When the Sky Falls

A colleague recently asked for my opinion on two articles about the pandemic’s effects on higher education. The first is an interview with entrepreneur and NYU marketing professor Scott Galloway, who says that the current economic landscape makes higher education a tempting target for tech firms — the same point made by Kevin Carey and many others back in 2012.

I told you it wasn’t just a wooden horse.

The second is an op-ed by Glenn Moots, a philosophy and political science professor at Northwood University. Moots argues that online education lacks the “experiential learning, networking, and in-person collaboration, celebration, and commiseration” that students prefer.

Both Galloway and Moots distinguish between a college education and the college experience. The business model of many U.S. colleges and universities has long relied upon successfully selling the latter—i.e., “come here and you can continue playing the sport you played in high school for four more years while majoring in, oh, I don’t know, whatever.” The credential of the bachelor’s degree is an ancillary benefit one gets at the end, not the main product.

This is a business model that works until it doesn’t. The model is highly fragile because it assumes a static environment that conforms to one’s expectations. Given stagnant or declining household incomes, and shrinking numbers of 18-year old high school graduates in some regions, it has been an untenable financial strategy for many higher ed institutions for quite some time. The pandemic only made the model’s flaws more obvious. And thus we are now faced with an interesting economics question: how much are people willing to pay for the credential of a college diploma when the experience with which it has been historically bundled no longer exists? And which schools can survive at the price point they are now able to charge?

As Galloway points out, a few hyper-elite institutions offer credentials with such a high reputational value that they don’t need to worry about the college experience, or even, really, the education. Universities like MIT figured out nearly two decades ago that they could give away their curricular content for free and not damage their brands.

As a contrasting example, IPEDS data and IRS filings show that Northwood University lost 25% of its FTE undergraduate enrollment between 2007-08 and 2017-18 and suffered budget deficits in fiscal years 2012-2014 and 2018. Positive net revenue for the years in between came mainly from sales of assets. It looks like the demand for Moots’ “own little corner of academe”—the experience provided to full-time, campus-residing 18-22 year old students—was in decline long before Covid-19.

More Looking Backward

Continuing with my recent theme of evaluating my teaching over the previous semester:

My courses on comparative politics and Asia both concluded with simulations. I’ll discuss the latter in a future post. As I mentioned last month, I heavily modified my old Gerkhania exercise for comparative politics. The changes were based on a brilliant democratic government simulation that Kristina Flores-Victor of CSU-Sacramento presented at the 2020 APSA Teaching & Learning Conference.

As in previous versions of Gerkhania, students each received fictional identities as members of a newly-formed legislature in a multi-ethnic country with a history of civil strife (think Afghanistan). Over a series of three Webex sessions, I fed the class nine legislative proposals. Action on each proposal caused students to earn or lose political constituency points (representing support from voters) and political capital points (influence within the legislature). These effects varied in ways that corresponded to the identity of each participant.

At the opening and closing of each session, students could exchange constituency points at a 2:1 ratio for either political capital points or reward points that could contribute toward their course grades. Political capital points could be used to remove a proposal from the agenda, to prevent the legislators from voting on it, or to return it to the agenda. Students took a trivia quiz before the simulation began and prior to the second session so that they could acquire constituency and capital points to work with.

Every proposal that was voted down increased the probability that Gerkhania returned to a state of civil war at the end of the simulation by 1:18. If civil war occurred, legislators would lose all accumulated reward points.

Considerations for the future:

The effects of each successive legislative proposal, in terms of point changes, increased as the simulation progressed. The stakes associated with the initial proposals turned out to be too small to generate contention among students and need to be increased. The second trivia quiz can be scrapped for this reason.

I had built a very complicated Excel spreadsheet to track each student’s points as the simulation progressed. Using this spreadsheet for the first time, for a simulation that I had originally intended to run in the classroom, proved slightly problematic. I found it difficult to always correctly update spreadsheet cells with my eyeballs bouncing between windows on two different monitors. Also editing webpages so that students could track developments created delays during which students were idle.

A larger problem: although the simulation’s online environment seemed to negatively affect the amount of interaction between students, I think the small size of the class was the major contributing factor. As I’ve discussed before, these kinds of exercises seem to require a critical mass of participants, which this class didn’t have.

