I say “part 47″ because I’m sure I’ve posted at least 46 wacky things so far – I just haven’t called them that.
This wacky thing is about my US History classes. I offer two online sections of the class each semester, and have done for years. Thus, on the registration page, it lists two sections, each with a different section number (say, #1561 and #1562).
Invariably, both sections fill (not because everyone needs US History, but because everyone thinks they do – but difficulties in academic advising are a topic for a different post).
Also invariably, the first section numerically (here #1561) fills first, and that shows in red lettering when one tries to enroll. A logical person would see that it’s full and register for the other section.
Instead, every semester, a handful of students add themselves to the wait list for the first section, even when the other section has plenty of seats.
Now here’s the other wacky part. Every semester, the second section (here #1562) will contain a larger number of students who throughout the semester fail to follow instructions, and whose work is of significantly lower quality.
I am not sure what this means. Is it simply that students who register first for any particular class are naturally drawn to the first section, and they’re first because they plan ahead and can follow instructions? Since I encourage the wait-listed students to instead register for the second section, this might increase the number of students who don’t quite get it, and they combine with the students who added late, either for lack of planning or lack of interest in the course.
Whatever the reason, I can pretty much predict the grade distribution at the end of the semester, depending on the section number. Which seems kinda wacky.
Yes, I change stuff every semester (Jen Dalby likes to watch me prep, cuz it makes me tweet crazy things). Here’s what’s on for spring semester:
Expectation zone: percentage changes
I believe students expect the quizzes (based on reading, and factual retention) to count for more. This semester, quizzes are only 30% of the grade. I’m raising it to 50%. Primary sources, which they like and which require some research, have been only 20% – I’m raising it to 30%.
Back to the future : shorter and more frequent writing
Having gone the other way, from weekly writing, to every other week, to six assignments, to five, I am going back to the way I had it at first – weekly writing. The big change is that it won’t be as formal, even though it still scaffolds up to the final essay. The other big change is it won’t be “graded”. Rather, writing will be part of the “A bit of writing and conversation” forum. Students will be encouraged to post a short piece of writing based on their choice of primary sources, and converse with each other.
But I did it!: contribution grading will be based on completion
Instead of the Contribution Assessment, which I have used successfully for awhile (I admit it, I get bored), I am counting 20% of the grade (10% for each half of the semester) for the writing and conversation, all together. I intend to base this primarily on completion, but want flexibility for quality issues and to touch base with students in the middle of the class, which is what I liked best about the assessments. If I change my mind, I’ll do self-assessments.
Autobots roll out: automation for completion
I am turning on the Activity Completion feature in Moodle, and using it for the first time. The “bit of writing and conversation” is a checkbox on the main page – a single post marks it complete. Same for the primary source. For the quiz, completing it and getting an (automated) grade completes the task. Very few of my students fail the class because they can’t do the work – most fail because they don’t complete the tasks. Since I believe the tasks are important elements of practice, each one is low stakes but all need to be done. The green check (or lack thereof) on the main page will be obvious.
What I’m not changing
In a survey earlier this semester, students indicated that what they liked best were (1) my lectures, and (2) posting their own primary sources. So those aren’t changing at all. They didn’t like discussion, so that’s now optional and part of the writing forums.
But why change anything? (apart from, like, the boredom thing)
I am trying to answer a concern I have about this semester – the drop rate has been very high in all but one section. The drops mostly came at the beginning of the class. When I surveyed students who dropped, they told me the class was too much work. Interestingly, some wanted a class where they only had to log in once a week. I have not reduced the work at all, which I may regret later, but I am going to dare to use my experience to interpret what they’ve said.
I think part of the problem is that the class looks like too much work on the main page. Using Activity Completion makes the work more instantly visible, so they can see their progress and what’s lacking immediately. I am also removing the “labels”, or titles, for each section, so there is less text (a shorter list) to see for each week, while keeping the interactive syllabus format. For those who think they can do the class only logging in once a week, they can if they’re smart, by taking the quiz, posting their source, and posting their writing all on the same day. Since I don’t plan to “grade” conversation, if someone really doesn’t want to participate or talk to anyone, they don’t have to.
As with everything, we’ll see what happens!
