Fear, Micromanagement and Standardization

We recently concluded the Online Teaching Conference at my home campus. I presented on “Enhancing Your Class with Web 2.0” (video here) and went to a number of presentations. I was struck by the updated atmosphere — so many more people have taught online now, and the approach to doing so is maturing in many ways. No more workshops on coding html or using desktop apps to create things, and no specific sessions on course management systems. And no more fear of online, or defensiveness about online teaching. No need anymore to defend what we do. I didn’t even see much fear about shifting education toward a more student-centered approach (I’d say the ratio on that was about 50% traditional/50% new wave.) The fear, instead, has shifted.

Now we seem worried about management. This online education thing is so big, and so good, who’s gonna manage it all? I saw middle management, micro-management, covert management, and mismanagement. Management based on open administrative access to everyone’s online class, and management based on the “many instructors, one course” canned course factory model. In fact, the keynote set the tone with this last one.

The speaker was Linda Thor from Rio Salado College, “All Aboard the Digital Express”. While the train analogy ended early, by the end I definitely felt like I’d been run over by a Burlington Northern. Rio Salado has 31 full-time faculty (who each only teach one class) and 1,050 part-timers. The courses, it took me awhile to understand, are canned. Instructors are hired to facilitate, but they do not control any content or design their classes. The courses are designed by a team including an instructional designer and “content expert”. (Anytime someone calls me, a professor of history, a “content expert”, I know something is wrong.) How we design our courses IS teaching — structuring material according to ones own pedagogy is crucial. To limit teaching to interaction with students about someone else’s “content” is to create a tutorial relationship, not a professorial relationship. The response on the part of the audience, though, was astonishment at the scale of the operation, the 50 different start dates. And I noticed that Dr. Thor kept emphasizing customization (of their CMS, of their textbooks), which sounded vaguely like a bow to academic freedom, but obviously meant that the administration customizes, but for the faculty all is standardized.

The best part of the sessions, and the other keynotes, was the opportunity to learn from each other. Participants brought up problems, issues, practical suggestions. Almost all of us, I’m sure, came home with new ideas. But the thread of fear was present in every session. “Horror stories” — students complained that one instructor didn’t answer their emails for ten weeks! (I’ve been reading “Made to Stick” by the Heath Brothers, and can tell you that any message with a specific detail like “ten weeks!” will stick better than a vague complaint that he didn’t answer emails often enough). Every anecdote was footnoted with a “we all know we’re not that derelict in our duties, but we know some who are”. There were continual veiled accusations against instructors who shirk, who think online is on vacation. At one point, I even bristled when an instructor implied that the good instructors answer every post in a discussion forum. Amidst the holier-than-they attitude was a sense that someone oughtta do something, make a law, enforce some standards.

Online education has expanded quickly, like an enterprise. In any enterprise, there are those who might take advantage. And this is no different for college professors who are in a classroom. Some shirk. They use the lectures they wrote in 1972, and mumble them to their classes, or read from the textbook, or give only Scantrons and scores. It can mean incompetence, or teaching the way they were taught, or the perception they hold an easy job, doesn’t matter. The only real difference is that technology makes it easier to observe, interfere with, and standardize an online rather than an on-site class. Only a year or two ago, faculty responded to such interference as they would to a classroom invasion: you are welcome to observe my work when I’m being evaluated, but I would expect you to inform me if you were sitting in on my class. Evaluation practices, even those that are annual or semi-draconian, are usually transparent. “Watching” someone’s online class needn’t be.

Setting standards for online classes, then checking on everyone to make sure the standards are being adhered to, makes good business sense. But education isn’t a business, and when you mess with academic freedom it’s not long before institutional forces control content (as they do at Rio Salado) and instruction itself. And what’s encouraging acceptance of this incursion is a reversal of the argument about the role of online classes.

It used to be that everyone emphasized that online and on-site classes were the SAME — same curriculum, instructional ideas, transferrability. This was necessary to create acceptance. But now the emphasis (and I noticed this at every session) is on how online is DIFFERENT from on-site face-to-face classes. Of course, as I heard from a session which briefly discussed the book “The No Significant Difference Phenomenon“, this simply isn’t true. Teaching, really, is teaching.

Regardless of the method of “delivery”, college-level teaching is supposed to encourage depth of thought in response to controversial ideas. It’s trendy to call this “critical thinking”. In many ways, deep thinking results from intellectual discomfort, something faculty may be disinclined to encourage from their position under an administrative microscope. College-level teaching is also to some extent an exploration of the subject from the instructor’s viewpoint as an expert (again, not just their “content”, but their viewpoint).

The concept of academic freedom emerges during times when the pedagogical approaches to content are threatened by a desire of controlling forces to clamp down on controversial ideas, as during the Red Scares. I think it’s time for it to return, before online courses become canned web module sequences, designed according to company-sponsored “research”, managed by administrators, tutored by faculty, and consumed by students in standardized formats.

4 comments to Fear, Micromanagement and Standardization

  • PJ

    I wonder if the use of a subject matter expert and an instructional designer is to allow professors time to do what they do best… teach. Maybe it really isn’t a conspiracy toward standardization and control, as you suggest.
    Just a different perspective!

