Thoughts on Teaching – Teaching in a Pandemic – Asynchronous vs. Synchronous Hybrid Courses – 02/18/2021
As things have “normalized” in this Spring semester, a decision was made that we needed to teach all students at the same time. So, instead of doing what I did last semester, which was splitting my hybrid courses into two different cohorts meeting on separate days with those who could attend neither essentially doing the course completely online, I now have only one session a week for my hybrid courses, and every student either needs to be there in person or on Zoom.
I have gone back and forth on whether that is a good thing or not. I will definitely say that, when presented with this idea, I was not in favor of it at all. In fact, it would be safe to say that I both hated the idea and dreaded having to do it. By the end of the fall semester, that previous model had me teaching only to about 3-5 students in person each session, leaving about 75% of the students essentially using my hybrid course as an online course. There are definitely reasons for this —
- For some students, they were either quarantined or tested positive, meaning they would be out of in-person class for 2-3 weeks depending on when it occurred.
- For others, as it became obvious that in-person classes were leading to spikes in exposures and cases, they chose not to come to class to stay safe.
- I also had a couple of students who were taking care of relatives or had relatives in the hospital, and they did not want to be in public for fear of exposing those they were taking care of. One student noted that his/her parent was in the hospital, and if he/she left the hospital, he/she would not be allowed back in without a quarantine period.
- And, finally, I very simply had students who had signed up for a hybrid course but realized that they could do the course completely online and decided they would rather do that. Two thoughts on this one:
- First, we were specifically asked to have a fully online version of the course ready to go so that if we did get shut down, we would have alternatives for them ready to go. As that alternative was up and ready to go, I let my students know that they could move online-only when they thought it was necessary. For a number of students (especially those who might have dropped the course otherwise), this was a good alternative.
- Second, and this is a much broader thought on it, it allowed for students to change their minds on what they wanted out of the class. Every semester I have 2-3 students who at some point come to me and say they would rather be in my hybrid course if they are online or would rather be in my online course if they are hybrid. This is because they either realized one mode did not work for them or their circumstances had changed and the other mode worked better. It was kind of nice to have this alternative of a course that could be either. (As a note, I am going to explore this idea more in a later blog post.)
This semester, because of the decision that I said at the beginning, we have had to move away from that model of allowing for different modes. Now, we have synchronous-only classes. Every session of my hybrid course this semester has all of my students in it, either face-to-face in front of me or online via Zoom. It has certainly been a mixed bag so far on working in this format.
I’m going to explore more in how it’s going and what thoughts I have on the format over the next couple of blog posts.
In trying to figure everything out on how to teach in a pandemic this semester, we received a lot of different emails from administrators and staff at my college. I had to clarify and render all of the different information down into a format that I could present to my students. I just thought I would share here what that ended up looking like. I am going to share the one from my hybrid classes as they are the ones who have to come to campus at some point.
This is what my syllabus starts with this semester:
Due to the COVID-19 situation this semester, the following restrictions are in place for the Fall semester:
- Teaching and workspaces will be limited to 50% of maximum capacity. Students in this class will be divided into two cohorts, with each cohort meeting on either Monday or Wednesday. This cohort division will be visible in the Canvas classroom and will be communicated to you via email and Canvas Announcement. You will not be allowed to attend class on a day when your cohort is not allowed to attend.
- Same day attendance tracking through Canvas is mandatory for all hybrid classes.
- Assigned seating is mandatory for all hybrid courses.
- A student reporting potential illness serves as sufficient grounds to excuse the absence. This means you are not allowed on campus or in the classroom if you:
- have current symptoms of illness
- have been exposed to someone who has symptoms of illness and have not yet been cleared by a health professional to return to class and/or passed the quarantine stage
- have received a positive test for COVID-19 and have not yet been cleared by a health professional to return to class
- are quarantined because someone you have been in contact with has received a positive test for COVID-19
- Students who are COVID-19 positive must report this status to Student Services. Students are not required to disclose symptoms to anyone, including your instructor. This means that you do not have to tell me anything more than that one of those 4 conditions above applies to you (and you do not have to tell me which one).
- If you are actively sick with COVID-19, you are not expected to complete work for the class at that time. If the symptoms are mild, you are welcome to keep up with the work as you feel able to.
