Foily thought of the day

Online teaching is a money-making scheme, but it’s not the successful, credit-earning students who make the money for the institution.  What makes unis money are the online students who drop out after three, six, or seven weeks of frustration, inattention to the work, and/or a failing grade on a paper or major assignment.  If you know that (for example) 15 or 20 students out of a class capped at 40 will drop out, then you don’t have to actually staff classes as though they’re going to have 40 real students.  Every student who drops our or walks away from a course leaving money on the table is pure profit.

Maybe uni faculty have missed this point because we actually think that education should be about, you know, educating people, not rooting for them to drop out.

I’m sure this is not an original thought, but it occurred to me yesterday as I talked to a fellow student at my yoga studio who was a full-time adjunct at our local CC.  She explained that the CC is all in on online ed–the educrats running the place think that it’s the future.  As usual, I’m skeptical:  it seems to me that the value of our CCs is that they offer college classes that are smaller than the big intro sections that our first-year students and sophomores take at Baa Ram U., and give students who don’t feel prepared yet to navigate a large university some confidence and training in college-level math, reading, and writing.  These are the kinds of students who need more help and coaching to figure out how to do college–and therefore, they’re the kind who are likely to throw money away on online courses unless and until they figure this out.

I’ve been thinking about why some students drop courses or (worse yet) remain enrolled after ceasing to attend class or to submit any work, forcing me to deliver an F at the end of the term.  If I have at least a few of these students every semester at a four-year university, then how much worse is the problem at a CC, which attracts students who are almost by definition either academically unprepared or otherwise unready for a four-year uni?  How much worse would it be when CC students are left to their own devices in an online course? 

The number of students I have every year who pay for courses but who don’t earn any credit also makes me wonder about complaints about the “high cost of higher ed.”  Really?  Do you think I ever just walked away from my classes at an expensive SLAC?  Maybe the problem is that it’s too affordable for many of our students to waste their time and money at Baa Ram U.

Most of what I know about online courses comes from Jonathan Rees at More or Less Bunk.  He might have something to say about this.

26 thoughts on “Foily thought of the day

  1. I knew that it was very profitable–that was Penley’s big initiative. At least so far on my campus, participation in online ed is voluntary. (I think my department has a retired proffie or an adjunct who offers 1 history course per year.)


  2. Doing online or distance education well isn’t easy. You’re right that a certain mindset maximizing profit by counting on failures is probably at work.

    Some online courses can work very well. Sadly, a lot of the online courses I see people promoting aren’t working well, especially for developing the ‘soft skills’ of analysis and communication.


  3. I think we may be engaged at some level in a form of revenue-racketeering. In our (off-line) course that all students in the uni have to take, every semester, every section, there are students like you mention, who stop coming but don’t drop even though it’s before the deadline to do so. These are the ones you *have* to give Fs to. But there are also often students who don’t START coming; they don’t appear for any of the early classes and they never take tests ot write anything. They also get Fs, and I’ve never had a one (out of hundreds over the years) appeal a grade. I’ve come to think they may not appeal the grade because they don’t hear about it, and in some cases that they don’t exist. Phantom workers on payrolls is an old tradition in this Commonwealth, and I wouldn’t put it past somebody to have adapted it to curricular uses. And as for the on-line side, don’t get me started.

    People should read Thomas Friedman’s everything-but-a-paid ad placement in the NYT today for the new Stanford start-up: Coursera. That’s right, and when this business model flies, General Motors is going to start giving away millions of free cars around the globe, because–to paraphrase the Coursera founders–who would want to sell a few cars on a grimy lot somewhere when you could give them away by the millions.


  4. Some of us see both positive and negative sides to online university courses. A friend is taking a free Stanford robotics course. Credit is not involved. He works hard, learns a lot and has a great time. I was asked to teach a for credit online course in medical informatics. The topic has easy parts and some complex parts. The students will all be physicians at local hospitals. They don’t have the time and flexibility to take the course in a regular class. Provided I do my job well, the students will learn a lot.

    This topic will come back soon; I’ll say more later.


  5. These are topics that my current university is VERY invested in. Because of a lack of room for all our classes, professors were asked to teach classes online- since I’ll have a brand new baby for the fall semester- I volunteered. I don’t think my students will realize how much work it will really be. I think that online classes can work if you rethink the skills that the students will learn in that format. My students will have to watch lectures (of me), they will have to respond in multiple formats, write short and long papers, do peer reviews, and take exams- everything that I normally do in class, but just a lot more of it. I calculated that they’ll write a minimum of 12,000 words during the semester (for a mid-level course). Should be an interesting challenge.