I had a high drop rate the first week of class in several of the online sections, so I asked those who dropped to do a quick survey for me about why they dropped:
Because overload seemed to be an issue, I wondered what part of the class I might be able to do away with.
So I polled my students in the fourth week of class, asking them “What’s your favorite part of the class so far?” The result from those who responded out of five sections of History classes:
31 – the lectures
21 – the primary source readings linked from lecture
33 – posting my own primary sources
3 – the writing assignments
3 – the discussion forums
1 – connection with other students outside class
5 – the textbook (only two classes have a textbook – 4 of these were from the England class, which actually has only an atlas)
What’s interesting about this is that so few like discussion. Discussion is, actually, my most recent addition to the classes. I added it only because it was hard to discuss in either the primary sources boards or the writing forums, and there were some cool issues that we could do only in discussion, such as ways history connects to what’s going on today. So I set it up to be student-led, and not every week. We don’t do discussion on the six weeks we do writing. And after the first two discussions, I rarely participate. The activity level has been high, even though I have not set a specific number of responses or replies.
But they don’t like it, or at least don’t love it. I expected that they would like posting their own primary sources, but I didn’t realize they were even reading the sources linked from lecture, so that’s cool. The lectures – well, those are mine. I spent a long time constructing and revising them. They have video clips and lots of graphics and lots of, well, ME. So I’m glad they like them.
I wonder whether removing discussion would help the class seem less overwhelming?
Each semester, most of my online classes fill and have a wait list. I usually email the top several people on the wait list, and invite them to join before the class starts. Then I let in about 5 over the limit (which is 40 – too many, but that’s another post). This way the enrollment will balance down to about 40 by the time our official census occurs, at three weeks in.
But in two classes this semester, I’m down to 33. Usually only one section gets that low, and not until much later in the semester.
Why is this a problem, when 40 is too many for them to get to know each other, and 32 is about right? Because online classes are under the microscope everywhere. There are still people who don’t believe college classes can, or should, be taught online. I just last week heard about a college department all ready to go online, with skilled teachers, and then changing their mind upon hearing from an administrator that the subject just can’t be taught online. At our place, there is concern about the gap in “student success” (defined as those who finish with a grade of C or higher) between online and on-site classes.
Those of us doing this awhile know there are many reasons students might not be as successful online as they are on-site. We know that many students take an online class assuming it will be easier, or require fewer hours. We know they confuse flexibility with total workload. We know some don’t have the technical skills to know where to click or how to submit work. We know that some who aren’t prepared for college are even less prepared online.
But all this knowledge is based on experience, while admins like to focus on the less messy numbers. We do have some studies (like this one from 2005) that indicate some predictors of failure in online classes – students with a low GPA, young age, not taking an orientation, and a habit of dropping classes tend to fail. Another (from 2006) indicates that success online depends on time spent on the class, student initiative and student competence. This one from 2007 concluded that “self-regulated learning strategies” are essential. A 2011 study concluded that individual student attributes (including persistence, academic achievement, and time management) plus life factors (including resources, skills and time) predict both student satisfaction and success. By 2013 we see a study claiming that self-efficacy and “task value” are the biggest predictors. Some studies note which types of students fail more often: males, younger students, AfricanAmerican students, and low GPA students (here). And “students with higher levels of technology self-efficacy and course satisfaction” earn higher grades (here). Specifically referring to students who dropped out, another recent study showed that those who stayed in the class “had higher levels of academic locus of control and metacognitive self-regulation skills than dropout students” (here). An even more recent study decided that in addition to employment and academic preparation for the class, just the fact that the class was online was a predictor of final exam performance.
All of these suggest that the greatest predictors of student success reside in the student. And yet the pressure is on faculty, and the focus on instructional design. The implication is that if students succeed at high levels, it’s because we’re doing something right. If they don’t succeed, we’re doing something wrong. This view creates more pressure for cookie-cutter, idiot-proof, publisher-developed, team-created courses with no academic freedom or creativity for instructors.
So with such a high drop rate and such high stakes for me, I am surveying (anonymously, at a colleague’s suggestion) the students who dropped on or after the first day of the semester. So far, results are interesting. Most of them are saying that the class looked liked too much work, and that they wanted a class where they could log in just once per week. One said s/he dropped because the class wasn’t in Blackboard.
