Posts Tagged With: distance education

On Leaving the Circus


Circus poster, 1890. (Library of Congress)

My last day of work at Athabasca University was Friday, June 3. That weekend was the most relaxing I’d had in… ever. Even finishing my PhD didn’t come close to the sensation of lightness. For the two weeks prior, it was almost impossible to concentrate because I felt like a kid about to start summer holidays.

If I had stuck around until September, it would have been 8 years. Unlike most schools, Athabasca University does not break up its year into terms or quarters. It has a continuous enrollment model, where new students start the course every month. Students can submit their assignments at any time during their contract period. The result is that there is no way to predict workload. There is also no way to predict income, because it depends partly on monthly enrollment, as well as the number of papers graded. For me this meant that my life was in a perpetual holding pattern to accommodate the irregular income and schedule. Eight years is a long time to stay in an unproductive holding pattern.

The message I got upon being hired by Athabasca was that my position was intended to be a small auxiliary source of income, kind of like babysitting is for a teenager. Nevertheless, I would be expected to offer the highest possible standard of customer service. If I could coin a phrase, it would be “work like you’re full-time.”

But I managed this. I also had the opportunity to revise my courses, which made me feel like I was actually in a teaching position. However, Athabasca’s financial concerns soon came to the forefront. There was the email requesting that employees take unpaid vacation to reduce the burden on payroll. AU entertained the notion of laying off all tutors for a day to save money. Large-scale layoffs happened. There was the move to digital textbooks, where savings realized from the lower cost of digital textbooks were not passed on to students as a decrease in fees.

And then there was the call centre. This news came in the form of a sternly worded email from the acting president that a) tutor costs were unsustainable, and b) this problem would be solved by getting rid of the system of tutors and replacing it with a “one stop shop” for all inquiries.

The claim was that students contacted their (unhelpful, unprofessional) tutors infrequently, and when they did it was mostly with administrative questions that tutors were not equipped to handle. Therefore, there should be a call centre that students would contact first. Knowledgeable and professional call centre operators (in sharp contrast to tutors) would then connect the student with appropriate resources. If it were deemed necessary, a highly qualified Academic Expert (former tutor) would be contacted and informed that the student had a question. The Academic Expert would then contact the student within 2 business days.

They argued that the centre could be open for longer hours, and on weekends, whereas there were limited office hours during which students could contact their tutors. First of all, these office hours were limited because AU was not willing to hire tutors full-time- so it’s hardly fair to blame the tutors for that. But second, and far more importantly, who uses the phone anymore? If I got more than 30 phone calls in the time I worked there, I’d be surprised. But I did get emails at all hours of the day and night, 7 days a week. The vast majority of those questions were about the course material.

The call centre would save money because the Academic Experts would be paid only for specific activities, rather than the “block pay” determined by the number of students assigned to a tutor. Getting paid would require filling out time sheets to document those activities. You can see a list of what counts here, in the appropriately named Outsider newsletter of CUPE 3911 (the tutors’ union).

And that’s were my self-respect threshold came into view. The notion of having to subdivide my job into tiny bits and pieces, and keep meticulous track of them in order to get paid, seemed incredibly burdensome. That’s not why I teach. Add to that rumblings about Academic Experts having their time sheets rejected, and the suggestion that I could expect a 40% decrease in my income, and it just didn’t seem worth it anymore.

My initial plan was to wait until my courses were moved to the call centre. I would see how things went, and then resign if the situation got as bad as I thought it would. But I got tired of waiting for the axe to fall. I got tired of there being an axe. I started to feel like a chump for staying there.

I might have been able to tolerate the problems if I had felt valued, but I didn’t. Even before the call centre, I had the sense that AU felt its tutors needed to be scolded into doing a good job. On an employee pulse survey, someone commented that tutors as a whole lacked professional development. This is in spite of the fact that no-one had bothered to ask what kind of professional development tutors had done. There also seemed to be a pro call-centre PR strategy to denigrate the abilities and work of tutors, as a means of emphasizing that AU was making the tough choices and seeking solutions.

So I felt about as valued as a piece of chewing gum stuck to the bottom of a shoe. I didn’t realize how deeply that feeling went until I received a 5-year service pin in the mail. I was surprised and confused because I honestly didn’t think tutors counted as employees for purposes of service recognition.