    I always have about a 5-10% fail rate (much, much higher than the rate at public u where I was a grad student), and most of those students either work so much that they just got behind and don’t have the social skills to come talk to me about it, OR they are in the class to get financial aid, planning on never finishing school (and therefore never paying it back).


  6. You know, I wonder about those disappearing students too. I was teaching our (required) capstone seminar this semester and one student disappeared after the first week, even though students have four weeks to drop; the other disappeared half way into the semester, but at least told a classmate who told me. Both student will, of course, have to take the course again.

    I’m even more mystified by good students who just don’t turn in assignments. I think it’s easy to pass — and do moderately well — in my classes. You have to come to class and do the work. So skipping work just surprises me.

    I have a number of theories about this (not all compatible). Part of it for my students is that they don’t necessarily know there are consequences to grades: they are mostly first generation, so they have not been raised to worry about every accomplishment; they are cheered for being in college. But I also wonder whether the high school emphasis on tests makes them lose sight of the long slog of regular writing/participation.

    Oh, and online education? It can be as good (or almost — I do think you miss something without the FTF interaction) as in person; but good online education is not cheap.


  7. Online is fine for advanced students who already know their subject and are looking for some further training or education. The subject matter can’t include hands-on aspects like labs. (You would not want a surgeon who’d learned anatomy from a computer diagram, even an interactive one.) Something like medical informatics is a very good fit.

    Online is a disaster for beginners or students who need handholding. We’ve all got the dropout rates to prove it.

    Do the educrats care? Not if they don’t have to refund tuition. I wonder if their enthusiasm would abate if legislation were passed requiring refunds proportional to date of withdrawal?


  8. H’ann writes: “(I think my department has a retired proffie or an adjunct who offers 1 history course per year.)”

    I think it is worth exploring (and perhaps this has been done before) how many adjuncts or retired profs teach in these online programs. I can imagine, from the adjunct professor’s perspective, that teaching an online course or three is a great way to supplement/have income. Of course, this only reinforces how corrupt the entire system of labor in academia has become, and it is terrible for students in most situations, but this question about who is actually teaching the courses is another side of the online boom.


  9. We now have a attendance reporting system that I’m told is meant to combat this, but apparently it was not uncommon for students to register for classes in order to collect student loans but then never actually go to class. I’m sure it was a small number, but this was the explanation one advising-type administrator gave for students who signed up, never came, but never dropped.


  10. I’ve heard that too, Ellie, although it seems like a supremely stupid way to make some coin. After all, it’s a LOAN, not a gift.

    The Veteran student coordinator at my uni has been on top of how the G.I. Bill benefits are spent. I’ve had to communicate with him about the attendance and the grades of some of my vet students–perhaps those who have flunked a class in the past, because he hasn’t been in touch with me about all of my vets.

    Thanks for all of your comments on my foily moment yesterday. I agree completely with koshem bos and quixote that some students and some subjects can migrate online without losing much, but as she notes, it’s mostly about the maturity and the motivation of the student. Everyone likes to point to online M.A. programs in library science as the big reason that online ed works, but no one talks about the CC student with a GED, and there are way, way more of those kinds of students out there in online ed than there are M.A. students in library science.

    And fortunately or not, I teach a subject and at a university in which I am working for the most part with a large proportion of undergraduates who probably still need to figure out how to “do college,” a population that ergo cannot and will not be well served by online ed.

    But there I go again: thinking that my job should be about education rather than profit$! I’m such a rube.


  11. p.s. Everyone go over to Undine’s house and see what she has to say about online ed. (She picks up where Indyanna left off, re: Thomas Friedman.)

    I’d love to hear an economist weigh in on the perceived value of free online courses, whatever fancy pedigree they might have. As I understand it, we as economic creatures are keyed to assume that expensive stuff is better than cheap or free stuff, because we’re usually not experts in whatever is on sale enough to evaluate quality separate from price. I worked for a private, sectarian university 15 years ago now that had worked to keep its tuition prices pretty competitive with the public unis in its area, but they did a marketing study that suggested that this was a mistake. Potential students and parents of students said that they thought that the relatively competitive price of the education there meant that it wasn’t *worth* that much. So the uni raised its tuition substantially, and they got *more* and *more competitive* applications.


  12. Thanks for the link, Historiann, and for the link to Friedman’s article, Indyanna. I’d like to see an economist weigh in on this, too, especially since the cheerleading with no dissent that’s going on in the media about these courses reminds me of the “everyone can buy a house with no money down, since house values will only continue to rise” frenzy around 2006-7.


