The other digital divide

I read carefully a recent article in the San Diego Union-Tribune called Online Class Takers Less Likely to Pass. I am interested in online successful retention rates, the percentage of students passing the class. For online classes at community colleges, successful retention has always hovered around 10% lower  for online than traditional classes.

The 10% holds. According to the article, online class successful retention rates are about 60% at California community colleges vs 70% in traditional classes. The article wants to examine why.

But it also presents an even bigger gap. The article says:

Researchers also found that achievement gaps are exacerbated in the online world. For example, the gap between white and African-American students in traditional classes was 12.9 percentage points; that widens to 17.5 points in online courses. They said that might be partly a reflection of the digital divide, where some students don’t have access to computers and broadband.

I’ve heard this argument many times, that the digital divide makes it hard for students to access the technology they need to be successful in online classes. I think someone needs to acknowledge that this is far less true now, in this state, in this country, than anywhere, ever.

Historically, those with lower incomes tend to purchase items for social reasons, even at the risk of sacrificing quality in housing and food. This has been true since at least the Victorian era, and Thorstein Veblen even wrote a book about it in 1899. I have a number of socio-economically disadvantaged students, and they all have smart phones.

As for race, according to Pew research, more AfricanAmerican and Hispanic people in the US have smart phones than “white” people. And, if we want to get away from race and look only at income, 47% of people earning less than $30,000/year have a smart phone.

Although I don’t recommend taking an online class on a smart phone, many of my students do.

In addition, all the college’s students have access via our computer labs on all our campuses, and local public libraries.

This is not that kind of digital divide.

Someone needs to talk about three very real reasons that there is an offset online achievement gap for certain groups:

1. The primary pedagogy of online class continues to be text-based.

For most online classes, the assignments include reading text. Lots of text. And students must write for most of the heavy General Education classes, and they must do it in standard written English, at the college level, on their smart phone or a crowded library. It seems to me likely that those who do poorly with text would have a better chance of success with alternative assignments. That said, such assignments may not be considered appropriate by the instructor as a way of determining whether material was learned. In my history classes, you must write.

2. Students expect flexibility of time to mean less time.

This is mentioned briefly in the article, that students may enroll thinking an online class will be less work. I think it’s just a confusion between flexibility and total time. Self-directed students budget time appropriately, but others assume that because they can work any time, the total time for the class will somehow be different. If you ask students how many classes they can handle during a semester, they often assume they could handle more if the classes were online.

3. The lives of those struggling to meet basic needs is not conducive to the concentration required of online classes.

Here we have to make the jump from race, which is the focus of the article’s statement, to class, which is more to the point. When you are raising your siblings and carrying two low-paying jobs to feed everyone, even if you have a smart phone there may be no good space in which to work. There’s no time to go to the library. I have a number of students from military families and others with very complex arrangements at home. I have students who have been thrown out of the house and are living in their car. For these people, the time spent in a classroom may be the only time they have to focus on the material. Online classes are a poor option.

This last one is the divide no one wants to talk about, because it involves getting into a deeper discussion of poverty, and the lack of social services and public money available to help. Start talking about this, and you must talk about food stamps and living in a country that provides help for tuition at community colleges but can’t help people with hunger and living circumstances. It’s easier to blame poverty itself for failing to provide the means to buy technology.

If the reason for achievement differences were access to technology, the gap would have narrowed in this age of the rapidly increasing adoption of mobile technologies. But it hasn’t – the 10% hasn’t budged. It won’t surprise me if the larger gap holds too.

After over a decade of this, I’m looking forward to the discussion of the digital divide getting broader.


Paying it forward for extra credit

Yes, of course I offer my students some things to do for extra credit. But near the end of the semester, the last thing I want are more things to grade.

So I do things like Glogster poster assignments, or a speed quiz. But this semester I did something different. I asked them to make a video clip answering the question, ”What’s one tip you would give to a new student in a MiraCosta online class?” Then I put a few of them together to help future students:

I didn’t announce it. I just put a link called “Extra Credit – Short video” in a Moodle forum. The exact wording of the assignment was:

For up to 3% extra credit, create a video of yourself answering the question “What’s one tip you would give to a new student in a MiraCosta online class?” I will be creating a MCC version of a video like this one. Your video should be about 15 seconds long.

