Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Another Funny Thing Happened....

With thanks to Laura Gibbs for sending me this perfect cartoon!
You know something is up when you wake up at 7:30 am to an overflowing inbox and a large number of notifications on Twitter.  All my early bird friends let me know that Steve Kolowich at the Chronicle of Higher Education had picked up some bits of the Online Rome staffing saga.  The article has the somewhat odd title of "When your Online Course is Put up for Adoption."  It opens as follows: "Jennifer V. Ebbeler always knew that somebody else would end up teaching her online Roman-history course. But that didn’t make giving it up any easier."  Let me be clear, in case it hasn't been utterly clear to everyone who reads this blog: I have never taught the online course--I only designed and built it.  I never intended to teach it except randomly and in the distant future (see this blog post from August 2013 about how I worked to design a course around my own absence).  I had no problem giving it up; in fact, I couldn't wait to unload it. Indeed, I learned of the department's bizarre decision to hire a non-Romanist as course coordinator from a Facebook post in which I celebrated handing it off.  There was no regret, no second thoughts.  I WAS DONE. I bought myself a pair of expensive earrings to celebrate. 

It had been a long and difficult two years, made much more challenging by severe health issues over this past year.  Despite those issues, I felt like I owed it to my team to continue the project (thus letting them remain employed).  Especially this spring, it was incredibly difficult to find the energy to do the work on the course.  I motivated myself by thinking about the big picture: we needed the course to be finished this spring so that funding and staffing could be in place for the Fall 2015 semester, when the course would be in the Classics Department's possession.  I had also worked hard with my PM and the Asst Dean who oversees our development studio (LAITS) to get the funding in place.  This required a great deal of work and time and politics, especially on the part of Joe TenBarge, the Asst Dean.  The department was totally uninvolved in getting the funding lines in place.  But, when I finished the last of the development, it seemed like everything was finally coming together.  It felt like it was worth all the horrible days of working on it this spring.

Because I had designed the course for others to run and teach, I also put in place a transition plan.  It's not a typical "sage on the stage" MOOC-model course.  There are no video lectures; I appear nowhere in the course.  It focuses on active learning and, especially, the use of primary source materials.  Students work through modules and create their own narrative through a kind of Socratic method of course design.  We draw on documentaries, primary sources, and other things for content.  But thinking and questioning are key features of the course.  One of the reasons students like it, and why it produces high levels of student learning, is precisely because of this unusual model (unusual not because of the focus on active learning but because we do this at a scale of 1 instructor/100 students).

Let me be clear that my issue has nothing to do with wanting control or with wanting "my chosen successor" appointed.  In fact, what I suggested in a document dated 9 March is that the department continue the current instructor's appointment.  As I said, he couldn't succeed me in a job I never did--it's always been his job.  But, as the course transitioned to the department, I was no longer able to appoint him.  That became the responsibility of the department chair.  The main motivation for my suggestion was an interest in ensuring a smooth transition.  The plan I suggested would have had the current instructor be "course coordinator."  One thing that is not clear to most people: this is one course, but with multiple sections, taught to somewhere between 300-500 students (depending on how many sections are run; the College is requiring at least three/semester to keep the funding for the position).

So, in truth, it's about running a small business, working with at least some grad students who aren't content experts and have no experience in online teaching but who will be "instructing" sections of 100 students.  It's a model that can work, I think, but it needs for certain key components to be in place.  One of those is a course coordinator/mentor/supervisor who knows the course inside and out and knows how to teach online.  Of course, over the year, I expected that others would learn how to run the course through the experience of training under an experienced course coordinator.  My goal, always, was sustainability.  That requires many people with the ability to teach the course at any given time.

I am the only member of my department to have taught a course over 250 or so students.  For two years I taught a 400 student Intro to Ancient Rome class.  It was a huge production and logistical challenge.  It's not just like teaching 200 student classes times two (which is the common assumption of those who have never done it).  It's about ten times the work and complexity.  The current instructor dealt with this in Fall 2014, when we had over 300 students in the course.  It was his first experience of such a set-up, which included managing graders; it was a real challenge and he learned a lot by trial and error.  My concern is that, now, the Classics Department is asking someone with no experience in any of the key components required to run the course to step in and a. run a huge, multi-section course; b. know how to manage, support, and train the instructors of the individual sections.