- You will contact the instructor once your sickness has ended to see about what make-up work will be needed.
- If you are quarantined but not actually sick, you are expected to keep up with all assignments for each week as if you are in the cohort that is not coming to campus. You are not allowed on campus during the quarantine, and so even if your cohort is to meet in-person that week, you will be online only that week.
- If you are actively sick with COVID-19, you are not expected to complete work for the class at that time. If the symptoms are mild, you are welcome to keep up with the work as you feel able to.
- In the event of a COVID-19 positive confirmation in a College building, the institution will:
- Identify locations impacted and implement cleaning protocols.
- Complete trace procedures to identify those who may have come in contact.
- Notify those who may have come into contact while protecting the identities of the COVID-19 positive individual.
- Employees and students will self-monitor temperatures as well as other COVID-19 symptoms through the wellness self-check.
- Students shall be introduced to the wellness check during the first class meeting. Self-check signage/messages will be posted in classrooms and workspaces.
- It is the responsibility of the student to have and wear a mask. A student who cannot wear a mask but who does not have an approved exception should not take face-to-face classes. If this applies to you, you need to go to Student Services to see about moving to an online class.
- Eating and drinking occur in private offices when a lone occupant is present or outside College buildings, where the College has provided seating. Classrooms and instructional support locations are never eating or drinking sites.
- Breaks from classes to allow for personal wellbeing are allowed and encouraged.
- Students and faculty are encouraged to bring wipes if they so choose and to clean their workspaces before and after uses. Disinfectant wipes should be placed in the wastebasket in each classroom after use.
- We are maximizing fresh air flow into College buildings to decrease the potential virus load. Classroom and workspace doors shall remain open when occupied. All unoccupied rooms will remain locked.
- Faculty Office hours will be maintained with student visits occurring by appointment only. Maintain social distancing at all times and keep records of visits for tracing purposes. Faculty members are encouraged to conduct meetings via Skype, Big Blue Button, or Zoom when telecommunication serves the student.
You will be required to confirm during the first week of class that you understand and will abide by these restrictions. If you do not agree to abide by these restrictions, you will need to go to Student Services to be transferred to an online class if available.
Finally, if things change through the semester, I will contact you with what the changes are and how that will affect us as we move forward.
Well, the first week of Fall 2020 is coming to a close. It was quite a week.
So, what is #3. I was not on campus, but my department chair was. My hybrid classes were to meet on Wednesdays, and he checked to see if the same room was open on Mondays at the same time. When he found out they were, he authorized splitting my hybrids in two, with half meeting on Mondays for the semester and half meeting on Wednesdays. This is a very good thing for the purposes of getting all of my students in the class once a week, which is really pretty necessary with a hybrid class.
It began with a blur of changes. All of those options that I referred to in my previous post as to how the fall semester was going to work were thrown out the door on Monday. This is not necessarily a good or bad thing, as I would have liked to have #1 as the option and really did not want #2 as the option. What I ended up with was #3, however. And since I did not even know about #3 until Monday, it required a lot of scrambling and a recreation of many parts of my hybrid classes.
The complicating factors, however, are many.
- For one, not every student can switch, as some have scheduled other classes in that time on Monday and others didn’t do classes on Monday because they were already working or had other obligations. So, even after splitting the classes, which was left completely up to me on how to do it, I then had a couple of days of exchanging announcements and emails back and forth with students to get everyone in the section where they could meet, either on Monday or Wednesday
- Second, I generally avoid Monday hybrid classes, as there is always one more Monday missed than all other days in the semester (Labor Day and MLK Day). Now, with not making this change until after Monday classes would have met this week, I have essentially lost two Monday classes in comparison with the Wednesday section. I have somewhat solved this by having the Monday class meet once in finals week and having the week of Labor Day be an online-only week.
- Third, I now have to (and am still) double all due dates on all assignments, as the Monday and Wednesday meetings will necessarily have different due dates. I had to recreate the syllabus to reflect this first, and I finished that up on Tuesday. Now, I am still in the process of doubling all assignment due dates so that there are different ones for Monday and Wednesday. This is not a hard thing, but it is both tedious and time consuming.