The pandemic most likely also had consequences. Campus classes ended at spring break, students scattered hither and yon, and the semester was extended by an extra week to make up for time lost in the transition to online instruction. By the last week, many students were probably just trying to finish the semester, had other concerns, and may not have been motivated to become heavily invested in the simulation.

Looking Backward and Forward

Expanding on my last post on failures from this semester:

From where I stand, information literacy skills are important, because they help one identify and demolish specious claims made by authority figures. An assignment that, for example, forces students to locate three peer-reviewed journal articles is practice in finding credible information. It also allows students to determine whether a topic is suitable for a semester-long research project.

To me, these outcomes are both beneficial and rather obvious. But from the students’ perspective, the assignment could simply be yet another meaningless hoop to jump through on the way to getting another A+ on a transcript. Given the sources many students cited in the different stages of their storymap projects, it looks like too many of them customarily take the latter approach to research.

Therefore, in future courses that involve research projects, I should create assignments that are limited to the task of locating scholarly sources and place those assignments at the beginning of the semester. I should demonstrate why this skill is useful outside of the classroom.

I’ve noticed a similar problem with student writing — really basic errors that indicate a lack of proofreading. I don’t expend more effort evaluating a student’s work than the student did creating it. But I do know that sloppy writing indicates sloppy thinking and that the former advertises one’s propensity for the latter to the rest of the world. Again, I should demonstrate early in the semester why it’s important to proofread one’s work before it reaches an audience. My favorite example? The missing Oxford comma that cost a dairy company US$5 million.

I’m also seeing, from the last few journal article worksheets students are submitting, that many still do not have a clear understanding of how evidence-based arguments are constructed in academic literature. An author typically poses a research hypothesis or question at the beginning of a journal article and concludes with the same hypothesis or question reworded as declarative statement. I.e., “Why is the sky blue?” in the introduction with “The sky is blue because . . . ” as the conclusion. Yet on worksheets some students are writing that the hypothesis is about one thing while the conclusion is about some other thing. So again, students need practice in understanding the components of a written argument in scholarly literature, and that practice needs to happen early in the semester.

In principle I’m talking about scaffolding. But many of my assignments are attempts at getting students to builds several different skills simultaneously. I think I need to disentangle my goals for these assignments so that they target only one skill at a time.

More Reasons to Go Back to Basics?

Per my philosophy of never letting a good crisis go to waste, I’ve already started thinking about what has and hasn’t worked in this unusual semester.

In my globalization course, students seem to have sufficiently mastered the tools needed to create storymaps. To my surprise, nearly all of them learned how to use the software during two in-class lessons led by our digital scholarship librarian.

Yet with the semester almost over many still don’t seem to understand that U.S. News and Forbes are not peer-reviewed academic journals. If I teach this course again — it’s rotating to a colleague next year — I should probably include assignments at the beginning of the semester in which students are explicitly graded on their ability to locate appropriate sources. Currently this information literacy skill is only assessed through the rubric attached to the three storymap assignments.

In my comparative politics course, I will soon try to run my Gerkhania simulation online for the first time. To make things even more interesting, the class is down to eight students and the simulation is heavily modified from previous versions. I’ll report what happens in a few weeks.

When I moved this course online a month ago, I converted a classroom exercise in analyzing journal articles into several graded assignments. In this type of assignment, students have to answer these questions:

  1. Article’s subject—what is the question, puzzle, or problem examined?
  2. What and where is the thesis?
  3. What is the theoretical perspective (rational actor, culture, structure)? How do you know this?
  4. What are the independent variables (causes) examined?
  5. What is the dependent variable (effect) examined?
  6. What is the conclusion of the author(s)?

My reason for doing this, other than filling up the remainder of an extended semester? It had become clear before the campus closed that students were often skipping over assigned journal articles and reading only the accompanying news stories that illustrated the articles’ theoretical arguments.

Some students are still unable to correctly identify an author’s thesis or conclusions — despite the classroom exercises during the first half of the semester. So in the future, students are going to get more instruction and more (graded) practice in how to read academic literature.

Monday Morning Advice

A few items from elsewhere that might be of help for instructors who are new to teaching online:

First, here are five reasons not to use timed exams. In my opinion thse arguments apply whether one is teaching online or face-to-face.

Second, here are some very practical, easy-to-implement techniques for becoming a better writer — suitable for both professors and students.

Last, methods of identifying whether your employer’s financial viability has suddenly gotten much worse — editorials that I wrote in 2017 and 2019.