I’ve never quit a job before. I expected that quitting this one would happen when I was angry and bitter, but instead I was completely blissed out. If this post sounds like an angry rant, it isn’t. It is more of an exorcise- an exercise in exorcising those demons so I can leave them behind and begin whatever healing is required. Being chewing gum is hard on a person’s psyche.

My resignation letter was one sentence saying only what date my resignation would be effective. I didn’t say why I was quitting, and no-one asked. I was a little surprised that they didn’t ask for a hand-off overview of how the courses were going. They should have. Maybe I could have offered that information, but there would have been a lot to say. I’ve tried to communicate issues and solutions before, only to be disregarded, and I didn’t have it in me to try again. And anyway- not my monkeys, not my circus.

I don’t have a new job lined up, per se, but I do have a project that I’ve been meaning to start. I will get to use my research skills, and learn new things. I will have an opportunity to progress rather than being trapped in a holding pattern. I won’t have to read messages from administrators about how I’m not worth what they’re paying me. I won’t have to be afraid of decisions others are making about my future. I won’t need the approval of people who are less qualified than I am to make decisions. I’m not leaving higher ed just yet, but I am branching out and trying to make my own opportunities. What comes after remains to be seen.

Categories: Challenges, Distance education and e-learning, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , | 12 Comments

Online Courses and The Problem That No-One Is Talking About

There are two kinds of online courses: those which are taught, and those which are facilitated. The distinction does not apply to the task of interacting with students. I’ve been both “teacher” and “facilitator,” and it’s exactly the same job from that perspective. The difference is one of autonomy, and it is a big difference.

The Gwenna Moss Centre is about to run another offering of their Introduction to Teaching Online course. Although I am a co-facilitator for this course, I would describe it as a course which is taught rather than facilitated. My co-co-facilitator and I discuss the course as it is running, and make adjustments on the fly when necessary. We take note of what worked and what didn’t, look at participants’ evaluations, and then modify the course as necessary for the next offering. Not only do we have the autonomy to make the necessary changes, it is expected that we will.

In Intro to Teaching Online, we assume that the participants will also be able to teach their online courses- that they will make pedagogical and logistical choices to respond to their students’ needs, and to make the course run as smoothly as possible. Also, that they will have the ability to revise as necessary and try new things. That’s how you teach an online course.

When you facilitate an online course, while you might take on the task of assisting students and grading their papers, what you can do beyond that is tightly restricted by a delivery model over which you have very little control. How little control will vary, but most likely it will be difficult or impossible to make substantive changes to what is taught, or how it is taught. Even if you designed the course in the first place, that “you” and facilitator you are completely different people as far as control over the course goes, and designer you lost any input as soon as the design contract was up.

If you are lucky enough to be able to request changes, the process is rather like having completed a painting, then being told you aren’t allowed to touch it anymore. If you want something to change, you must fill out a form describing in detail where the paint should go and how to move the brush. Someone more qualified than you will make the change. They might send a note back to you saying that they plan to improve your painting of a cow by adding spots. You must then explain at length that it is in fact a dog, and should not have spots. When the painting is finally modified, the dog is the wrong shade of brown. You decide it is best to not request modifications to your paintings in future.

Why does this matter? I don’t care how good you are- you never get a course exactly right the first time. If there aren’t any outright problems, then it soon becomes apparent where improvements can be made. Facilitator you gets to see the problems or areas for improvement, but must be content with grading papers and answering questions. If facilitator you is like facilitator me, this will drive you nuts. If facilitator you is subject to the same kinds of course evaluations as someone who can teach their course, and make it the best it can be, then this is not only unfair, but professionally dangerous.

While course quality is affected by this- especially if no-one sees a need to consult with facilitator you about how the course is going, or there are no mechanisms for facilitator you to communicate issues and be taken seriously- there is a bigger problem: the very integrity of the course.

At one time distance education was mostly intended to serve those who could not go to a brick-and-mortar institution for one reason or another. Maybe they had a family or a full-time job and couldn’t leave to go to school. Maybe they just couldn’t afford to move. Now things are different. While I don’t have any hard numbers, from what I can tell, at least 70% of my students are already taking classes at a brick-and-mortar school. They take an online class because they can fit it into their schedule better than one on campus, or it isn’t offered on campus at a time they need it, or they’re trying to get ahead/ complete their degrees over the summer.