- Fourth, Canvas does not easily allow you to divide up students inside your classroom, and so I had to work around some things to get the students to only see the due dates that were relevant for them.
- And, on that note, McGraw-Hill Connect (which I use in my classes) does not allow you to have different due dates for a single section, meaning that everybody’s due date became the later due date
And that’s just the hybrid stuff I had to do.
We also had the very fun situation of having changed over our ERP (Enterprise Resource Planning) this semester. The changes have made two complications for our classes.
- About half of the classes in our system could not bring students into the Canvas classrooms. This was not solved until late on Monday. This just added to everyone’s stress level for starting the semester. There’s nothing like taking or teaching online classes and having students not be able to access anything in that time.
- This same ERP changeover affected those of us who use McGraw-Hill Connect, as both the faculty and any students who had used Connect prior to this semester had to go to McGraw-Hill’s tech support to have their logins reset. While this was not difficult, it was again one extra step.
So, all of that adds up to me being much further behind on the Thursday of the first week of classes than I would normally be. But, I am catching up and moving forward. I just hope we are done with these types of issues for a while.
How has your start of the semester been?
I write this on the near-eve of starting back to the Fall semester. There has not been a semester like this before in my lifetime, for sure.
I finished up a fully-online summer session just last week, although that was not unusual for me, as I normally teach online-only in the summer. The only two differences were that I did not have access to a testing center for my students and I did not hold any face-to-face office hours. That saved me a bit on gas, not having to commute to campus (about a 50-mile round trip), but the effect was largely the same as any other summer. So, my summer teaching in a pandemic was barely different than my normal teaching in the summer.
This coming semester, however, is going to be intense. It is going to be uncertain. As of right now, the Friday before the semester starts on Monday, there are still a number of things in the works and decisions that have not been finalized, leaving a lot of things in the air.
I am, much like in the summer, fairly well positioned already for this upcoming semester. I already teach online, which is what 3/5 of my classes are this semester. The other two classes are hybrids that have run about 70/30 online/face-to-face, meaning that they are also pretty much ready to go with only minor adjustments. The only thing giving me anxiety about them right now is the question of if I am going to have to hybridize my hybrids. Both of them are in classrooms where the full class cannot meet at one time and still maintain social distancing. There are two ways this can work out this semester:
- If bigger rooms can be found for the two hybrid sections, then they will run just as normal hybrid classes this semester.
- If not, then I have to hybridize the hybrids. That means that there will be two cohorts of students, and half will meet on one week and half on the next week, with each student ultimately meeting face-to-face for half of the normal number of sessions. For a hybrid class that would only meet 16 times a semester, that would mean each student only meets 8 times, with the rest of the class being fully online.
I call this hybridizing the hybrid because all face-to-face classes are already being hybridized at my community college. The classes are being divided in half if they are not in a room large enough for everyone to fit, and then half meet on the first day of the week and half on the second.
And, just as a side note, I will not know if I get option 1 or 2 above until sometime early in the coming week. And, when it is known, there is not a clear indication of how I am going to get every student to know what changes there might be, especially if some of them are not to show up on the first day we meet (Wednesday).
If this all sounds really complicated, it is. It is stretching all of our imaginations, our resources, and our capabilities across the college. But we are managing so far. It is nobody’s fault that things are this way, but it certainly makes everything difficult.
I will return soon to talk more about what this semester looks like, but that’s where we stand at this point.
In Part 2 of this series, I am going to look at why I decided to introduce and include student reflection in my courses.
I started out using what I called reflection responses in my hybrid class, largely as a check on making sure that students were actually paying attention in class to what we were talking about. The first two semesters I used them, they took the form of questions that I posted in the last 5 minutes of class, with the answers due the next day. This both helped make sure the students stayed for the whole class and helped me see if they were understanding the main points from the day. I was reasonably happy about this method, but in a class that is discussion-based, the difficulty was both in making sure I ended with enough time to write out a question and in not being able to set the question before that point in time as I did not know how the discussion might go. As it became more of a burden, I moved to a new type of reflection in my hybrid courses the next semester.