Back to Basics

Probably most of the readers of this blog are now or will soon be teaching online, after the suspension of face-to-face classes on campus. For many, the change has been a frenzy of altering syllabi, searching for digital content, and learning how to use new tools. For me, it’s been the opposite — a welcome respite from routine distractions, and an opportunity to experiment.

I will admit that years of online teaching at the graduate level made moving my undergraduate courses online a straightforward process. And as one of my dear colleagues said about my habit of planning for potential worst case scenarios, “you’ve been waiting for this moment your entire life.” But I do see too many people frantically adopting technologies with which they are totally unfamiliar, because of the assumption that they have to replicate what they do in the physical classroom. And so they plan on live streaming video of themselves lecturing in fifty or seventy-five minute increments, which usually isn’t nearly as effective in meatspace as they think it is, and will certainly work even less well online.

To echo what Amanda and Simon have said — simply scroll back a bit to their most recent posts — job one is to figure out what students need to learn, and what will give them the best chance of learning it, given existing constraints. It’s not staying front and center to confirm for yourself how important you are.

That leads me to the larger, more ominous questions that Simon raises and their long-term implications for higher education. Is this a crisis, or an opportunity? Will the immediate responses to Covid-19 lead to permanent transformation, and if so, how can we best get from the former to the latter? As an anonymous author recently wrote on a discussion board for academics:

“After completing my first week in this new reality, I’ve realized that I’ve spent the majority of my time on actual teaching. All those other things like superfluous meetings, public events, admin-busy-body activities created only to justify someone’s frivolous job, extracurricular things that I get guilted into, etc. were all canceled because their delivery was face-to-face. And, you know what, it’s starting to become obvious that all that stuff was unnecessary in the first place.”

Syllabus Boilerplate for Online Teaching

You are welcome to copy and paste any of this text into your new syllabi. Documenting these types of policies at the beginning will save you time and trouble later on.

Time Commitment

Although this course does not require your physical presence on campus, it still requires that you commit the same amount of time as you would to an on-campus course. Per federal requirements, a 3-credit course equates to, on average, a minimum of 3 hours per week engaging with course instruction and an additional 6 hours per week completing assigned work outside of class. You will need to devote the same time and effort to an online course that you would to a course that meets in a physical classroom. 

Self-Directed Learning

This course may require independently engaging with information in text, video, or audio format; contributing to online discussion; completing writing assignments; and/or conducting research. While there might not be mandatory simultaneous interaction with the instructor or other students, regular and substantial participation in the course is required.  

Communication Plan

Contact me with questions about the course using your university email account or [LMS] communication tool (a [LMS] mail message, comment in a designated course discussion). I check my university email and the [LMS] course website daily during normal business hours and you can expect a response to your question within 24 hours, except on weekends or official holidays. 

Confidentiality

Students might connect concepts being studied in the course with personal experience. Confidentiality is necessary for a welcoming and effective learning environment. Students should not repeat, forward, or otherwise communicate information about other students to individuals not enrolled in the course, nor should they allow others access to the course. Violation of this policy can result in removal from the course. Do not reveal personal information that you do not want made public or that might place yourself or others in legal jeopardy.  

Civility 

The university is committed to maintaining a respectful learning environment in which students can express a variety of ideas and opinions. Uncivil, obscene, or disrespectful communication negatively affects the learning of other students and is not allowed. Disruptive behavior can result in removal from the course. 

Technology

This course might require the use of hardware and software that meets certain university-established compatibility standards; the ability to access, securely store, and export files in specified formats; the use of integrated video, anti-plagiarism, or other applications; or the access of externally-hosted course materials. Contact the university’s [insert name of IT support office and contact info] if you experience difficulties with any of the above. The instructor is not able to diagnose technical problems.

Tips for Moving Instruction Online

Still this?

Higher Ed is in crisis mode in much of the USA, with faculty at a growing list of universities being told that on-campus instruction is suspended until further notice. If you work at one of these institutions, here’s some advice:

First, a great analysis by Rebecca Barrett, assistant professor of sociology at Arkansas State University:

Please Do a Bad Job of Putting Your Courses Online.

Some mundane advice from me:

Design according to student learning outcomes

  • What activities will help students learn what you want them to learn? There are multiple options that serve the same goal, and some function well in an online environment.