  13. “Cheerleading with no dissent” *exactly* expresses what I was trying to expel from my sputtering gullet yesterday with no success. Of course, a lot of cross-platformed media companies are probably already in or moving toward edutech “spaces.” The Times had a story the day before, with a big color picture on the front page that began with Ohio State’s head cheerleader, E. Gordon Gee, admitting that “we can’t go on like this” spending outrageously. He was sitting in his half-acre sized mahogany office, bow tie and suspenders akimbo. A paragraph inside said “colleges can be top-heavy with administrators and woefully inefficient, some critics say…” The next paragraph, rather than confronting the need to jettison a few million dollar spendthrift CEO presidents, cut to a vice president at Bowling Green talking about ways to ditch academic programs. The story author didn’t blink before moving along to pass on Gee’s claim that Ohio State is “getting its money’s worth” for his two million dollar salary because the school “has become a much more prestigious university” during his tenure. Prestigious, surely because of all that presidential mahogany, not because of programs that have somehow avoided the administrative axe. TBDBITL

    The J-school guys need to step up their games and do a little more, ah, journalism. But the news hole continues to shrink while pricey opportunities to co-tweet with guys like Friedman in some Google-Plus forum in the Times’s birch-tree filled atrium grow apace. VIP afterparty to follow.


  14. Call me cynical, but I think that we’re going to see a much higher rate of plagiarism in online courses than in face-to-face ones. If you don’t have to face your professor, it’s much easier to just turn in something you downloaded. And if you get caught, you don’t have to face the shame; you just get an e-mail.

    Of course, who could blame them: robot teachers get papers written by robot students, right?


  15. Update on Coursera: [Source: Report of the Senate Committee on Faculty and the Academic Mission (SCOF), University of Pennsylvania, May 8, 2012]:

    “[Penn’s Provost] has just announced a new initiative in which Penn, along with Princeton, Stanford, and the University of Michigan, will participate in Coursera, an open-access web platform for online classes, led by university faculty members, that draw on their areas of expertise and existing courses. SCOF was not consulted on this program, and it is incumbent on us to examine the effect of the faculty on this program, and vice versa…” U of Penn, _Almanac_, May 8, 2012, p. 4.

    One presumes that the faculty at large was not consulted in any other manner either, or else that governance at Penn is pretty wing-ey or mix-and-matchish. Anyone who doubts that these big meta-initiatives–coming out of computer science departments at entrepreneurial elite universities and cheer-led by media “change agents”–will serve to reduce faculties to deployable storefront delivery systems for administratively-chosen curricular regimes should be comfortable on the next planet toward which the academy seems to be navigating in this era.


  16. Pingback: Professors of the world unite. You have more to lose than just your jobs. « More or Less Bunk

  17. Notorious: I had coffee yesterday with a former student who’s teaching online these days, and she wondered about exactly the same thing you did re: plagiarism. Who knows who’s doing the work that she’s grading? She has no way to verify this.

    Interestingly, the only people I know who are teaching online are doing it for the do-re-mi. Not a single one of my friends or correspondents who teach online do it because they believe in it. It’s just a way to make some extra dough. But because it seems like such a cynical enterprise to begin with, maybe that kind of cynicism is understandable. (Plagiarism or forged homework? NEVER understandable.)


  18. At my uni, Ws still have to pay for the course, since they dropped the course after the add/drop period. (They just can avoid an F on their transcript–that’s the only advantage.)

    I don’t understand how F grades could or should possibly cost the university. That seems perverse.


  19. I’ve wondered about the plagiarism potential in the “robo-grading” schemes being pushed in “trials” recently. What machine is going to catch my famous freshman insertion of “dialectical materialism” in an essay and trace it right back to the website it was copied from? I’m sure that given the algorithyms described in the promotion of these grading programs the student will get bonus points for those “long words” embedded in someone else’s complex sentences….


  20. Re F grades: it is perverse. They slow progress to degree which affects our funding formula as per legislation allegedly designed to encourage everyone to produce more graduates on time or closer to it. (Really, what this does is punish universities with part time students or students who move more slowly for other reasons, usually having to do with not coming from the more comfortable classes.)


  21. Getting stuff ready for the recyclery on Monday recalls that by far the better of the articles in the NYT’s op-ed space on Wednesday–running right next to Thomas Friedman’s puff piece for the massive online course– was “Nuns on the Frontier,” by Anne M. Butler, previewing her forthcoming book _Across God’s Frontiers: Catholic Sisters in the American West, 1850-1920_ (no publisher specified). Although not otherwise relevant to this post, I’m figuring that Historiann could work it onto a syllabus at some point if not into the thread, and that this was therefore an appropriate place to call attention to it. Oh, yeah, the link to the thread on “Distance Ed” is the paragraph describing some of the travails and trajectories these women took just to get to the American West. No just “hit send” back in those days. Unless perhaps you were a bishop in some European cathedral authorizing the mission.


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