Friday, November 11, 2005
Online Courses, Office Hours, and Cross-Purposes
We want to run more online courses, since students love them and they solve a nasty space crunch during ‘prime time’ (10 a.m. to 2 p.m., Monday to Thursday, pretty much). They’re especially helpful with meeting the needs of students with jobs, illnesses, children, or other unpredictable demands on their time. (The jobs open to our students frequently have unilaterally ‘flexible’ hours, meaning they change every week. How anybody is supposed to build a life around that is completely beyond me.)
To encourage faculty to develop more online courses, we’ve offered stipends for their development, on-campus tech workshops at all hours, limited use of online office hours (in place of office hours held physically on campus), and all the attaboys we can muster.
We also want to increase student retention, since enrollments are shaky and our entire fiscal structure is based on enrollments. (Tuition is over half of our operating revenue, and the rest, which comes from government, is also enrollment-dependent.) Since studies have shown that retention increases where there is more faculty-student contact, we’re encouraging faculty to be more available for student advisement.
(Astute readers may ask how it’s possible to have shaky enrollments and a space crunch at the same time. I’ve wondered the same thing. It pretty much comes down to two factors: ever-increasing claims on ‘dedicated’ space for specialized programs taking general purpose classrooms out of circulation, and students’ stubborn refusal to take classes outside of ‘prime time.’ At 4:00, or on Friday, we’ve got plenty of room.)
Online courses and increased student contact are both worthy, but they contradict each other.
Since you don’t have to be physically on campus to teach online (which has been one of the selling points we’ve used to entice faculty to teach them), folks who pick up multiple sections aren’t around that much. Which means that the burden of advising the students who come through the door falls disproportionately on their colleagues who are actually there.
A few years ago we tried scheduling more classes on Fridays, on the theory that we could decompress the space crunch at prime time; faculty were willing, but students weren’t.
The problem, in a nutshell, is that the more we accede to compressing everything into 16 hours a week, the less room we leave ourselves for growth. In fact, we pretty much guarantee decline.
I’m guessing mine isn’t the only college trying to square the circle of increasing retention while simultaneously increasing online teaching. Have you found something that works? Anything I should take special care to avoid?
Online office hours work for students who are enrolled in particular classes, but they don't work for walk-ins. That's the nub of the issue.
I should have added "with reason" - obviously there's a problem if everyone is earning terrible test scores. But if the grade distribution is healthy, is it a problem or unfair that the test is different from the homework? I'd love a post with your thoughts on this.
Academic freedom includes the right to make judgment calls with which others might disagree. If the test isn't clearly out of bounds, I'd leave it alone.
With students being more and more computer savy, I have begun to add more online content to my class, but it is a traditional lecture section. I think that some students benefit from online instruction, but can become more work for the faculty than an in person class. I think that online instruction has an increasing role in higher education, but I don't think that it can, or should, replace the traditional format.
You've been rewarding faculty who teach on-line, right? So now, do you have a steady stream of classes available on line? Are enough faculty finding that amenable?
I'm interested in the question of increasing advising availability for students on campus. But I probably don't understand your campus well enough, so could I ask a few questions?
Do your faculty advise a regular group of students? And have, say, an email group easily available? (joesadvisees at yourschool dot edu type of thing, so they don't have to make changes themselves for every student who adds/drops?)
Or do faculty advise students more on a drop in basis, where random students meet whichever faculty member's around on a given day with little continuity?
How big is your average department/program group, and what number of faculty are around during "prime time" in a given week? Do students want drop in advising at other times, or primarily at prime time?
Are faculty in smaller departments/program groups feeling more stresses than those in larger ones?
As an advisor, I find that I can give my students a sense of contact with me by sending out regular advising emails. This works in my situation because I have a fairly regular group of advisees, and the campus creates a listserve sort of email thing that I don't have to update at all. I'd have a hard time proving that it works, but students regularly hit "reply" (leaving my subject heading or the whole message in their response) to ask questions. (That means I can do some advising by email at my convenience, and give students a sense of faculty contact with relative ease on my part.)
Also, since I have a fairly regular (but ever changing) group, I get a nice sense of satisfaction from seeing their development and having an advising relationship. (One reason I'd probably have a hard time teaching on line is that I get a fair bit of job satisfaction from the day to day face to face interactions with colleagues and students.)
(If faculty have regular advisees but resist the extra work of putting together a monthly note, the deans office could provide a basic monthly note that a faculty member could copy and paste, and then add/subtract what seems important, such as information about office hours.)
If faculty advise on a more random basis, then is there a way to reward them for "being around and available" for advising? It has to be a real reward, of course.
I like the idea of tuition discounts for off-peak hours, kind of like tolls. It may be a bit hard to administer, but I'll bounce the idea off some people. It's certainly better than most of the ideas I've seen!
Drop-in students are the tough ones. If I could crack that nut, most of these problems would go away.
*There is MORE student-to-instructor and student-to-student interaction in my online courses compared to my "live" courses.
*The attrition rate in my online and live classes is about the same; it just happens earlier in the online courses and later in the live courses.
*Although ALL my teaching is online this term, I'm in the office 5 days a week (including 7 hours on Fridays) -- much more than most of my colleagues who teach only live classes. Not all of the time I'm around is a designated office hour, of course, but I've told my students that if I answer the door, it means I'm not too busy to see them.
*My online students come to my "live" office hours in much greater numbers than my "live" students ever have. And, they don't just come when they're desperately confused; they actually come just to shoot the breeze about the issues raised by the course.
So, I'm not convinced that online courses NEED to be at cross-purposes with more contact/advising hours. (Indeed, I suspect that some advisement-live chat sessions might reach students who never get themselves in to a faculty office -- and, you could preserve a transcript of it.) It all depends on how faculty and students use the available tools and hours to get the job done.