Post your video to YouTube and embed it in this forum (do not attach a media file).

Privacy issues:  

  • If you don’t want to appear on camera, you can do a paper slide video instead.
  • Do not use your name in the video unless you want it made public.
  • If you need your video to remain private, put the setting as private in YouTube, give me permission ( to view it, and put the URL here.

Important: to get extra credit, you must indicate in your post whether or not I have your permission to use the video in public, because I plan to put these together for next semester’s students.

Grading criteria:

3 -  one great tip, articulate, good production values (video and audio), filmed on Oceanside or San Elijo campus, includes statement of permission to use

2 – one very good tip, articulate, OK video and audio, filmed outside anywhere, includes statement of permission to use

1 – one good tip, fair video and audio, filmed inside

I came up with it because I was looking around for a cool video for students new to online classes, one that preferably had students in it instead of some prof telling students what’s what. And I found very, very few (including the one I used here as an example for them). So I decided they could help me do it.

It took very little time for me. They did the video work, obviously. There were a few too many phone videos, and not as much emphasis on quality as I would have liked, but since I made it an option in all five of my online classes, there were plenty of clips (over 20) to choose from. I didn’t by any means use all the good ones – just some. I liked the result so much I wrote the students saying I hoped to use this as an example to other teachers and on my blog as well as a resource for students, and to let me know if that wasn’t OK. Everyone was cool.

Technology: I downloaded from YouTube using a Firefox plugin. I took the ones with low sound and used Quicktime to extract the audio, then Audacity to boost it and do some noise control. Then I dropped the resulting QT files into iMovie.

I highly recommend this!

Navigating the treacherous waters of the LMS

A student wrote me last week asking when the extra credit is due in her class. Since I had put the due date next to big red letters as a label in Moodle, I told her the date (of course) and asked if she was able to see it at the site. I sent her a screenshot to be (a bit impatiently, I admit) helpful:


She replied, thanking me and telling me she hadn’t seen it because she uses the “list on the left”. Confused, I asked what she meant. To me the screen looks like this – no list on the left.


It turned out she is using the Navigation menu, which I have docked on the left side. I never use it.

I looked at it and noticed it didn’t have any of my labels, just a list of the Moodle activities that have links:


Here’s that week as I designed it, in the center column, the main page:


 Notice that my labels, which have the due dates, are not in the Navigation menu. This prompted me to tweet:


The Navigation menu, which surely more than one student is using, cannot be removed, even if I were running my own installation, which I’m not.

So here is where the technology forces me to change my method, and messes with my design. These things are due every week on the same day. I have the labels to mark them clearly, and they are convenient to replicate throughout the class. They also set a clear pattern, like a calendar.

But if students are using the Navigation menu, and I cannot stop them, my method is poor, and it would be better to put the dates in the description of each activity, or at least have “Due Tuesday” in the title of the activity.

However, what happens when I have a reading assignment from a book? I have one class coming up this summer where I am using a textbook, because I haven’t yet edited a satisfactory version of my Wikipedia-based textbook. So my Moodle page looks like this:


The lectures will appear in the Navigation menu, because they will be linked. But students will not be able to see the reading assignment, because it is a label, because there is nothing to link it to — it’s a real, page-ridden textbook. To fix this, I’d have to create a page for each reading assignment, which is likely what I will have to do.

Students will also not see my introduction to each week’s material. :-(

Hours await me of removing labels I had painstakingly created for five classes, and making activity pages for things that are not activities, all because students are using a Navigation menu to navigate. Super.

Lecture, sources & discovery

Lecture is not about discovery, unless it is the discovery of how the professor processes and uses information. It can be excellent modelling. When I talk through a historical subject, and its significance, I can model how historians think.

But most professors lecture in order to relay information. This always seemed silly to me, since the “information” was in the book. Now the “information” is on the web. But if they don’t read the information, and understand it, they can get it from the lecture.

In my online lectures, there is indeed information. It is told from my perspective, and everything about it (including what I choose to discuss) represents my interpretation. Because it contains events and dates, and explains them chronologically, it constitutes “content” in the class. My online lectures include my own writing (recorded in audio), links to websites, embedded video, and specially marked links to primary sources.

