Wednesday, May 6, 2015

The Ruin of Rome, or Something Happened on the Way to the Forum

This reconstruction of the Roman Forum shows what this remarkable civic space looked like in 312 CE, shortly after Constantine took over command as the senior co-emperor (with Licinius) of the Roman Empire.  In 312 CE, Rome and the Western Empire were on the brink of one last great run before irreversible decline set in sometime around the late 6th century.  Below is a photo of the Roman Forum today, from a roughly similar angle on the Capitoline Hill (photo courtesty of Darius Arya).

Even today, amid the ruins and barely identifiable traces of once magnificent buildings, a walk through the Roman Forum is magical.  It is difficult to imagine what the experience must have been like for a Roman living during the height of Augustus's or Trajan's reign.  The sheer majesty of the surrounding buildings, gleaming with gold and marble, must have been spectacular.  The Forum's magnificence served as a daily reminder that Rome was, indeed, the world's capital (caput mundi) and, as the poet Vergil famously said, an empire without boundaries (imperium sine fine).  Rome's former majesty is irrevocably lost to us, even as we catch glimpses of it in the city's remarkable ancient ruins.

I found myself reflecting on Rome's death this week, as I wrapped up the development of Online Rome.  The project has been ongoing for two years, and intensively for the past 12 months.  Working with a small team of content designers (including an MD!) as well as recent PhD with substantial classroom teaching experience and Roman cultural and literary history as his area of specialty, I built a modularized, fully online, aynchronous course that produced impressive results in student learning this past year.  There was a lot of trial and error.  We went live with the course in Fall 2014 with an enrollment of c. 300 students.  This spring, we capped the course at 100 students, partly to figure out how best to staff the course in the future.  While on medical leave, I thoroughly revised every module and the instructor added several new features to the course (some obvious additions, others much more subtle but equally effective).

It was an exhausting amount of work, but when I finished on Monday I was genuinely proud of the final product.  The instructor and I were both very pleased with the performance of the students this spring and were looking forward to modifying the modules and course structure for a 5 week summer course that would have started in June.

From the beginning, I designed and built the course to be instructed by others.  I also made a strong effort to work with the course instructor to ensure that there was a qualified and experienced instructor positioned to take over the project and manage its transition to the Classics Department.  In order for this transition to be smooth, the current instructor and I both knew that he would need to figure out how to teach the course during a five week session; and would need to train others in the tricky ins and outs of managing the course and motivating the students to stay on track.  I had hoped that the Classics Department would hire him as a kind of "course manager" to implement the training process while continuing to offer the course (the student demand has been very high).  I would have been disappointed if the chair had opted to hire someone else, but fine with that decision if the alternative candidate(s) had an equivalent or better skill set in both Roman studies and online instruction than the course's current, demonstrably successful instructor. 

I was stunned to learn yesterday, indirectly and in passing, that the Classics Chair had opted not to implement the "succession plan" that I had carefully and thoughtfully crafted.  As well, different instructors were appointed for the summer session and fall semester--and, though both are skilled classroom instructors, they are either unqualified or under-qualified for the specific tasks that the successful instruction of Online Rome requires.

Besides the apparent personal politics at play in this decision, it also reflects a surprising ignorance about the crucial role of the instructor in an online class.  As any (good) educator knows, the most important requirement for a successful course is the instructor's pedagogical skill, experience, and knowledge of course content.  This does not change when the classroom is replaced by a computer.  If anything, as my team learned this year, the instructor becomes even more crucial to the course's success.  As a faculty member at an  R1 institution, I recognize and accept that we always compromise a bit on this because we have a responsibility to train graduate students.  We also require our graduate students to take a pedagogy class that focuses on f2f teaching before they set foot in front of paying students.  Likewise, they are closely supervised during their first few semesters.

The learning curve is inevitably steep but the damage can usually be managed in classes of 15-20 students.  We do not deliberately put graduate students into teaching situations for which they are wholly unprepared and for which they have no training or experience.  Likewise, given the "buyer's market", it should not present an insuperable problem to find many candidates who are Romanists and have some experience with some part of teaching online/at scale/managing and training a team of TAs.  And yet....

These staffing decisions would also be less concerning to me if I had not made a point of explaining multiple times,  in multiple formats (oral conversation, letters, emails), to multiple people involved in decision-making about the course that the course's future success would depend on appointing a qualified and experienced instructor, at least to serve as "course manager" and work closely to train TAs.  The course was deliberately designed NOT to be "plug 'n play"--I wanted for instructors to be able to own it and make it their own.  There are no pre-recorded lectures and my face is nowhere in the course.  But such a design means that instructors need to do considerable work, especially at the start of the semester.

This deliberate and willful devaluation of both experience/proven success and content expertise raises some important and unsettling questions for academics.  These days, many of us expect our expertise to be devalued by people outside of academia.  We even expect it, to some extent, from our administrators.  But we expect that our disciplinary colleagues, most of all the leaders of our departments, will be the first to defend the value of experience and expertise.  If we don't do it, who will?  Or, as the Roman satirist Juvenal asked, "who will guard the guardians?"  This is a very real and consequential question in higher education these days; and goes well beyond pettiness, favortism, and whatever else motivated the poor decision-making regarding the staffing of Online Rome.