Students benefit from consistent difference

  • Organize the course as a series of similarly-structured modules that include varied tasks; for example, readings + writing assignment + graded discussion + quiz in each module. Spaced repetition of activities with different cognitive demands aids learning. Students appreciate a routine — it helps them develop a schedule in a new environment.
  • If your students are (or were) full-time residential undergraduates without families, set deadlines for 10:00 pm so they aren’t awake past midnight.

Use a variety of content delivery methods

  • Convert lecture notes to brief essays or outlines. Create visual presentations with PowerPoint or Prezi. Assign e-book chapters or journal articles in the library’s databases.
  • Producing high-quality video is very labor intensive and nearly impossible to create on short notice without professional expertise. Audio must be captioned for the hearing-impaired. Instead use existing resources like Crash Course.

Include opportunities for student-student interaction; e.g., discussions

  • Require that students post substantial discussion comments by the halfway point in each week/module, and that they meaningfully respond to the comments of others.
  • Interact with students by regularly posting your own comments in discussions.
  • Grading discussions in Canvas is easy with a rubric and Speedgrader.

Testing

  • Your university’s learning management system (LMS) will grade multiple-choice and true/false tests for you.
  • Create a question bank first, then draw questions for a test from it. This will save time and effort in the long run.
  • Timed tests where students have on average only 1-2 minutes per question will minimize cheating. Some universities have purchased tools that are integrated with the LMS that lock down browsers (to prevent new windows from being opened) and monitor students activity during tests.

Writing assignments

Short, frequent writing assignments (1-2 pages per module) are better than only one or two longer assignments. Frequent practice and feedback = better student work.

Time spent grading can be greatly minimized with rubrics.

Specify file types (doc, docx, pdf) to ensure that you can read what students submit.

Build support networks

Your colleagues down the hall and across campus are valuable resources. Benefit from them. Someone probably knows a solution to the problem you’re struggling with, whether it be a technological obstacle or carving out work time at home when your child’s elementary school has closed.

These actions also improve your teaching in on-campus courses by making it easier for students to learn and by reducing the time and effort you expend on unsatisfying tasks.

Simulating for Instructional Continuity

My university is feverishly* trying to prepare for the disruptive effects of Covid-19. The main concern is a campus shutdown while the semester is still underway. I have created a table-top exercise on instructional continuity that I’ll be using for a hastily-scheduled faculty training workshop on Wednesday afternoon. The willingness of our library staff to host this event on such extremely short notice is greatly appreciated.

Don’t be this

My plan is for small groups of faculty members to sit at different tables with copies of the disruption worksheet linked above available for everyone. I’ll bring dice so that people at each table can generate random numbers. Faculty will discuss their answers to the questions with their table-mates and then I’ll convene the entire room for a short debriefing. There should be time for me to do some quick and dirty teaching on using a few basic Canvas LMS features to increase instructional resilience.

Feel free to use this simulation exercise for disaster preparedness efforts on your own campus.

*Yes, that’s an attempt at wordplay.

When Students Ignore Feedback

While I don’t comment on student writing nearly as much as some professors do, I expect students to at least read what I do write. A colleague recently pointed out that our Canvas LMS displays a date stamp at the top right of the Speedgrader web page when a student has viewed a previously-submitted assignment after an instructor has commented on it. I had never noticed this before, I guess because the date stamp’s font is rather small. Here it is, indicated by the red arrow:

This feature became very useful in a course in which students are required to write a series of memos that all have the same format. Last week, a student taking the course sent me this email:

I’m not sure what is expected from the assignments, my memo 3 was completely different from 2 yet your comment says see comments about memo 2. I am a second semester senior doing grad classes that had a 3.6 gpa last semester. Somehow I’m failing every single assignment in a freshman level class, while still attending every single class except one and participating in class basically every session. 

I looked at the student’s submissions for memos 1, 2, and 3 — no date stamp. My comments had been ignored. My reply to the student’s email:

The memo is a standard method of efficiently communicating information that is used in a wide variety of professional environments. I’m surprised you haven’t yet had much of an opportunity to practice this form of writing, so here is what I am willing to do: you can earn up to 10 points by emailing me by noon on Friday a memo that discusses how well you incorporated my feedback on your Memo 1, provided by my comments on your work on Canvas, into your Memo 2, and the same for Memo 3 in respect to my comments on your Memo 2.

Completion of my “extra credit opportunity” would have required the student to admit that he had not read my comments and thus ignored the feedback I had provided.

The student did not respond.