In Spring 2019, I changed over the reflection responses in my hybrid course, giving the first ones that look like the assignment I discussed in Part 1 of this series. I started using a set series of questions that were released on the day of the class and then due the next day, giving them about 36 hours to complete them. While they were not tied specifically to the discussion, I still tied them to the larger themes of that week in the class. Again, that worked reasonably well.
In Spring 2019, I attended the TxDLA conference in Galveston, TX, and heard another session on the ideas of having the students do self-reflection. It was not the first time at all, but it was the one that really triggered me to consider expanding their use. That conference also started getting me to think about reflection more as a way to have the students set their own goals for how they would complete the material and allow me to check in on both their progress in the course and their overall attitudes each week.
In combination with the ideas from the conference, I had reformatted my online course in the 2018-19 school year, moving from weekly due dates to a unit format, with each unit being open for 3-5 weeks and all assignments in the unit due at the end of the unit. I was overall pleased with how that was going, but a certain percentage of students were waiting until the last minute every unit and then not being able to complete everything. For other students, they were really confused on what they should be doing each week, as they could not plan well enough to be able to spread out the material to get it all done in a 3-5 week period.
So, in Fall 2019, I introduced the reflection responses as I detailed in Part 1. The immediate benefits were that I could help direct the students in what they should be working on each week to keep on track. The questions asked also put it in their own minds that they did need to plan out how they were spending their time in the course. I also used the “nudge” approach by mentioning certain upcoming assignments in the middle questions, getting them to realize that certain deadlines or assignments were coming up that they might not have on their radar yet. I saw an immediate improvement in their own self-reported progress in the course, although I have not had a chance yet to go back and run any comparison numbers to see what it might have changed in grades.
The bigger surprise was the answers to the final question — the open-ended one. From the beginning, a good 1/2 to 2/3 of the students were answering that question. I was getting at least a paragraph and sometimes multiple paragraphs about what was going on in their lives. I started having a much better sense of what their lives were like and what challenges they were facing outside of class. I also heard about birthdays, celebrations, pets, relatives, accidents, funerals, successes, failures, and just about everything else you can imagine. While I can say that not all of what they wrote were things that I necessarily wanted to know, it kept me appraised of what they were doing with their lives and how they were fitting my class in with everything else going on. I had a better idea of why one student might not be completing assignments on time or why another student might need an extension on an assignment. I could see ahead of time when a student might be struggling with something, and I could send congratulations to them when something positive happened.
Over the past two semesters, I have found the whole process to be very rewarding. In the next post, I will talk more about the student response to the reflections they were asked to fill out.
This has been a mixed semester so far. I really thought it was going to be a rough one after the first week, which I referenced in my last post. I got everything cleaned up from my first mistake of having the incorrect link up for my classroom, and things have been fairly smooth since then. I always forget from one fall semester to the next how clueless about how to work online many of these students are in their first classes at college. Many students get shuttled into online classes as they work well with any schedule and are often perceived as easier than face-to-face classes. Yet, many have had no experience with online classes and really have trouble in those first weeks of classes. So, I end up doing a lot of technical support and repetition of information to the students as they try to grasp what they need to do. Luckily, by the time you get to the third week, most of that is behind, and the rest of the next couple of weeks is mostly maintaining the course and keeping it going.
What is interesting is how these first weeks are the same every semester. If I could somehow get it through to all of my students, I would set up a couple of things:
- The reaction I get from students who are taking their first online class with me is that my class is complicated and hard to understand. By contrast, any student who is coming into my class from other classes (and often the same students who were confused at first by the end of the semester) comments on how well laid-out and straightforward it is. I wish I could tell those students more directly that they will get used to it.
- Read the course outline. Again, read the course outline. And, read it again. Have a question? Read the course outline. Have a specific question? Look in that section of the course outline and see if I have answered it already.
- If you have a question that you can’t find the answer to, let me know as soon as possible. Do not wait until the second or third week to ask me a question that you had from the first moment in the class. By then, assignments will have come due, and it will be harder to fix things.
- Come by and talk to me if you have any questions. I can show you how everything works, and it often works better to show you how things are done rather than tell you.