First of all, it is crucial that every educator recognize the key role that instructors play in every teaching and learning encounter, whether online, in a classroom, or elsewhere.  Second, we must value expertise in the content of our courses.  Of course nobody can be the world's expert on everything Roman, but at the very least, the instructor should be a Romanist and have done significant work at the PhD level and beyond on things Roman if they are teaching an online Intro to Rome class.  In recent years, my department has moved to staffing our introductory level courses with our best scholars and teachers.  These courses are given to faculty who are experts in the general area as much as possible (e.g. the Greek cultural historian teaches Intro to Greece; the Greek literature scholar teaches Intro to Myth).  An online course should be treated with the same respect for instructor expertise.

Modules aren't exactly textbooks, but they aren't an instructor either.  They certainly cannot replace an instructor, particularly in the constructivist model of learning that I used.  Finally, we must acknowledge that teaching and learning online happen in radically different ways than they do in a f2f classroom.  There is a large body of scholarship on this topic.  There are best practices for teaching online.  It is possible to train people to teach online, just as we do currently for classroom teaching.   To conflate the two media is to make a horrendous mistake and sets both the instructor and the students up for a miserable experience.

Why do we need to do these three things I enumerated in the previous paragraph?  Because, as soon as we start hiring unqualified and inexperienced instructors when we could have hired a qualified and experienced instructor (and, in my case, for the same or lower salary), we are setting foot on a slippery slope.  This devaluation of expertise, this belief that anyone can teach online, that content expertise is not a sine qua non, is exactly the tune that is sung in the edupreneurial world of For Profits and their VCs.  This is the tune that companies like Pearson sing: have the content expert build the course (or, more commonly, review something already built and sign off on it) and then hire the cheapest labor possible to run the course. Sometimes we are forced to make do with an instructor who is not an expert.  That was not the case in this situation.

It is a very short leap to go from hiring the early Greek archaeologist to teach a very difficult course on ancient Rome, a course that draws heavily on primary textual and material evidence; to hiring the English MA or the Psychology BA, if it saves money.  Because, they sing, online courses don't require expert instructors trained in the pedagogy of teaching online.  Anyone can run an online course--just load it up for them, sign up students, and off you go.  It's the ultimate ed tech fantasy but it's just that--a fantasy.

In discussing this situation with a group of friends, one wise academic noted: "In my view, all attempts to automate courses have the goal of letting just anyone teach them. I know you built it so that wouldn't be possible for someone who cared about student learning. But a lot of people don't care about students, or knowledge, or even understand why the people who actually know shit must be the ones to teach it. Sorry to be such a downer on this, but there's nowhere to run . . .."  Of course she is right.  I never understood that, unless I controlled all aspects of the course--including staffing--I was making it possible for the course to be run badly.  In retrospect, I should have demanded some input on staffing even thought that is not usual for f2f courses.  Or required that an instructor meet a basic set of qualifications.  

The particularities of this situation also clearly demonstrate why new models of teaching and new kinds of courses expose the need for changes to the existing infrastructure and traditions.  It might have once made sense for a department chair to decide staffing, fairly unilaterally.  It no longer makes sense, especially when a university has invested significant money to develop a course (at least $300K in mine, counting my time); and especially when few chairs have much familiarity with the world of online education.  To some extent, bad decisions are the result of ignorance, of not understanding what the thing is or how it works.  This doesn't excuse a bad decision, but it does suggest that decisions should be less unilateral in cases where the university has invested significant money and has good knowledge of what is required to maximize student learning outcomes.

I know it is possible to support high quality learning online.  It's hard to do and takes thought, skill, a lot of work, and experience.  The course instructor and I figured out how to do it.  But, once the course left my possession, I lost control over an element that was critical to our success.  And, as my friend noted, by automating things, I made it too easy for others, with a range of motives, to devalue experience and expertise.  For my part, the solution to all of this was pretty straightforward.  I have finished the development work and met the terms of the grant.  The class is handed over in good working order.  It is now the responsibility of the department to recreate the successes that we've had and to do ongoing development and training of additional instructors.  This task is going to be much harder for everyone than it should have been (or needed to be).


  1. Wow, Jen, what a saga! I've often thought about how it would be possible (would it?) for me to take my courses and make them ready for other instructors to teach: how would I have to change the course design? what role would I play in supporting instructors as opposed to just supporting students as I do now? I think I would really enjoy the opportunity to work with GSIs who are interested in teaching my courses... but there is zero possibility of that happening, since my courses exist outside any departmental structure (I'm on the Dean's staff), and I'm not paid enough to take on that kind of challenge. Working with students is fun, and I have pretty much total freedom that way... but people need to be paid the big bucks to do battle with the Red Tape Monster. For your students' sake, though, I hope things work out well for your course!!!

  2. P.S. It's always sad to hear when a place I consider a REAL school cannot get these things right... if you guys cannot get such things right, what hope is there for the rest of us, eh? Sigh.............

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