  • My perspective here is not so much conspiracy, but that choosing course materials and designing ones own course to reflect ones pedagogy IS teaching. I would certainly be pleased for help from and instructional designer, but I am the “subject matter expert” and the teaching expert too!

  • Kelly

    Although I’m currently taking my first 100% online course, I have become a fan. I see the many benefits and I was surprised to read about the courses that are as you called them, “canned”. It seems there are always those willing to take advantage while the opportunity is there.

    In my opinion, the design and content of the class is a crucial factor in the success of the class. As a student, I look forward to my instructor’s opinion and style. In a “canned” class, is the teacher able to meet the need’s of the unique and ever changing group of students? What works for one class may not work well for another. What if you come across something new and exciting and want to implement it into your course? It seems like it really limits the instructor and what the class could be.

  • Louisa

    I have been considering this phenomenon from a somewhat Marxist perspective in terms of alienation of the teacher from the product (although I don’t generally like to think of students as products). By breaking down the human student-teacher relationship into its component parts, the profession is depersonalized and deprofessionalized. The role of the teacher is trivialized.

    I see this as similar to what happens with motherhood in surrogacy and other “birth technologies.” Separating out motherhood into its component parts — egg donor, gestational surrogate, contract parent, care provider — alienates the mother from the “fruits of her labor” (puns aside). When motherhood is broken down into its component roles, and these roles are assigned to different people, each role is trivialized and alienated from the product (although, again, I don’t generally like to think of children as products). Is the “real” mother the one who provides the genetic code, or is that merely the egg donor/vendor? Is the real mother the one who carries and gives birth to the child, or is that merely a “surrogate” womb-for-hire? Is the real mother the one who cares for the child, or is that merely a babysitter? Is the real mother the one who makes decisions in the child’s interests, or is that merely a guardian ad litem? The same analysis can be done on the roles of fatherhood.

    Similarly, when teaching is broken down into its component parts, it trivializes the teacher and alienates him/her from the fruits of his/her labor. Is the real teacher the one who designs and writes the class materials, or is that merely a “content provider?” Is the real teacher the one who designs the class interface, or is that merely a technological job of creating a CMS or a learning environment? Is the real teacher the one who interacts with the students or is that merely a “tutor?” Is the real teacher the one who gives feedback on assessments, or is that merely a “grader?” Broken down into its component parts, no one is responsible for “teaching,” for the very human relationship between learner and teacher, and for nurturing the mysterious process of learning.

    This phenomenon isn’t isolated to online teaching. At the K-12 level the standardization is rampant. School Boards choose the textbooks, state entities dictate the curriculum and the standardized testing at each level, learning outcomes are set schoolwide or even statewide, and publishers do their part to provide “how to” step-by-step instructions on each and every page of the standardized textbook so that they can be taught by non-teachers.

    Historian of technology, David Noble, compares the online teaching movement to the correspondence school movement of 100 or so years ago. Even prestigious universities entered the movement, encouraging students to study at home. Content providers were hired to write content for the courses, housewives were hired at low wages to grade assessments.

    In K-12 the deprofessionalization is obvious. The underlying message is that teachers cannot be trusted to teach. I have seen this at certain pay-per-view universities who are providing online courses. The course content is purchased at a flat rate from the content provider, and teachers’ roles are limited to grading and interacting. They have no control over the content of the course. I had the unusual experience of designing a course for one of these universities, and then having the course reconfigured in an unsuitable CMS from which I found I could not teach it! None of my content had been altered, but because of the way the content was arranged within the CMS, the emphases were radically altered, and this made the course unteachable from my pedagogical approach.

    Teaching is writing the syllabus, deciding on the learning outcomes, choosing the CMS or managing the flow of the course yourself, interacting with students formally and informally, creating content, selecting already created content, creating assessments, grading assessments, commenting on assessments . . . Teaching is all of this, just as mothering is all of the tasks of gestation, legal and day-to-day decisionmaking, and caregiving. On any given day I might be tempted to pay someone else to change the diapers or grade the papers, but in so doing I am giving away an aspect of the relationship that might be a keystone aspect. While I’m changing the diaper, I’m interacting with the child. While I’m grading the assessment, I’m interacting with the student. Even if that interaction has an unpleasant aspect, it’s part of the overall relationship formation, and for all I know it might be a crucial part. It might be, for example, that constructing the syllabus is the key role the teacher plays, and if I didn’t construct my own syllabus I might have the same experience I had when the CMS changed the flow of the content I had created. Even selecting the textbooks and materials not written by the teacher is an aspect of teaching.

    I don’t think this is only an issue with online teaching. Think of all of the publisher-generated powerpoints, test banks, and teacher’s editions, the collegewide learning outcomes, the departmental textbook selections, even the course outline of record. All of it demonstrates distrust in the teacher’s ability to teach, to a certain extent, whether that’s the state’s distrust in the teaching profession, the university’s distrust in the teaching ability of the community college teacher or the full-time teacher’s distrust in the associate faculty member.