You might think, well, why don’t you just say these things. The issue is that I do. In fact, I say them over and over. However, here is an example of what I am up against. Shortly after I wrote my last post, I got an email from a student. He said that some students (including him) were have trouble getting to the correct assignment and I should really tell the students about the problems there. If you will remember from my last post, the issue was that I had two contradictory links on how to access the textbook site in the classroom. I discovered this on Tuesday and corrected it at that point. So, I am getting this email about a week later telling me that I really needed to tell the students about this. As I then pointed out to that student, I had sent out 4 different announcements to students addressing this issue. I had also answered two questions posted in the questions forum in the class about this issue. I had answered about 20 different emails from students about this issue. So, when this student emails me telling me that I had not done anything to inform the students about this problem, I just had nothing left to say. And, this is the problem, no matter how many times I say anything, I can’t say it enough to reach every student.
So, what really is the answer is that I just have to keep my cool and remember that every student is new to this. Their problems are unique to them and they do not have the eight years of online teaching experience behind them. Unfortunately, this is not something I am particularly good with, as I get easily frustrated after dealing with issues over and over everyday. I just have to remind myself over and over about this.
The good thing is, by the third week, this section of troubleshooting and explaining is pretty much done. Some scattered issues with my online classes will come up, I’m sure, but things should be fairly stable until the first set of big assignments are due. I can’t say as much for my hybrid classes, but that will be another post.
Today was another day of teaching. What can I say. My wife always asks me the same question every day when I come home – Was work exciting? And, I really never have a good answer to that. Rarely is work exciting, but rarely is it dismal either. Going in to work is a necessary evil in many ways. I teach exclusively online in the summer, and your standard community college student taking online classes in the summer is very unlikely to make it to on-campus office hours. In three weeks so far, I have seen three students. Now, yes, if I was not there, those three students could not have come in to see me, but does tha make up for the rest of it? I don’t know. It is a 25-minute commute each way to get to work, and I stay up there for around four hours at a time for office hours. And, for the most part, I sit there and do work. Or not. It depends on my mood, my attentiveness, my concentration, my guilt, and many other things as to whether a day in the office is a good, productive one, or a bad, unproductive one.
But that’s the thing, it doesn’t matter really one way or the other. I am going to get my work done, but I am not necessarily going to get it done during the hours I sit at work. As I am teaching exclusively online right now, there is no physical bounds on my work. It can be done anywhere and at any time. And, of course, being on campus on Tuesdays through Thursdays from 10am – 2pm is probably the least likely time that my online-only students are going to be working on the course material, meaning that I am most available at the time they are least likely to need my help. But it is the requirement at my community college that we hold on-campus office hours, so I am there. But, again, is it exciting? No. Is it necessary? Apparently. Is it worth it? That depends on the day.
So, when she asked me today, when I got home, if work was exciting, what did I say? Not really. I graded some essay exams. I went to lunch. That’s what I had to say. But, the reality is that I did much more than that. I got there a little before 10 and cleared my email inbox, answering emails from students, including two who wanted to drop the class (because it is now time to take the exam) and one who wanted me to look at drafts of the essay questions for the exam. I clicked through the rest of the emails, most of which required no specific action today but are things I want to look at later. I have a folder rule set up in Outlook to send all of the newsletters and informational emails to a folder to be read when I have the time and interest in reading them. Then I checked in on my online class, looking to see what had happened since I had last looked at the class the night before. I double checked what I had fixed at 8am this morning when the Testing Center had called with a question about the exam, where I had not set the closing time correctly. It was fixed correctly, luckily, and four more students had taken my exam since that point. I then checked to see if the fix that is due from the textbook publisher had come in that would allow me to grade the written submissions of my students had happened yet. And, it had not. So, the publishers’ program that I am class testing still does not allow me to grade what my students submitted, which is getting to be more and more of a problem. I went in to talk to my Dean about it, but he had taken the day off. So, I sent him an email about it. By that time, I had been there about 45 minutes, and so I took a few minutes off to do some random web surfing. I am in the office by myself by that point, so I had turned on some music to listen to. I then started grading. I can grade about 3 exams at a time before I have to take a break. So, in the time between when I started and when it was time to go to lunch, I got 9 exams graded. As the exam actually does not close until tonight, I figured that really wasn’t too bad overall, as I’m ahead of the game there.
