Note: I started this post a few weeks ago, but decided to make finishing it my focal project during the Night of Writing Digitally event tonight at Marylhurst University. Thus, I’m putting my thoughts together here while participating in Twitter exchanges, taking notes via Google docs, and otherwise generally having a good time. If this post seems more scattered than usual, well — it is, but that’s okay. I ended up revising and wrapping up the article a couple of weeks after the event.
The student news organ at my home institution recently ran an article on the general reluctance of said institution to embrace the digital age by constructing a solid, meaningful, and compelling online course component. We do have an excellent extension service that offers many courses online, although my department has thus far elected not to participate, a fact which is under increasing scrutiny by department administrators. One of our affiliated departments — and one I’ve also taught in — has been allowing grad students and faculty alike to teach online courses through the extension service for several years, resulting in 1) expanded skill sets among grad students and faculty, and 2) increased revenue for their small and underfunded department. Sounds dreadful, doesn’t it? 😉
Last spring, I had a chat with a senior faculty member about this departmental reluctance / resistance / dread. This particular individual is someone that I respect immensely, someone that I consider a friend and colleague — not just “one of those” administrators. In this impromptu conversation, it was implied that the prevailing opinion among very senior faculty and department administrative committee members, as regards online courses and online degrees, is that this is something that “lesser” departments at “lesser” institutions engage in. The assumption here, of course, is that any and all online courses / programs are less rigorous and exacting in their standards as regards the quality of students they admit, the credentials and skills of the instructors they employ, and the skills / knowledge they impart.
This speaks to another, highly prominent and widespread assumption, which is that “online teaching” is something that 1) only for-profit institutions engage in, or is 2) only deployed by “serious” institutions when they need to bring in some cash. In either case, it is to be considered distasteful, déclassé,even potentially dishonorable.[Note — this is my assessment of certain attitudes, and certainly not my own position!].
However, the article that prompted this post did not touch on any of these attitudes, unsurprisingly. One of the most prominent points that they did mention, and which I’m going to focus on in the remainder of this post, was the issue of cheating. If students were allowed to work purely outside of the classroom, or even allowed to take exams / quizzes, from anywhere other than in the classroom they normally meet in, the fear is that cheating will be wide-spread, creating a slippery-slope effect which will result in scores upon scores of students graduating with 4.0 gpas, despite not having actually learned anything. Traditional standards will fall, testing will become meaningless, the university as we know it will crumble into the ground, Donald Trump / Helen Dragas will take over education in the western world, and all will be lost.
Alright, so I’m being a tad hyperbolic / facetious here, but you get the drift. And I genuinely do believe that this is one of the primary reasons why many departments are reluctant to embrace online teaching tools. But really, this fear is unfounded — or, perhaps more accurately, unnecessary. Here’s why:
1) Good design will produce successful outcomes: I’ve made extensive use of online quizzes in many of my classes, both literature and composition, with great success all around. Often — particularly in composition courses with ESL students — I make multiple choice quizzes available for a five day period, or the “academic week.” I love this tactic — it allows me to write quiz questions that prompt students to look up lecture notes and presentation slides, re-read discussion texts, and ask each other questions. Some students work on the quizzes in groups, and that’s fine by me. Either way, instead of testing whether or not students can memorize and retain some tidbit of information, online quizzes and exams prompt students to dig deeper into material, search for information, synthesize ideas, and exchange knowledge with one another. That counts as a success in my book. Will some students wait until the last minute and then go to Wikipedia for answers? Sure. But if I’ve written a solid quiz / exam, they won’t find what they’re looking for, thereby learning to refocus their attention on course materials. If they manage to muddle through with Google searches and information from blogs, etc., well — the trick is still on them, because they actually had to learn something in the process. Meanwhile, the dedicated students — the ones who deserve to get the most out of the class anyway — will learn far more meaningful information in far more effective ways.
2) Cheaters are only cheating themselves: I’ve seen what happens when good teachers get caught up in tracking down cheaters and plagiarists, devoting hours to double-checking phrases in student papers against Google searches, online databases, and even paper mills. I’ve seen novella-length, vitriol-filled emails hit department listservs on otherwise peaceful Sunday afternoons, with an outraged instructor enlisting the assistance of her or his colleagues in tracking down a culprit, whose thesis on the use of genetically modified cucumbers in commercial pickle manufacturing is (take your pick here): A) Too well-written to belong to this student, B) Too knowledgeable of the field to belong to an undergrad, C) Suspiciously familiar in a vague way, or D) Not even remotely on-topic. In all but the last instance (which is clear grounds for a failing grade), the idea is that the perpetrator must be caught, punished, and possibly even made a spectacle of in order to preserve the sanctity of the classroom. Here’s the reality, though, folks: spending so much time worrying about cheaters accomplishes very little. I remember a senior faculty member once telling the story of a chronic plagiarist who, when faced with expulsion for repeated offenses, maintained the s/he would still attempt to cheat or plagiarize again, because if they had gotten away with it, then they would have passed a class without doing any of the actual work, which was a more important goal for them than actually earning the degree. Folks — there’s not much you can do with someone in this position other than let them learn their lessons later on. When a composition student plagiarizes a paper, and I cannot prove it to a satisfactory degree in a timely fashion, I ask them to rewrite the draft and go from there. If they persist, and I cannot prove it, then — I cannot prove it. If they pass the class, it irritates me — but I know it’s going to catch up with them down the road. So — you managed to pass writing classes without learning how to improve your writing? Good for you (he said, sarcastically) — I’m sure employers will be impressed by the quality of your application materials.
This brings me to my final point.
3) If a high number of students can pass your class by cheating, then the fault just might be yours: As with the first point on this list, design is key. When I teach Shakespeare, for example, I don’t bother with basic thematic readings (“how might we understand Romeo and Juliet as dealing with themes of love, betrayal, and family?”), or with basic paraphrase readings, at least not on assignments. I give students a specific methodological framework (recent classes have dealt with cognitive psychology and Machiavellian intelligence), highlight key characters in a play, and then ask students to “read” that character’s behavior through the lens of that framework. All of the material they need will be available in lecture files and documents posted on the course site; if they miss lectures for any reason, they still have access to this material. Thus, it’s easy to assess skill level and success: if they can use the framework to produce an interesting and substantive reading, they’re on the right track. If they misread the framework or the primary text — they still are grappling with course material, rather than looking for an ‘easy out’ . On the rare occasions that someone attempts to turn in a paper mill paper, or culls have of the piece from Wikipedia, it’s easy to spot and easy to weed out — I can speak about it directly with the student and help them figure out what may be confusing them.
Wrap/up reflection: I think this is one of the longest posts I’ve written to date! As I read back through the piece, I realize that most of the cases I discussed here don’t fit the “online course” profile, although all of my classes incorporate various social media tools and exercises (group blogs, online projects, Twitter feeds, and so forth). I also think this leads us to question the definition of an “online” class. While all of my classes meet in brick-and-mortar classrooms, all supporting materials, external communication, and grading take place in secure online course sites (primarily Blackboard, although I’ve recently used Lore — a review is forthcoming). Students do not write their papers by hand or typewriter in silent dorm rooms, either — they write them on laptops in coffee shops, bouncing back-and-forth between Facebook, Wikipedia, news websites and (hopefully) the course site, while listening to music streaming from Spotify, Pandora, or Rdio. Thus, the notion that any institution can avoid “online” courses boils down to a game of semantics, and folks, I have to say — the digital community is going to win this one.