4 comments to Fear, Micromanagement and Standardization

  • PJ

    I wonder if the use of a subject matter expert and an instructional designer is to allow professors time to do what they do best… teach. Maybe it really isn’t a conspiracy toward standardization and control, as you suggest.
    Just a different perspective!

  • My perspective here is not so much conspiracy, but that choosing course materials and designing ones own course to reflect ones pedagogy IS teaching. I would certainly be pleased for help from and instructional designer, but I am the “subject matter expert” and the teaching expert too!

  • Kelly

    Although I’m currently taking my first 100% online course, I have become a fan. I see the many benefits and I was surprised to read about the courses that are as you called them, “canned”. It seems there are always those willing to take advantage while the opportunity is there.

    In my opinion, the design and content of the class is a crucial factor in the success of the class. As a student, I look forward to my instructor’s opinion and style. In a “canned” class, is the teacher able to meet the need’s of the unique and ever changing group of students? What works for one class may not work well for another. What if you come across something new and exciting and want to implement it into your course? It seems like it really limits the instructor and what the class could be.

  • Louisa

    I have been considering this phenomenon from a somewhat Marxist perspective in terms of alienation of the teacher from the product (although I don’t generally like to think of students as products). By breaking down the human student-teacher relationship into its component parts, the profession is depersonalized and deprofessionalized. The role of the teacher is trivialized.

    I see this as similar to what happens with motherhood in surrogacy and other “birth technologies.” Separating out motherhood into its component parts — egg donor, gestational surrogate, contract parent, care provider — alienates the mother from the “fruits of her labor” (puns aside). When motherhood is broken down into its component roles, and these roles are assigned to different people, each role is trivialized and alienated from the product (although, again, I don’t generally like to think of children as products). Is the “real” mother the one who provides the genetic code, or is that merely the egg donor/vendor? Is the real mother the one who carries and gives birth to the child, or is that merely a “surrogate” womb-for-hire? Is the real mother the one who cares for the child, or is that merely a babysitter? Is the real mother the one who makes decisions in the child’s interests, or is that merely a guardian ad litem? The same analysis can be done on the roles of fatherhood.

    Similarly, when teaching is broken down into its component parts, it trivializes the teacher and alienates him/her from the fruits of his/her labor. Is the real teacher the one who designs and writes the class materials, or is that merely a “content provider?” Is the real teacher the one who designs the class interface, or is that merely a technological job of creating a CMS or a learning environment? Is the real teacher the one who interacts with the students or is that merely a “tutor?” Is the real teacher the one who gives feedback on assessments, or is that merely a “grader?” Broken down into its component parts, no one is responsible for “teaching,” for the very human relationship between learner and teacher, and for nurturing the mysterious process of learning.

    This phenomenon isn’t isolated to online teaching. At the K-12 level the standardization is rampant. School Boards choose the textbooks, state entities dictate the curriculum and the standardized testing at each level, learning outcomes are set schoolwide or even statewide, and publishers do their part to provide “how to” step-by-step instructions on each and every page of the standardized textbook so that they can be taught by non-teachers.

    Historian of technology, David Noble, compares the online teaching movement to the correspondence school movement of 100 or so years ago. Even prestigious universities entered the movement, encouraging students to study at home. Content providers were hired to write content for the courses, housewives were hired at low wages to grade assessments.

    In K-12 the deprofessionalization is obvious. The underlying message is that teachers cannot be trusted to teach. I have seen this at certain pay-per-view universities who are providing online courses. The course content is purchased at a flat rate from the content provider, and teachers’ roles are limited to grading and interacting. They have no control over the content of the course. I had the unusual experience of designing a course for one of these universities, and then having the course reconfigured in an unsuitable CMS from which I found I could not teach it! None of my content had been altered, but because of the way the content was arranged within the CMS, the emphases were radically altered, and this made the course unteachable from my pedagogical approach.

    Teaching is writing the syllabus, deciding on the learning outcomes, choosing the CMS or managing the flow of the course yourself, interacting with students formally and informally, creating content, selecting already created content, creating assessments, grading assessments, commenting on assessments . . . Teaching is all of this, just as mothering is all of the tasks of gestation, legal and day-to-day decisionmaking, and caregiving. On any given day I might be tempted to pay someone else to change the diapers or grade the papers, but in so doing I am giving away an aspect of the relationship that might be a keystone aspect. While I’m changing the diaper, I’m interacting with the child. While I’m grading the assessment, I’m interacting with the student. Even if that interaction has an unpleasant aspect, it’s part of the overall relationship formation, and for all I know it might be a crucial part. It might be, for example, that constructing the syllabus is the key role the teacher plays, and if I didn’t construct my own syllabus I might have the same experience I had when the CMS changed the flow of the content I had created. Even selecting the textbooks and materials not written by the teacher is an aspect of teaching.

    I don’t think this is only an issue with online teaching. Think of all of the publisher-generated powerpoints, test banks, and teacher’s editions, the collegewide learning outcomes, the departmental textbook selections, even the course outline of record. All of it demonstrates distrust in the teacher’s ability to teach, to a certain extent, whether that’s the state’s distrust in the teaching profession, the university’s distrust in the teaching ability of the community college teacher or the full-time teacher’s distrust in the associate faculty member.