I went to my usual Thursday afternoon lunch with some colleagues, and it was 1:30 by the time I got back to the office. I chatted about office politics and the like with some people in my office bay until it was time to go at 2. I made it home in time to help my wife get all of the kids ready to go to the grocery store with her. We then realized that our elder daughter had math tutoring to go to, so my wife took the other kids to the grocery store, and I took the one to the tutoring. I normally sit at Starbucks and work while my daughter is in tutoring, which is where I started this post. However, my wife had gotten locked out of the house, so I had to go back and let her in, leaving me to finish this post later in the day. I entertained the toddler while my wife made dinner, then I went back to get the other daughter from tutoring. We had dinner; I watered the flowerbeds and garden; I did some laundry; and now I sit down.
So, was the day exciting? You tell me, but this was fairly typical.
No, not that president. I’m not that important. The college president stopped by and visited my class on Thursday. He did this last school year as well. I asked my Dean about that last year, and he said that the president considered it to be his right to stop in and see any class he wants to. At the same time, I don’t know of anyone else who has been visited, and I certainly don’t know of anyone who has had two visits in two years.
What was interesting, however, is that, unlike last year, the president talked to me this year afterwards, in an email. He made three observations:
- The students showed a striking lack of critical thinking.
- There was one student who was very disruptive.
- There was one student who was smoking a vapor cigarette in class.
So, how did I address those things.
For the first one, I confirmed what he saw. I said that students come to us from high school with very limited skills. They have very minimal critical thinking, writing, or reading skills. The nature of high school history in my state is dismal, with history generally being one of my students’ least favorite classes when they come to my class. Then, I talked about what I do with my students, that this is one of the big things that I emphasize over the course of my class, and that it is a very slow process to teach them something that they have not successfully learned in the 12 years before that. I also said that if I have the chance, that I generally see the biggest improvements when I have them for two semesters at a time. This is absolutely true. The students who stick with me and work through the assignments in my class over two semesters come out stronger. I’m not trying to brag, but when I can work with the same student for a whole school year, I can really start to make a difference.
On the second one, it was easy. I have an autistic student, and I have been warned by the college that he is likely to be disruptive. As he has as much of a right as any other student to be in my class, I have to manage it as best I can. The president agreed that I was doing the best job I could on that one.
The third took a bit of back and forth. The school policy is no tobacco products, and we have no policy on the vapor cigarettes. They apparently give off a water vapor when smoked, and, when I first saw it, I thought we had a fire in the classroom. After it was explained to me what it is, I really had no idea what to do with it, so I decided to let it go. However, the president was adamant that I should have stopped it in class, as it could be considered a distraction. What I replied back is that when we have no policy on those things specifically, then I really don’t know what to do about it. And, so, the result of that is that, as of Friday, we now have a policy on them that says we do not allow them in class.
So, it was an interesting day. Again, I don’t know if there’s any agenda in the president visiting my class two years in a row. But, like so many other things, I don’t really have any choice in the matter, and so, like so many other things, this is what we do.
I haven’t done any article reviews in a while, so I thought I’d sit down and hit my Evernote box a bit here. So, here we go.
The first article comes from the ProfHacker blog at the Chronicle of Higher Ed. As with so many others, the intent here is to look at way the future of the university system will be, and while I teach at a community college, and not a university, the ideas are still relevant. I also, of course, like the origin of this one, since it came out of a conference at my alma mater, Rice University. It starts off this way: “I sometimes hear that the classroom of today looks and functions much like the classroom of the 19th century—desks lined up in neat rows, facing the central authority of the teacher and a chalkboard (or, for a contemporary twist, a whiteboard or screen.) Is this model, born of the industrial age, the best way to meet the educational challenges of the future? What do we see as the college classroom of the future: a studio? a reconfigurable space with flexible seating and no center stage? virtual collaborative spaces, with learners connected via their own devices?” Certainly, my classrooms are set up that way, even my “other” classroom, the two-way video one, still has all of the emphasis on me. The article also noted: “With declining state support, tuition costs are rising, placing a college education further out of reach for many people. Amy Gutmann presented figures showing that wealthy students are vastly over-represented at elite institutions even when controlling for qualifications. According to Rawlings, higher education is now perceived as a “private interest” rather than a public good. With mounting economic pressures, the public views the purpose of college as career preparation rather than as shaping educated citizens. In addition, studies such as Academically Adrift have raised concerns that students don’t learn much in college.” I have posted up articles that talk about both of those things before, but this information from this conference really narrows it all down well. At its heart, what the article notes from the conference is that it is time to update the model to the Digital Age from our older Industrial Age. That we have adopted the multiple-choice exam and the emphasis on paying attention in class from this old Industrial model, where creating a standardized and regulated labor force was key. In the Digital Age, it will be important to “ensure that kids know how to code (and thus understand how technical systems work), enable students to take control of their own learning (such as by helping to design the syllabus and to lead the class), and devise more nuanced, flexible, peer-driven assessments.” Throughout the conference, apparently, the emphasis was on “hacking” education, overturning our assumptions, and trying something new. While the solutions are general in nature, I found this summary of the conference to be right up my alley, and certainly a part of my own thinking as I redesign. I wish I had known about the conference, as I would have loved to have attended.