These sources were originally collected in a paper workbook. Now each unit’s collection is on a web page. Some of them have audio reading the documents (as I’d like to do with Edmund Burke). Questions on these documents are included in the lecture quiz each week.

In “discussion”, my students do not discuss, but rather post their own primary sources, then write about several of the ones posted and the way they tell us something about that era. Through this process I teach historical writing (thesis and evidence).

This week something interesting happened.

In my Depression lecture for US History, I feature a section on Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds, his radio broadcast from Halloween 1938:


But not until a student posted it as a YouTube video did any of them, as far as I can tell, actually listen to it.

Then this happened:


So I’m thinking. No one went to find the audio before, but they watched a video (that’s really just audio) posted in the forum. Someone was interested because a fellow student posted it. Sure, she posted it because it was mentioned in lecture (maybe), but a student actually experienced it because it was posted by another student rather than by me.

So….back to those other primary sources, the ones I actually assign. Those written primary sources are posted by me as part of the lecture. I suspect few actual read them except to answer quiz questions.

Perhaps if they discovered them instead of me providing the sources? We already do that – they find and post sources every week. Maybe I shouldn’t select sources at all. Perhaps the collection they make is fine – especiallly if they actually look at or listen to what the others post.

I must think on the implications of instructor-provided content. We have this idea that instructors need to curate content. I could do that in a different, more engaging way. But first I need to be sure that, at least when it comes to primary sources, I should be doing it at all.

The assumption of informality?

In terms of social communication and interaction, I am not a stickler. I am not offended by spelling and capitalization errors in emails to me or in social networks.

Student work in my discipline, though, is more formal. I have expectations for clear college-level English writing, with all its rules. That is the communication form of a university education. Proper construction, grammar and spelling (and an advanced vocabulary) make the clear presentation of complex ideas possible. They are required.

I suspect now that in online classes, though, there is a tendency to transfer the informality of other online communications into college work. Because it’s the web, the student default is to communicate informally.

A number of years ago, I changed the way students submit their written work. Having read about and seen the benefits of students being exposed to the work of their peers, I have them submit their writing in a forum rather than privately to me via a test or essay. I assess the work in that forum, but only the student can see his/her own grade. I then point to the best work as examples. At the time I changed over, the literature and anecdotes claimed that students writing “in public” in this way are more careful with their work, because it is being seen by their colleagues rather than just the teacher.

I may be seeing the opposite. Their writing is often poor in their assignments. My colleagues, whom I consulted on this problem, think that I may not be communicating high enough expectations at the beginning of the class. And that may be true – since it’s “in public”, I tend to let them practice, commenting generally on any overall problems of content or construction. I have promised myself to enforce proper writing (through grades – that’s the only “enforcement” we have) earlier in the semester next time.

But I am very interested in defaults when it comes to education, i.e. what do most students think when they use this technology? what do most students automatically do when asked to complete a task? where do most students get lost? how do most students assume things should be?

And I wonder whether the fact that they are writing in a student forum means that the default is to write informally. Since I provide a fairly rigid structure for the assignments, the informality comes out in the form of sloppiness in vocabulary, spelling and grammar. I have assumed thus far that they don’t have the proper skills to write at the college level. But one colleague assures me that they do, if only my expectations are raised.

I wonder also whether those who demand that written work be submitted in a Word document, rather than inside an LMS assignment box, get a higher level of work. Perhaps a Word document implies greater formality than a submission to the teacher, which implies greater formality than a post in a forum. I do have anecdotal evidence: I asked my on-site class to write a paragraph about an article, typed and submitted on paper. The level of writing they exhibited was higher than in the assignments they submit online.

So I’m not sure the extent to which the default of informality is a factor. Do they really not know how to write college-level English, or has no one ever expected it from them? Do they assume that because it’s online it isn’t formal? And are their levels of formality implied by the technology, and they simply follow?

Student authentication and the Hays Code

Recently, my college (and many others) have been subjected to demands that we provide solid “authentication” of our online students, in a late and yet hurried attempt to comply with a federal law from the 2008 amendment of the Higher Education Act*.