After years of designing my classes to provide quick, low-stakes assignments for the purpose of immediate feedback, so students can track their progress, this is a blow. I have no mid-term exam and no research paper – rather the writing is scaffolded, the quizzes are short and weekly, and the primary source posts take about half an hour of student time. The final exam is an essay they work on for several weeks, with feedback from each other and me.
Does this bring us to the last thing we know, but only anecdotally: that not all online instructors are requiring a similar workload for similar number of units? That my class is now too hard because other online classes are easier? And (a horrible thought) to what extent has my encouragement of online classes led to this?
Or does this bring us back to the studies, where student success clearly resides in student self-efficacy?
As they say, watch this space…
Well, we all know how I feel about textbooks, the adoption of which seems much more necessary for on-site classes (they basically refuse to read them online). I have dumped textbooks for my US History classes, which I teach online. I have an atlas (out of print – the next problem) for History of England. For modern Western Civ, I took the lectures I have online (which are lengthy) and adapted them with my set of primary sources to make a makeshift text, but that didn’t work well.
This semester I’m teaching early Western Civ in the classroom. I have used three texts in three years for early Western Civ. I didn’t want to do it, but this semester I went ahead and used a text I’d used before that wasn’t too bad, and refurbished a full set of 16 quizzes for them. I had tried to create my own out of Wikipedia, but had run out of time and was unable to deal with problems of the granularity of content.
We started the semester on Monday. By Wednesday I couldn’t stand the textbook and was standing in my office, hating it, at 10 minutes before class. The bookstore had neglected to purchase the text back in April, and had to rush copies to campus. I had visited the bookstore and couldn’t find them – they were turned sideways about 12 feet from their shelf tag, under another class’s tag. I counted 14 of them. I have 32 students. The universe was trying to tell me something.
I wondered what would happen if I dumped the text right then. Bad timing, I know. I decided to ask the students whether anyone had bought it, then see if those who had were ok with dumping it. We could write our own. Maybe we could put together the Wikipedia version I’d failed to create. Something. Anything.
So I went in and asked how many students had bought the text, since they were required to do so by that day. Three. Well, four if you count the one who had it on his Kindle. So I presented them with my problem, and my hatred of textbooks, and quickly discovered they basically felt the same way.
Then I told them the real problem behind the textbook issue, writing it on the board. I explained that there are three levels to my pedagogy:
- Facts – the building blocks of history. We don’t have to memorize them but we must have familiarity with quite a few.
- Interpretation – the use of those facts to support arguments, which I want them doing right away in their primary source work.
- Themes – which require analysis on a larger scale than interpretation, and where they get to choose their own path.
The difficulty was only with the Facts. How do we get them? What possible use is there for a textbook if it’s only for facts, when we can find those facts elsewhere?
When I presented my idea for creating our own textbook somehow, from open and available sources, half a dozen students got all excited and participated in a lively discussion of how that might work. One student asked if they were really qualified to do this. I told them of my failed Wikipedia effort.
How, I asked, should we decide what to do with the idea? Not all students were into doing it. Some might be happier with the same old thing. One of the excited students said we should vote. I explained that I was concerned about the minority, who would get overrun. Between their mumblings that majority rule was what democracy was all about, and mine about my experiences being in the minority on many votes, we decided we should somehow have choice. I explained the quizzes were written already, and they were based on the book. How about if I gave them the question bank in advance and they can decide whether to buy the book, use it in the library, or just look up answers online to study? How about if those who wanted to edit the new textbook didn’t have to deal with any of that, but would have more work out of class?
By the third class meeting, 14 students had gone ahead and bought the book anyway, I assume to preserve comfort and predictability. It didn’t work – most students did poorly on the first quiz. I’m hoping that’s a separate problem.
The editor students so far seem to want to use Google Docs instead of a Moodle wiki to put together the book. I think it’s a bad idea because I can’t fix anything in a Doc really (no HTML toggle), but they essentially told me that making it look good was my problem. And I want them to work where they’re comfortable and have a sense of ownership. Today I created the file in Google Drive, like they told me to.
So we’ll try it. It might succeed, it might fail.
It’s hard to be dictatorial about these things when I know that there is no best way to do this stuff.
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.