Looking at the question from the opposite end is this article from The Choice blog at The New York Times. The blog post was in response to the UnCollege movement, that says that college is not a place where real learning occurs and that students would be better off not going to college and just going out and pursuing their own dreams and desires without the burden of a college education. What is presented here is some of the responses to that idea. A number of people wrote in talking about what the value of college is, so this gives some good baseline information on what college is seen as valuable for. Here are some of them:
- “a college degree is economically valuable”
- “college is a fertile environment for developing critical reasoning skills”
- several noted that you can get a self-directed, practical college education if you want it
- “opting out is generally not realistic or responsible, given the market value of a degree”
- “the true value of college is ineffable and ‘deeply personal,’ not fully measurable in quantifiable ways like test scores and salaries”
That’s just some of the responses, specifically the positive ones, as that’s what I’m looking at here. It is interesting to see the mix of practical things and more esoteric ideas. I think that both are hopefully a part of college education and that both are part of what we deliver. I would like to think that’s what my students are getting out of college in general, and I hope that the redesign that I am going for will help foster that even more. I especially hope to bring more of the second and fifth comments into what I am doing, as that is the side that I think a college history class can help with.
Then there is this rather disturbing article, again from The Chronicle of Higher Ed. It discusses the rising push for more and more online courses, especially at the community college level. As the article notes, that is often at the center of the debate over how to grant a higher level of access to the education experience for more and more people. But, with more emphasis being put on the graduation or completion end and less on the how many are enrolled end, this could end up putting community colleges at an even higher disadvantage. As one recent study put it, “‘Regardless of their initial level of preparation … students were more likely to fail or withdraw from online courses than from face-to-face courses. In addition, students who took online coursework in early semesters were slightly less likely to return to school in subsequent semesters, and students who took a higher proportion of credits online were slightly less likely to attain an educational award or transfer to a four-year institution.'” So, we are actually putting our students into more online classes that make them less likely to finish overall. In fact, they are not only less likely to finish, but they are less likely to succeed at that specific class or come back for later classes. As well, a different study pointed out similar problems for online students: “‘While advocates argue that online learning is a promising means to increase access to college and to improve student progression through higher-education programs, the Department of Education report does not present evidence that fully online delivery produces superior learning outcomes for typical college courses, particularly among low-income and academically underprepared students. Indeed some evidence beyond the meta-analysis suggests that, without additional supports, online learning may even undercut progression among low-income and academically underprepared students.'” This is disturbing to me, as this is exactly what I teach at least half of my schedule each semester in – the online environment exclusively. I know that success in an online class is difficult, although I have actually been slowly improving the success rate over time in my online sections. I think I’ve finally hit a good sweet spot with the online classes right now, and I’m less in need of fixing them at the moment. I do, however, agree with the very end of the article that says that what is often missing from the online courses is the “personal touch.” That is the only part of the class that I would like to change, as I need a way for me to be more active in the class right now. I can direct from the point of putting in Announcements and the like, but I do feel that I get lost in whatever the day to day activities are. I need to design some part of the class that has me participating more directly rather than leaving it up to the students. Otherwise, I do think I’m doing pretty well in this part of my teaching career.