What this means for the big picture is that students are far more likely to communicate with each other about the course than in the past. It might be two students who take the course together, or it could be someone who took it previously sharing information with someone currently enrolled. In the case that is causing me problems right now, a substantial number of students from one department at one school take the online course to fill a requirement. This is a facilitated course, so perhaps you can guess where this is going.

The students talk to each other. Some of it might be innocent enough, but some of it involves passing on assignments that I’ve graded to the next group of students who take the course. The course has not been updated substantively in some time, so the same assignments and exams still apply.

The problem has become ridiculous of late, with students submitting near-perfect assignments, all exactly alike plus or minus a few careless errors, and within record time. They get things right that no-one ever gets right. Clearly they are working together, but they are also referring to older assignments. I know this for certain for a few reasons: First, the correct answer will frequently appear after incomplete or even nonsensical work. They submit solutions with the answer that would have resulted if a typo, long since removed, was still in the question. They also plagiarize my comments from old assignments, sometimes reproducing them verbatim.

This course has a must-pass stipulation on the final exam. Normally that would be some comfort, because students who haven’t learned anything on the assignments would fail the exams. I’ve seen students with 95%, 99%, and 100% on assignments unable to break 20% on the final. (The exam isn’t that hard.) But over the past few months it has become apparent that the content of the exam has been shared. If not an actual copy, then a very good description of what it contains is in circulation. Exam grades have gone up, and students are regularly answering questions correctly which were rarely answered correctly in the past.

Ideally, if so many students who know each other are taking the course, the assignments should change frequently. In our hyper-connected world, it is almost certain that this kind of communication between students will happen. I even know of a homework-sharing website that has some of the solutions posted. The problem is that in order to change this, someone has to keep on top of the course full-time, and have the autonomy to make the necessary changes. The main consideration should not be the logistics of altering course materials. There’s no excuse for that when the relevant materials are or can be delivered online, and everyone and their dog knows how to upload a file to an LMS.

Nevertheless, the issue is that facilitators cannot be empowered in this way without disrupting the underlying structure of course delivery. Even more problematic is a culture amongst those who do run things- those who are not subject-matter experts but who handle the day-to-day operations- which views facilitators as incompetent, and unable to handle this responsibility. Not long ago I was handed an in-house guide to designing distance education courses. It warned readers at the outset that most faculty would be uncooperative and not understand how a distance education course should run. I felt ill, the way you would feel if you overheard your co-workers complaining about how useless you were. As I recycle that book I will contemplate with irony the damage this attitude has caused to distance education, and wonder if maybe I should take a chance and start the dog-washing business I’ve been thinking about.

There are many reasons to disempower facilitators, not the least of which is the cost savings from having them as casual workers instead of full-time ones. So here’s where I’m going to get in trouble for this post (if I haven’t already): if your concern is the bottom line, what happens when the ease with which students can cheat in your course makes other schools, employers, professional certification organizations, etc., decide that credit for your course is no longer meaningful? Even if cheating is less of a risk, what if word gets around that the course is hopelessly outdated or has problems? You don’t get enrollment, that’s what. And the people who communicate this aren’t going to be disgruntled facilitators. I’m the least of your worries. You need to worry about the students themselves who joke openly about cheating, and how little can be done about it, or who are discovered to lack skills or to have learning that is outdated.

There is a fundamental disconnect between what schools view as the appropriate way to structure a distance education program, and what actually works on the ground, when you’re expecting learning to happen. One involves online teaching and the other does not. There is a cultural gulf between those who have the power to do something about it, and those who can only look on in frustration. There are a lot of dogs to wash, but with most of them you have to spell out B-A-T-H rather than say the word, or they run off. A waterproof apron is useful, but not foolproof. You’ll need lots of towels.

Categories: Assessment, Challenges, Distance education and e-learning, Learning technologies, The business of education | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Why I don’t give extra credit assignments

I view extra credit assignments as problematic because they can be unfair to other students in the course, they don’t necessarily solve the problem of missed learning outcomes, and they’re a hassle for me.

