… a variant of what they used to say under communism: You pretend to pay us and we pretend to work.

Here, it’s You pretend to teach us and we pretend to learn. Students are supposed to understand that they will get little intellectual benefit from a quickie encounter with some PowerPoints and an invisible drudge. They are expected to be willing to part with a lot of money for this, because it means that with little effort on their part (or on the part of whoever is taking the course for them) a respectable university is going to give them a credential that will lead to a bigger salary.

The university is expected to make a fortune by hiring cheap drudges to vaguely oversee a course already long set up by a third party specializing in such “packets.”

The implicit bug in this transaction is the emergence of a student or students who are both naive and want to learn. No one has ever told them what the implicit transaction is. And they actually want a professor with expertise and commitment to teach them something.

In this situation, you are on a collision course, and the university may at least have to reimburse, and at most have to deal with a lawsuit.

UD‘s university, GW, has now had to deal with each of these outcomes. A few years ago, the chair of its physician assistant program gave two required online courses about which students “reported they [all] received an A … but received no instruction.” They got refunds and the professor had to go away. (She got a job at the University of Texas, where I guess they find her skill set attractive.)

And now GW faces a class action lawsuit by a bunch of people who took Security and Safety Leadership online. They claim they couldn’t find the instructor at all; the instructor did not respond to emails. The course, they say, was a bunch of PowerPoint slides taken from in-class courses but simply put on the screen without any online lecturing to accompany them.

Or any translation. Here’s one of the PowerPoints:

“Implementing intelligence-led model
“Conditions and requirements:
“Law intelligence can be successful if they have a robust intelligence gathering capabilities.
“If you they strong analytical capabilities.
“If you they strong problem solving capabilities.”

That’s worth $30,000, no?

The problem with defending against online course lawsuits – the reason GW is un p’tit peu up shit’s creek – is obvious. Everything’s written down. Grab a screenshot and take it to the judge. If this course’s drudge turns out to be not even up to existing drudge standards, that will be obvious to anyone who can read.

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4 Responses to “The implicit transaction underlying some (by no means all) credit-bearing online courses at American universities is…”

  1. Contingent Cassandra Says:

    The student who actually wants to learn is definitely the fly in the ointment in this business model (and it only takes one, even one every few years).

    One thing I noticed reading through one of the linked articles, though, is that it seems that in this case that part of the problem was that the program *didn’t* buy a well-produced but essentially vacuous “packet,” instead they tried to turn their flawed (but probably adequate to support a face to face lecture) powerpoints into instructional materials, without even recording the lectures that went along with the powerpoints. And apparently the reading weren’t well-scanned, either.

    Those strike me as significant issues, but also as ones associated entirely with a portion of the learning process that should take up a relatively small proportion of a graduate class — information transfer.

    The more serious issue — that the instructors weren’t as present as they needed to be to guide student interaction — gets much shorter shrift, and I fear it’s entirely possible that some students, if they’d gotten fewer powerpoints (even with lectures) and readings, and more well-facilitated interaction, might still have complained that they “had to teach themselves.”

    Of course, then there would be a virtual paper trail of facilitated interactions and emails and carefully-crafted prompts for assignments and interactions that would show the instructor leading the students through the process of providing a modicum of information/ideas, but also, and more important, drawing out the students’ own professional experiences so far and helping them reflect on and share them (as well as on some case studies or similar hypothetical scenarios).

    tl;dr: it sounds like there were some real problems with the course, but recorded lectures and better-edited powerpoints might not have solved them (and if the in-person graduate curriculum consists mostly of lecture, then I’m not sure those students are getting their money’s worth either).

  2. Margaret Soltan Says:

    Contingent Cassandra: I agree with all of that. Starting with the last thing – there are plenty of ways in which non-online courses can be inadequate, and the way you suggest is one of them: grad courses that are more lecture than anything else. And then your larger point – that for obvious technical reasons online courses tend to be “information-transfer” heavy, and that students need and expect discussion, interaction, challenge, with professors AND fellow students, in real time – is important too. I would add that given the dumb and demoralizing feel of some online courses, students aren’t going to “show up” much either, in any really motivated sense. Why then, the instructor will ask herself, should I make an effort? So both sides of the transaction – instructor and student – tend to be cynical at best and asleep at the wheel at worst.

  3. theprofessor Says:

    Administrators desperate for any kind of revenue to keep themselves and the basketball team in the style to which they have become accustomed; faculty who haven’t seen an annual raise greater than 1.5% in the last 15 years; students who can’t bear to look away from their phones for more than 30 seconds at a time OR read anything written above a grade-school level…it’s an iron triangle of enablers and enabled.

  4. Jack/OH Says:

    “I never knew how easy it was to make money.” Quote from the owner of a local proprietary college as recalled by a relative of mine who taught there.

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