Thankfully, LAITS had a kind of back-up plan in place.  They have hired the current instructor to teach the Extended Campus version of the course in the Summer and Fall 2015.  In the Summer, he will be focused entirely on converting the 15 week course into a five week course while a graduate student from the department is the instructor.  He will work closely with that grad student and mentor him as much as possible on the challenges and tricks of online instruction.  Likewise, he will work with the course coordinator in the fall semester.  I was relieved to learn of this plan and I think it will do a lot to keep things from being a total disaster in the fall.  But it depends on the fact that the current instructor is extremely gracious--far more than I would be in a similar circumstance.  It also leaves unaddressed the larger issue that the course coordinator is far from a content expert or online teaching expert, and yet is going to need to mentor several graduate instructors each semester.  I would understand if there had been no other option but that just wasn't the case.

I'm a bit disappointed that the article's melodramatic (and oddly gendered) tone encourages comments about me instead of about the issues at stake here.  This isn't about me or my course design.  In fact, a key component of the project from the start was figuring out a sustainable model at scale--all without overly compromising on the quality.  It was a huge challenge but we did it.  The course is an excellent example of a quality online course that is "efficient"--or at least more efficient than our current campus version; and works at a 1/100 scale.  It also, ideally, provides graduate students the opportunity to teach online under the supervision of an experienced course coordinator.  Finally, it created two lecturer positions for my department for next year, with money from my college as well as LAITS.

In return for taking on this project, I received nothing.  I was not paid a stipend.  My time was paid for, including summer funding; but, for instance, the 20 hours/week this spring didn't come close to paying for the 60 hour weeks the project required.  It's not at all clear that the creation of this course will "count" for anything professionally.  After all, it's not a monograph.  I get no royalties, which I would get if this were a published textbook.  I didn't even get a thank you from anyone.  In essence, I donated two potentially productive years of my career to a project that I cared deeply about and was intellectually challenging to me; but which benefited my career and bank account not at all.  I'd have been better off to design courses for online programs for a negotiated stipend (if it was the money that I cared about).

The real lesson of my experience is not that your baby can be taken away (ugh!); or that instructors can be separated from their courses (duh!);  but that, at the moment, institutions are still playing catch-up in terms of policy and infrastructure around the delivery of online courses to campus-based students.  What I found, over and over, was that we were inventing policy and procedures as we went. A big part of the problem is the fact that the development of these courses is done in non-academic units, but then the courses are handed over to academic units to manage.  Sometimes this is ok.  But if the department isn't up to date on the latest best practices of online education; or if a chair decides to make unilateral decisions and not collaborate with the people who are familiar with the course and its design, it can lead to real problems.

The reason I have made such a sensitive issue public is to try to encourage more conversation (and action) on the policy front.  If administrators are going to ask faculty to take risks, to sacrifice years of their time to projects like these, then there need to be clear and rational policies.  For instance, despite the tradition that departments control all staffing decisions, with online courses (which are very expensive to develop and keep updated), this is probably not the best procedure, especially if the main concern is ensuring a quality course and learning experience for our students.  I want to encourage my smart and talented colleagues to take on a project like this instead of focusing entirely on work that is great for their career but doesn't do much for the larger community (i.e. writing monographs and articles).  At the same time, for this to happen on a larger scale, we need to get policies in place.  Faculty want to take risks, they want to take on projects like this.  I think most of us have no problem handing our courses over to others.  What we want are some assurance that the course we spent two years building will be treated well and, hopefully, run as it was designed to run.  This seems like a reasonable expectation to me vis-a-vis Online Rome, given that I have essentially donated two years of work to my department and have received no extra compensation.

As we venture forward into this brave new world, we also need to make sure that all decision-makers are educated in the areas about which they are making important decisions; and ensure that there is campus support for all online instructors/course coordinators.  This brave new world of online course design and delivery is, potentially, a fun, stimulating, and surprising one.  It is also one that doesn't quite work like our traditional campus education.  Online teaching requires a lot of different skills than does classroom teaching.   I'm confident that, eventually, all these pieces will get into place on our campuses.  My aim in discussing my experience is entirely to provide a kind of "case study" for why it matters that we get these policies in place sooner rather than later.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks so much for another beautiful, inspiring piece! I miss your more frequent posts, but am delighted that you still share what you can, peace.

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