OK. I think I’m going to call it a night here. Any reactions?
I can’t help but start today with a response to an article that I discussed in my last education post. The original article had students talking about what they didn’t like about the lecture format. This one has professors responding. I will be honest that the professor responses are quite underwhelming in my opinion. I don’t know if it is a result of editing that makes the professors less compelling than the students or what. In fact, the best response that I saw there was in the form of a PowerPoint, but the editing of the video made it impossible to read the PowerPoint fully in the time allotted for it. However, when paused, the best points are there, and they largely mirror the ones that I would make. That is, the the failure of lecture is the fault of both the instructor and the student. Since the fault of the instructor has already been raised, I’ll focus on the student side. Students are raised in our educational culture to see education as both something they will be guaranteed basic success at with not that much effort and as something that is a nuisance and waste of time. That combined attitude is hard to combat in a semester course, when the student is one of many sitting out there in a semester class. As well, when they get to college, most students have not encountered the straight-up lecture format before, and it is simply foreign. As the PowerPoint points out, the students are encountering a different form of education for the first time, and they are being asked to adapt to it. However, our current educational structure is so student-focused that the students are not expected to adapt anymore. They should be catered to completely and not asked to leave their comfort zone. When the students encounter the lecture format for the first time in college, they have gone through a life of having their own educational styles catered to over and over, and so their reaction to the lecture is what you would expect. They want what they want, not what we want. What is interesting about this is that I will repeatedly stand up for the right of myself and fellow instructors to grade differently (usually harder) and assess differently, but I am willing to explore different methods of content delivery because the students aren’t responding. I wonder why this is. I have made my own comments here about the lecture format, and I guess that’s it. I do agree that the lecture format is broken, so I have much more tolerance for trying something new.
Of course, what all of this leads into is the bigger question of what college is for. A couple of articles have passed through my Evernote on this topic as well recently. It always helps when the current presidential candidates are talking about it, as that leads to a number of related articles scattered throughout the news sphere. This one from The Washington Post tries to address this broad issue. I have been reading Michelle Singletary’s commentary on personal finance for a while, so I would have read this one even without the educational focus. She sets up the standard two sides of education here, asking, “Is college a time for young adults to just enrich their minds, or should students use that time to concentrate on a major that will prepare them for a career?” She comes solidly down on the second motivation, pretty much dismissing the idea that college should be a time to take whatever classes you want, get whatever degree you want, and just explore. Her point is primarily financial, which makes sense as she is a financial correspondent. She believes that the financial cost of education these days means that students do not have the ability to learn for the sake of learning and need to be focused on what they can get for their education. She does not completely dismiss the idea of education for education’s sake, but she definitely comes down on the side of a practical education. I can’t say I disagree, but I certainly did the opposite. I don’t think I ever got a practical degree, and I feel lucky to have looked for a job and gotten one with my MA in History just before the recent financial collapse. My wife is just finishing up a BA in Art History, and we are currently trying to figure out what to do with that. So, I can understand. It is also at the root of why so many of my students ask me what they have to take history, as they see no practical use for it.
I just have to note this article from The Washington Post as well. It is from the Class Struggle blog on their site, and it gives a nice historical look at the idea of college. As Jay Matthews notes, “The outpouring of college student support after World War II fueled the unprecedented surge of the U.S. economy and its education system. This would be a good time to remember that before we start slipping back.” He notes the challenges facing the idea of college education all around, with Obama pushing more students to enter college, while Santorum is saying we should not. Matthews points out that we see a similar discrediting of education for all that was also seen just before the big push from the GI Bill. He warns us to remember that the benefits of education always seem to vastly outweigh the cost. I am never explicit about this when I teach my students directly. I do, however, always try to talk about the idea of education to my students and to place the education they are getting into a broader context for them. I hope that I do that reasonably well, but I know I could do more. I wonder at what level I need to be doing something like this, talking more about college in the historical sense. I know that the students generally don’t get much direct discussion of the value of college, so we would probably do well to talk ourselves up.
I’m going to close here, as the next article I want to talk about probably needs its own post. Just as a preview, this is the article I want to discuss in some detail. Your homework – read it ahead. OK, just kidding, but it is quite interesting.