Let’s say I’m teaching a carpentry class called Potting Sheds 101. Students sign up to learn how to build potting sheds. Their final exam is building a potting shed. They may or may not go into the potting-shed building industry after graduation. On the last day of class the final projects are evaluated. Bob’s potting shed is out of square, and collapses when the door is opened. Bob fails. Later I receive the following email from Bob:

“Hey, how are u? I’m Bob in Potting Shed 101. I failed my final project. It’s been a really hard month for me. I was sick for the last two weeks, plus I didn’t have money to buy the textbook or a hammer. I found the final project did not suit my learning style, and was shocked at how difficult it was. Talk about being expected to run before even learning to walk! I will definitely be commenting about this in the course evaluation. Plus I was delayed getting started because I had to borrow a hammer from the library, and it was recalled and still hasn’t been returned yet. Potting Shed 101 is the last class I need for my degree, and I don’t plan to build potting sheds for a living, but I really need to pass the class to graduate. Is there some extra credit work I could do to pass the course with a high enough grade to get my degree? I feel I already learned a lot, and I would need at least 65 to graduate.”

 So what should I do with Bob? Here are some considerations:

  • Bob knew he would need a hammer to build potting sheds. Other students made sure they had the supplies necessary before signing up. It is unfortunate that Bob doesn’t have a hammer, but does this justify extra credit work?
  • Bob says he was sick, but I can’t verify that independently. Previously, Bob didn’t say anything about being sick, but if he had I would probably have granted him an extension to complete his potting shed.
  • Bob should have expected that building a potting shed would be part of Potting Sheds 101, so I don’t accept his argument that the final evaluation was unreasonable.
  • Bob is suggesting that the class doesn’t mean anything to him, but is just a course that his program required for some reason, and that he won’t use the skills (although he still claims to have learned something).
  • Bob expects that whatever he will do for extra credit will get him at least 65% in the course, and can be done in time so that he will graduate as expected.
  • If I give Bob the opportunity for extra credit, are the other students any less deserving? Should they not be allowed extra credit projects too?

What if I cave in to Bob’s request? Bob suggests that he make ten bird houses for extra credit. Bird houses are not potting sheds, so he would be getting credit for doing a task that is much easier than the original task. Bob assumes that demonstrating a willingness to work hard is equivalent to demonstrating competency in potting-shed building. While a good work ethic is admirable, it is not the same as being able to build a potting shed. If Bob changes his mind about working in the potting shed industry, he will use the grade I gave him to convince an employer that he can build potting sheds. If Bob shows his grade in potting-shed building to prospective employers who don’t deal in potting sheds, they may take it as a sign that he is somewhat handy, has reasonable hand-eye coordination, and can handle complex tasks that require precision and attention to detail.

Let’s go one step further and assume I let Bob hand in his 10 bird houses. They are consistent with his skill at potting-shed building. Am I required to give him extra credit even though his work is substandard? If I don’t, must I allow him to do extra extra credit work?

What if the day after Bob hands in his 10 bird houses, Carrie sends me an email:

 “I heard you let Bob build bird houses for extra credit. Can I build bird houses for extra credit, too? I’d really like to improve my grade because I want to get into the Advanced Potting Sheds program.”  

This is a very competitive program, and if I let Carrie do the extra credit work, her grade would not reflect her skill at potting-shed building, but it would give her an advantage compared to other students who apply to the program.  Is that fair?

Then I hear from Marty:

“I heard you let Bob hand in bird houses for extra credit. I made some when I was in grade four. Can I hand those in for extra credit?”

If Marty has demonstrated the skill, does that not count? If he had brought a completed potting shed to class on the first day, should he have received credit for the course? Some would say yes.


“I heard you were taking bird houses for extra credit. My neighbours have some. Can I get credit for those?”

I would have to explain to Beatrice that she must make the bird houses herself. She would then request step-by-step instructions on how to build a bird house, and ask if she could come to my office hours to get help.

On a box delivered to my front door, containing 20 bird houses with the “Made in China” stickers still attached:

“Here are my bird houses for extra credit. Thx. Pete”

In an email from the department head:

“WHY are you letting students build bird houses for credit in Potting Sheds 101? They’re supposed to be building POTTING SHEDS!”

You see, it’s just way too complicated.

Categories: Assessment, Challenges | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

Crowd-sourcing distance education (or, Why Athabasca University’s problems are just getting started)

mortar quoteLast week there was another missive from Athabasca University interim president, Peter MacKinnon. The post appears to be damage control after a Metro article by Jeremey Nolais, Fears arise that Alberta’s Athabasca University will be lost as tough budget looms.  The post says that while Athabasca is facing “financial challenges that are acute,” and “a decline in the rate of enrollment growth,” the rumors in the media that it will be merged with another school or shut down are untrue.

