For many years I’ve been arguing that instructors must create their own classes, and their materials (like this stuff) when possible. We should automate only those things that are purely factual or arguably objective, such as multiple-choice quizzes of factual information. We should avoid pre-packaged materials and course cartridges, picking and choosing those elements which forward our own pedagogy, not that of “learning teams” or publishers wanting to sell texts and ancillaries. I was taught one reason for this very early on by Louisa Moon, who in 1998 advised me to create online lectures that spoke in my voice, because at the time we were worried that others might take the lectures we created and give them to others to teach with, without credit or thanks. Now the reason is a little more complicated.
As the years have passed, my own pedagogical goals have focused more on student discovery, creation and writing. The historical facts I like to leave to Wikipedia and multiple-choice quizzes. All my lectures and materials are my own or I have found them. I use no course cartridges (I only ever used them for quiz questions anyway), and often eschew even a textbook. I do artisanal online teaching.
But while I have been exercising my pedagogy and DIY skills, the market and the trends move in a different direction. This week I attended a session where a publishing company showed us history software, including a piece that could grade essays for us. Some of the other professors in the room admitted this would be helpful, since we have too many students and want them to do so much writing. I, on the other hand, warned that machine-graded essays is a step toward either having grad students teach our classes or having us teach hundreds of students. Other historians’ responses to the invitation to participate in helping create computer essay grading are here. The current popularity of MOOCs bears out the concern about teaching massive classes, and so does this review of concerns from back in 1998.
But I notice that some of my own changes also begin to lean toward the dark side. A few students on last year’s evaluation said they wanted more feedback on their weekly writing, which I was grading only via a self-assessment at the mid-point and end of the class. I wanted the emphasis to be on practice rather than grading, but they claimed that they did so much work they wanted more feedback. Since it would be impossible for me to give individual feedback to weekly writing assignments, I instead implemented the “graded post”. Writing posts are now randomly graded, with the grades aggregated for 20% of the total grade. I thought it would go faster if I created qualitative scales, which took me quite awhile to create but then could be used to provide feedback more quickly. But I have students now who are angry at the feedback, who want details on exactly what the ratings meant, or who can’t tell the scale itself from their own ratings. They are more unhappy now then when they saw the writing as practice and it got graded twice a year (for the same 20%, BTW).
Then, when a colleague came to me overwhelmed by grading essays, I suggested the ratings as a possible way to speed things up, since we know what the errors and issues are going to be. Scales can be super handy. I suddenly realized I was suggesting, and doing, a certain amount of automation. No! That is the path to demons offering publishers’ cartridges and computer-graded essays, assigning us to teach 400 students without any help, devaluing our labor and our knowledge and turning us into pushers of education rather than teachers.
On the other hand, it is insane to provide every student with individual feedback on every bit of work they do. I know many professors who sacrifice family time and sleep time commenting in detail on stacks of essays. I’ve been guilty of it myself. And then we know that less than half the students read the feedback we’ve painstakingly given, and less than half of them implement any suggested changes. But we keep doing it because we care, we want to communicate to them, we want them to learn and do better next time.
So what is the fine line between automation, where the work isn’t ours and may be taken from us or increased to unreasonable quantity, and insanity, where we give feedback to all on everything and sacrifice our off-the-job lives?
Some of the answer may lie in giving the right feedback to the right people at the right time. In my own class, for example, I think I’m doing it too often, which is stifling creative work and causing a focus on the grade. For the stack of essays, we could ask students to write “Comments, please” at the bottom of work where they want comments. Those who miss that in the instructions likely wouldn’t benefit as much from the comments anyway, and those who don’t read them won’t bother.
There must be other ideas, too?