Ostensibly “student authentication” means somehow proving that the students who take our online classes are the same ones who registered. (This implies that some of them are not, of course – we know that students may have others take classes for them, and that it’s easy to do this online.)

The 14th c. University of Paris,
a hotbed of plagiarism

We ignore, of course, that this form of cheating also happens in the classroom, where we do not force students to show ID and it’s possible to have a mom take an entire class for her kid. We ignore that our on-site students may have others write their papers for them, or buy papers. Entire degrees have been earned by people who were not the ones enrolled, at least since around the year AD 1150 or so.

We react to these problems nowadays by freaking out and instituting methods right out of George Orwell’s 1984: video cameras that watch students take exams (1), keystroke analysis (1), thumbprint verification (2), double-level passcodes.

The big, easy solution is proposed by those who believe in the true “authentication” provided by Learning Management Systems in conjunction with student enrollment systems (3). When a student applies and is given an ID and password to the enrollment system, we assume they are who they say they are. Then we carry that assumption into an LMS that has data fed to it by the enrollment system.

All other places except the LMS are considered “insecure”, because only the enrollment system-LMS password link is considered proper verification in the absence of the more draconian methods listed above.

I have argued extensively and in multiple venues that the structure of the standard LMS adversely influences the pedagogy of online teaching, especially for novice instructors (4). But the days are clearly coming when we will be forced to use the college-supported LMS and only that system (this is already true for many people at many colleges). We have tried to avoid it at my college by developing various policies through faculty power channels, all of which have been gradually dismissed.

A more reasonable approach than either Big Brother or LMS/enrollment is the argument of pedagogy as verification. Teachers should know a student’s writing style, and be able recognize when they vary from it. Frequent assignments, of course, are necessary to do this, and it’s all highly subjective. One way to manage this subjectivity is to implement requirements that faculty offer a certain type and number of assignments, or use particular strategies for assessments (5). One should not give assignments, for example, that can be easily purchased or copied from elsewhere. While I agree that we shouldn’t do this anyway (unless it’s part of analyzing such works), forcing an instructor to change how they do assignments is as bad as forcing them to use the LMS.

The issue here isn’t one of technological appropriation and student verification. It’s an issue of pedagogy and academic freedom. The professor’s right to teach a course with their own methods is clearly undermined by each of the proposed “solutions” to student verification. Gradually American citizens have been deprived of their civil liberties in the name of national security, and college instructors are experiencing the same in the name of student verification. And yet colleges consider these as technical problems, and few faculty are doing anything about it. Many faculty who do not teach online respond to such issues with the same learned helpless they use to repond to educational technology in general.

haysposterThe only hope, since this incursion cannot be stopped, is to respond to it like Hollywood responded to the Hays Code (6). The Hays Code, in all of its horrid repression of creative expression, forced movie makers to be even more creative. To get around the rules, they came up with new methods, techniques, and memes. The result was an era of screwball comedies and cool mysteries. Many stuck to the rules but got around the intent of those rules, designed to produce only “wholesome” entertainment.

Of course, they also re-cut great films from before 1930, and the restrictiveness affected film-making until the 1960s.

I am trying to determine an appropriate response to the Hays Code atmosphere that is infecting online teaching. Surely somehow the restrictiveness could lead to more creativity?



* The push actually isn’t the 2008 law, but the recent popularity of MOOCs and the desire of many to have have universities accept them for credit. Since they are open courses, often on open systems, the verification issue is more obvious.


(1) Mary Beth Marklein, Colleges try to verify online attendance, USA Today, July 16, 2013

(2) Adam Vrankulj, Human Recognition Systems to launch platform for student ID and attendance verification,, June 27, 2013.

(3) Jeffrey L. Bailie and Michael Jortberg, Online Learner Authentication: Verifying the Identity of Online Users, Journal of Online Learning and Teaching, vol 5, no 2, June 2009.

(4) Lisa M Lane, Insidious Pedagogy: How Course Management Systems Impact Teaching,
First Monday, Volume 14 Number 10 (27 September 2009).

(5) Justin Ferriman, How to Prevent Cheating in Online Courses, LearnDash, July 11, 2013.

(6) The Hays Code