What I found interesting about the article were the comments. There are only 6 of them at this point, and three of the comments were complaints about insufficient interaction with tutors. They weren’t complaints about the call centre model, where students contact the call center and a call center employee determines whether an Academic Expert should be informed that the student needs assistance (contact ensuing within 2 business days). Instead they were complaints by students who had tutors but felt that they weren’t hearing from the tutors enough. As one student says, “… I did not pay to be completely ignored and paid to be TAUGHT.” [original emphasis]. There were complaints about the quality of education, and the blame for that laid at the feet of tutors as well.

Given the controversy surrounding the call center, and the seemingly obvious thing to comment about- that those who were unhappy with insufficient contact from their tutors could rest assured that they would soon have no contact with a tutor whatsoever- it is surprising that no comments of that nature were posted. After some experimentation, I determined that those points of view were being moderated out. The upshot is that readers will come away with the conclusion that what is wrong with Athabasca is its tutors, which is very convenient for the administration at present. However, there is also a very real risk of discouraging students who might otherwise register for courses that are still running under the tutor model. If someone at AU thought that was a risk worth taking… well, make of that what you will.

I’m not saying that all tutors do the job that students want them to- some tutors may not do the best job they can for any number of reasons, and some students may have bought into the misconception that they have a full-time teacher assigned to them.

But Athabasca’s problem isn’t tutors not doing what students want them to. Its problem is a structure designed in the days when distance education required sending students boxes of paper in the mail. This is a problem because the system that can most efficiently manage hard-copy course materials is one in which teachers cannot have the autonomy to alter their course materials at will to respond to students’ needs. Think of the nightmare that keeping track of document versions would be! There would be no control on the workflow (and therefore on costs) if instructors could alter materials whenever they found a better way to teach. In order for the school to function, teaching has to take a back seat to operations.

kids these days

Kids these days

On the surface, it would seem that Athabasca has moved past this, with an online learning management system, online exams, and digital textbooks. At its core, however, Athabasca is still structured so that it is necessary to inhibit its teachers in order for it to operate as efficiently as possible. The reason I think that Athabasca’s problems are just beginning is that the costly and harmful structure they are fighting to protect is rapidly becoming unnecessary for distance education.

Think of it this way- these days most universities run courses through online learning management systems. Using these systems, instructors can post documents, set up quizzes and exams, post video links, post videos and podcasts of lectures, host class discussions, and more. It is entirely doable with a very minimal outlay for me to broadcast my in-class lectures live online, and have students answer questions in real time through Poll Everywhere while watching that lecture. We could discuss their answers as a group, and I could adjust my lecture on the fly to address issues that they were having. Students could even submit questions through Twitter during the lecture.

With courses set up this way, no-one sends students a box of paper course-materials. Students download and print what they want, access the rest online, and purchase textbooks directly from vendors in the format they want. Students can take a course and engage fully with a community of learners and an instructor without being in the classroom, whether that course is designated as distance education or not.

In contrast, Athabasca is structurally incapable of empowering its front-line teaching staff to act in their students’ best interest. It has people to grade papers and answer questions, but it doesn’t afford those people the mantle of teachers, the salary so they can be committed to students full-time, or the autonomy to fix issues with courses as they arise. Consider this: I don’t have access to the course materials that I wrote.  If I want to fix a typo, there is a separate group of people who handle that sort of thing, and I have to make a request to get it done. I had to hunt around to find out who those people were. If I had the same control over my Athabasca courses as I do with some other courses I teach, I would just take the three seconds to fix the typo myself and not tie up IT people, and who knows who else. I would likely be updating the course regularly to improve it, which means that a separate expenditure on a Subject Matter Expert (who is also me) to revise the course every so many years would be unnecessary.

From a business perspective, it might have been safe at one time to compromise on teaching if you were the only game in town that could mail out those boxes of paper. But what happens when mailing out boxes of paper becomes irrelevant to serving students at a distance? What happens when the competition is no longer other distance education schools or programs- when it becomes hundreds or even thousands of individual creative, energetic, and innovative instructors at traditional brick-and-mortar schools who choose to build and manage their own online courses? What happens when the additional cost of running those courses is trivial, because the resources are already there as part of how on-site students are served? Well, what happens is that the competition is essentially crowd-sourced, and can do a better job with lower costs and happier teachers.

