school campus and take a traditional lecture class, or I could do something called "Keller plan" which was, I guess, self-paced with modules you learned from. (Kind of like the old SRA reading program from grade school, at least that was how I envisioned it). I thought about it - hiking a 30 minute round trip early in the morning vs. Keller plan. Ultimately, I went with the med school and the hike. I chose that for a couple of reasons: first, I knew I was going to be busy that semester and with something I was "doing on my own time" it would be far, far too easy to put off doing the "modules" and wind up scrambling at the end of the semester to get done (and thus, not really learn the stuff). And second, I knew if I did the route with "real" professors, if I had a question, I could stop by their office hours. I'm sure there was some kind of help structure built in with the Keller plan class, but I knew about going to office hours and asking questions and was comfortable with that. (It turned out I did not need it; the professors were all excellent and I learned really well from them)

So anyway: if someone with the level of time-management ability and maturity that I had knew she couldn't handle a self-paced course well....

But my concern with these "hybrid" degrees is the impression the schools are giving is that they are just the same as a regular degree - that there's no difference in taking maybe half (I'm guessing here) or more of your classes as MOOCs rather than in-person classes (or even small-format online courses, where the prof behind the computer might have 75-100 students, rather than the thousands that are in a MOOC). I'm guessing "individual attention" totally goes out the window in those cases. And a lot of students need some level of individual attention - I'm not even talking about the students who are "snowflakes" or who have some kind of emotional issues that affect their learning, and who need regular building-up and reassurance from a professorial figure - I mean just your regular, garden-variety, resilient student, they run into problems and need assistance. And I suspect it will be harder to get, and involve more red tape, when the professor "teaching" the class is at a different campus and has thousands of students all over the world....

My worry is, we're going to wind up with "Neiman Marcus Degrees" and "Wal-Mart Degrees." You go to a store like Nieman Marcus, you know you will be spending a lot of money. However, you expect good service and you expect a quality, durable product for what you are paying. You also might expect something a little different, a little more special, than the ordinary. When you go to Wal-Mart, you're going because it's cheap. You know if you need help you probably won't get it (or at least, I have found it very hard to get ANY help when I've needed it). The store might not be as clean as the Neiman-Marcus, it won't be as nicely lit, the music won't be as nice. You know that the product you buy will probably be cheaply made, not last all that well, and it may be made in factories whose labor conditions you'd really prefer not to know about. But it's cheap, and it's quick, and it's all that's available to some people.

The problem is, when someone begins pretending that a....I don't know, a blender....from Wal-Mart is JUST AS GOOD and is TOTALLY EQUIVALENT TO one from Neiman-Marcus. Oh, they both blend and whip and frappe, they both make milkshakes....but maybe the one from Wal-Mart breaks in a year and a half. Or maybe the blades stick after a while.

The problem isn't that there's Wal-Mart and there's Neiman-Marcus, the problem comes when there's nothing in between - no little mom-and-pop stores, no traditional department stores, no appliance stores. So you have the choice: spend a lot of money and get something that is most likely top of the line, or spend much less money and get something that's not that great, but hey, it was cheap. And so we wind up with the few who can afford a pricey degree from a Harvard or some such, and everyone else who has to do most of their coursework as distance-learning as part of an enormous cohort of students.

And while we're not there, I could see that beginning to happen, as smaller schools decide to "outsource" a lot of their subjects to MOOC creators....and the pressure for "cheap" and "fast" degrees grows. (You have heard the old engineering dictum? "You can have something good, fast, or cheap. Pick two." Though more often, it's pick ONE). I just worry that we will wind up with legions of people who earned quickie online degrees, or BGS degrees, and they STILL can't get a job with it really that much less of a waste if you spent three years of your life rather than 4, and $10,000 rather than maybe $25,000?  You still don't have a still might not have the preparation expected.

I'm not saying "don't do this ever," I'm saying "Let's think about this a bit more before we rush headlong into it."

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Graduation report

A few things:

1. They didn't send us an e-mail of when and where to show up this year. I thought I was running late when I saw the full parking lots, but I turned out to be one of the first faculty there.

2. The speech was not memorable. A couple moments were, though:

a. Non-traditional (i.e., fortyish) woman student graduating. As she walked across the stage, from out of the stands, a teenaged- or pre-teen- girl voice: "WHOOOO! GO MOM!" Made me smile.

b. Young man walks across the stage, his (large) family (seriously: like fifteen or 20 people, all dressed in identical t-shirts) jumps up and starts cheering and hollering. As he walks back to his seat (with his back to his family but facing the faculty), he facepalms and shakes his head in an "I'm so embarrassed" expression.

c. A young woman in a wheelchair, wearing leg braces, even though they had made the stage fully accessible, got a couple of her friends to lift her up and stand beside her as support so she could actually WALK across the stage (one of the marshals rolled her chair around the back of the stage so she could get back in after she crossed). The "I did it" look on her face was priceless. (And a lot of us were holding our breath, hoping she would make it).

d. A Nepalese student I had in several classes (I think from some things he has said that he is Buddhist) did the traditional "namaste" gesture of respect, very briefly, before the president handed him his diploma. He also did it again walking past some of us who had had him in class.