I don’t know what will become of Athabasca. As long as it offers programs that no-one else does, there will be a demand for its product, and perhaps it will begin to focus on that segment of the market instead of a broad swath of undergraduate courses. But if it does offer programs that no-one else does, that will have more to do with no-one else choosing to offer those programs, rather than being unable to do so in a cost-effective manner. Athabasca will not change the way it does business because it is firmly committed to the notion that as long as the school is run as a business, the rest will take care of itself.  The call centre model- where by design, the first person students talk to will never be the person teaching them- is evidence of that. There is an entrenched culture which holds front-line teachers in such low regard as to view answer databases and non-teaching call-center employees as a better alternative.  This exists because at some level, Athabasca views itself as an organization for delivering courses rather than for teaching students.

Categories: Distance education and e-learning, Learning technologies, The business of education | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Customer relationship management (CRM) as a paradigm in distance education

I’ve been trying to gain more insight into the changes that are coming to Athabasca University with the new contact centre model that I discussed in an earlier post. After finding AU’s report, Evaluating the relative efficiencies and effectiveness of the contact centre and tutor models of learner support at Athabasca University, I think I have a better idea of what’s going on.  AU is adopting a customer relationship management system, similar to those that are used to run the call centres of large businesses.  These systems have been adapted for use in higher education over the past decade.

The report outlines AU’s system as follows:

Under the Contact Centre model, undergraduate student advisors, available six days a week, field initial queries via fax, telephone, or e-mail, and act as the first point of contact for accessing other advising services. Using flexible, shared, and secure contact databases, contact centre advisors handle issues for which they have established answers and refer course-related inquiries to the appropriate academic experts. … “Frequently-asked question” databases are also available to students and advisors to answer some academic queries. If applicable, students are referred to faculty and part-time academic experts for academic assistance.

The report refers to a keynote address by James Taylor of the University of Southern Queensland at the 2001 ICDE World Conference on Open Leaning and Distance Education. In the address, Taylor describes the USQ’s e-University project which seeks to automate the delivery of information to students. Taylor explains that tutors’ responses to students’ questions are added to a database. Subsequent students’ queries are first run through the database to see if the question has already been answered. If so, the student is provided with that information. At the time of Taylor’s keynote address, tutors were involved in vetting the automated responses, but Taylor anticipated that this would soon become unnecessary. It is only when the answer does not exist in the database that a tutor is required to interact with a student, and as he put it,

As the intelligent object databases become more comprehensive, enabling personalized, immediate responsiveness to an increasing number of student queries, the institutional variable costs for the provision of effective student support will tend towards zero.

By this he means that regardless of enrollment numbers, the costs will remain the same because students will access the database rather than needing attention from tutors. The irony is, the more dedication and care that tutors put into answering questions, the more they hasten their own obsolescence.

The AU report emphasizes this outcome:

Most importantly, individually-tailored services can be provided to an increasing number of learners with the same economic resources by using knowledge management software to reduce the need for direct, human interaction in the teaching and learning process.

The AU report takes issue with the idea that student-teacher interactions are necessary. They point out that, according to the equivalency theorem of Anderson (2003), only one of the following types of interaction is required: student-teacher, student-student, or student-content. As long as one of these is done well, the others can be eliminated entirely with no negative consequences for the student. I wonder at the wisdom of leaving a group of students to their own devices, sans teacher or content, as a method of education, but perhaps I’m missing some nuance of the scenario.

My question as I read through the report was, “Does this work?” The report was written to present the results of a survey of students who had taken part in the initial roll-out of the contact centre model at AU. The data presented are a list of attributes of the contact centre and tutor models, and students’ ratings of the importance of those attributes.  I’ve summarized the results below.  Keep in mind that although the report says the survey asked about the importance of each of these attributes, some of the attributes read as though students were asked to rate the outcome of their interaction with the model in question.  I’ve kept the original wording so you can decide for yourself what the survey items mean.

Study results

Even if it were clear whether the survey were evaluating the perceived importance of or the perceived satisfaction with various attributes, it still wouldn’t answer my questions.

One thing I would like to know is how students felt about having an advisor with no specific knowledge of the course material answering their academic (i.e., course-matter specific) questions by referring to a database. The survey reports (item 2) that 76% of the 300 students sampled rated “Importance of talking directly with an academic expert for academic support” as “Important” or “Very Important.” I wonder if that number would have been even higher if it had said “communicating directly” rather than “talking directly.” Very few of my students “talk” to me because the vast majority communicate by email.  (The prevalence of email could also have affected the outcome of item 3.) More importantly, this item doesn’t answer whether or not students were happy with the amount of direct communication they had with an academic expert under one model or the other.