As much as I bitch on here about some of my students, there are a lot of good and heartwarming things that happen on campus.

Here's hoping summer semester (which starts in 3 weeks) is a good one. (I just found out that I will, in fact, have a TA, and it's likely someone I taught with before who is a good, responsible person)

Thursday, May 09, 2013

it's not Friday yet

But here's my FO for the week:

People who always have the need to one-up. To show how they are "better" than you. Or more important. Or that they are "purer" in terms of diet or resource use or not buying things made in sweatshops or God knows what.

Look, I try. I try to be a good person. But dammit, I'm not perfect. I don't need your supposed superiority ground in my face like Jimmy Cagney ground that grapefruit in Mae Clarke's face. Because it hurts and it's not useful to our working relationship and it only makes me think that you are a giant ass for pointing out all the ways you think you are superior. It does NOT make me want to emulate you and go vegan/start writing books instead of doing research/change up what has worked for me in teaching to match what you do/whatever.

Just flip off. I'm tired, I've worked hard this semester, and I just can't deal with your 'tude right now.

Monday, May 06, 2013


I don't carry pencils to final exams any more. I don't carry any writing utensils, for that matter.

Partly because I got sick of losing them - you loan someone a pencil, and unless you are there breathing down their back as they finish up, they often walk off with it. And good pencils (the only kind I will use, and it's increasingly hard to find good pencils, now that Ticonderogas are made in China out of some kind of super-breaky graphite now) aren't cheap.

But there's another issue here: Is it really too much to ask an 18 to 22 year old (or sometimes older) to bring a freakin' pencil with them to the exam? I regularly have people show up to exams with no pens or pencils and frankly, I don't want to give them the test when that happens. Because, how prepared for an exam are you gonna be if you didn't think to bring a  pencil? (These are people who do not ordinarily take notes in class - so they don't show up with notebooks and pencils).

One of the classes I teach gives exams as a Scan-Tron test. This is a Gen Ed class with a common exam, so it has to be machine gradeable. Now, I'm not a huge fan of all-multiple-choice, but it does make the grading easier on me. I tell the students: bring a #2 pencil. I put it on the review sheet: Bring a #2 pencil. I put it up on the class webpage: Bring a #2 pencil.

And I still get people who whip out an ink pen and are set to do the Scan-Tron in ink pen. (Oh hell no. I am NOT hand grading scan trons just because someone didn't have the right writing instrument).

But I mean, really: I grew up reading fairy tales where if you broke one little magical rule, you were in big trouble. Or if you happened to have the right thing at the right time, showing your preparedness, you were rewarded. I also remembered being told the story of how J.C. Penney (the man, the one who founded the store) once hired a person partly on the basis that he bothered to taste his food (during a restaurant meal) before salting it, rather than automatically salting it, and Penney assumed that meant he was a prudent man. And later, I remember the story of - was it AC/DC? - who had the clause in their contract that there were to be no brown M and Ms in the bowls of M and Ms in the dressing room, and the idea was that they could tell at a glance if the other things - safety related things - they asked for had been followed by checking the M and Ms.

So I pretty well learned young that Following the Directions Is a Good Thing. And what's more, when I was a kid, there were consequences: If you showed up without a pencil, there was a good chance you would not be allowed to take the test, and the teacher would brook no whining about it.

But now, sometimes, I feel like people are not allowed to suffer consequences for things - and I wonder if that just leads to an increasing number of bad decisions.

Thursday, May 02, 2013

This really frosts me

Numerous colleges and universities - including, if I read the agenda for our faculty meeting this week right, mine - are going to a program of limiting adjunct hours STRICTLY (including grading time and preparation time) so they can duck the provisions of the Affordable Care Act.

This just....I have no words for this. How many colleges agitated for this Act, even though lots of people said there would be bad unintended consequences? Well, we're beginning to see the unintended consequences.

Thank God I got a full-time job when I did; I suspect full-time jobs are going the way of the dinosaur and instead people are going to be working two or three less-than-29-hours-a-week jobs in order to make ends meet.

Also, this probably means our workload will be going up, as we can no longer rely on adjuncts for grading of the hundreds of GenBio lab reports. Oh well. I will give those lab reports all the attention in grading that the students give them in preparing them.

I hope the American public remembers this the next time we get offered a pig in a poke.