The report does not address how beneficial students felt either model to be in terms of their learning outcomes, and it does not provide any metrics such as differences in grades or retention. The closest it comes is addressing satisfaction with response times for academic assistance using each model (item 8). Read literally, the results are students’ rating of how important satisfaction is in this regard (i.e., how important it is that response times be satisfactory), but it is possible that students were actually asked how satisfied they were with response times.  Regardless, response time is not the same thing as help with learning.

Because this report did not tell me what I wanted to know, I spent the better part of a day searching for studies of similar systems, and the outcomes for learners.  Much to my chagrin, the only relevant thing I found was a paper by Coates et al. (2005) stating that there were no generalizable studies addressing this issue. The paper was very interesting nonetheless, and foreshadowed the present developments:

While ‘academic-free’ teaching may seem only a very distant prospect, major online delivery ventures already have business plans based on the employment of a limited number of academic staff who create content with the support of larger numbers of less expensive student support staff.

It also echoed my main concern: “What are the consequences of students increasingly seeking learning assistance from technology support staff rather than from teachers?”

The AU report concludes that there was no material difference in students’ satisfaction with response times between the two models, and that “[m]eans of first contact seems [sic] to be more effective under the Contact Centre model.” (If the last statement is based on item 4, it would appear the opposite is true.) Because there was a savings of over $60 for each student with the Contact Centre model,

Taken together, these results suggest that satisfactory educational experiences can be delivered under either model. Given this equivalency of outcomes, it is recommended that relative costs should primarily determine how student support is provided at Athabasca University.

After reading this report, my thoughts were (almost simultaneously) that response times are a dubious measure of how satisfactory an educational experience is, and that this point is likely moot for decision-making purposes at this stage. But maybe distance education is like the garment industry: at one time, it was a foregone conclusion that your clothes would be made to fit you. Now, most people aren’t particularly troubled by having to pick a ready-made garment from a clothing rack. It’s still a shirt, right?  Why should getting answers from a database/ advisor instead of from a teacher be any different?

In case you are wondering, yes, I do find the idea of purging humans from teaching to be disturbing. Aside from losing the human interactions and creative challenges that make teaching a meaningful undertaking, there are serious flaws in a system where students’ interactions with a course cannot be observed by someone who will ultimately be responsible for redesigning that course. In my present roles as tutor and course author, I have a very good idea of what is working and what isn’t, because of conversations I’ve had with my students. Sure, there are issues that commonly arise, and one could infer from the number of questions on a particular topic that something isn’t working. But if it were that easy to fix, I would have intuited the problems with my approach to begin with and avoided the issue altogether. It is only by communicating back and forth with students and asking specific questions that I can figure out exactly what’s going on. There is a diagnostic element in my relationship with students, and it is a crucial element for assisting students on a one-to-one basis, and for improving the course in general. The contact centre model is about removing the human element as far as possible.  (Wow!  At one time that statement would have been entirely facetious!)  If I were to participate in this system, I would have exactly one try to figure out what was going on, before my canned response would be distributed to all future students with a similar question. This model will result in lost access to valuable data, and these are data that can’t be recovered by a standard end-of-course evaluation by students.

There are some broader issues that I didn’t see addressed in this report, or in any of the promotional materials I read about customer relationship management software use in higher education, or in reports by administrative branches of different schools about the benefits of implementing these systems. What about confidentiality, for example? How are queries dealt with that could identify a particular student? What happens if students share personal information in their question? Does all of this become available for other students to access?

What about intellectual property rights? If students attach a file containing their own work when they query the system (which they can do), could their work be kept as an example when the question and response are added to the database? Who would use their work, and how?

What happens if there is an error in a canned response? What if I say “increase” when I meant “decrease,” or “north” when I meant “south?” If the advisor who is deciding on which response the student should receive doesn’t have the background to know the difference, will the error ever be caught? Or will it rear its ugly head in perpetuity?

What happens if we learn something new that changes everything? Will this system trap the old understanding forever, like an insect in amber? That is perhaps the most chilling outcome of handing off the job of teaching to an entity unable to think critically about the information it dispenses.


See what the students think: Instructional Model Survey

Categories: Distance education and e-learning, The business of education | Tags: , , , , , , | 2 Comments

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