Alex Usher: coronavirus y docencia en línea
Abril 1, 2020
Marchm31st, 2020 – Alex Usher
(Yes, I know, I said I would try to stay off Coronavirus topics. But it’s bloody hard to talk about anything else, isn’t it?)
One of the least attractive features of the modern university is the mega-classroom: the huge, 300-1000 student classes that dominate first-year courses. These courses, point-blank, are terrible. I mean, I know, fields of study all have entry points and there are some basics about each one that students need to master before moving on to other courses. And yes, institutions put a fair bit of work into them to make them not-terrible, but they are alienating beyond belief. As a matter of deliberate policy, every major university in the country takes its least-experienced learners, who hitherto are extremely unlikely to have encountered class-sizes much over 40, and dumps them in a lecture theatre (or, more likely, several lecture theatres, because all fields of study use the same inverted-pyramid model). It’s disorientating, no matter how you slice it. Large classes generally have less teacher interaction, less active learning and give students less useful feedback – all things correlated with lower satisfaction and greater risk of drop-out.
So why do we do it? As I have written before,  it’s about economics: big classes subsidize small classes . If you look at pretty much any institution in the country, and plot the number of 100, 200, 300 and 400-level classes, what you see is an upside-down pyramid: a small number of classes for first-years supporting 3-5 times as many 400-level courses. In Ontario, the revenue from a single 800-person class is about a million dollars, and that subsidizes a heck of a lot of small fourth-year classes as well as graduate instruction and research. And, implicitly, those benefits are seen as large enough to make the loss of students through attrition a worthwhile trade-off.
But coronavirus, if it lasts long enough into the fall that it pushes classes online, substantially changes the nature of that trade-off. First of all, research is going to be in semi-stasis for the next few months, so that excuse is gone. But more importantly: with long-term public funding looking fairly fragile in the face of mounting government indebtedness, tuition dollars matter – every last one of them (especially international ones). More than any other time in history, institutions are going to need to focus on retention. And that means we need to really think hard about what those big first-year classes are going to look like next year.
We’ve heard a lot about “moving classes online” over the last couple of weeks, and  as I noted back here , this seems mainly to consist of lecturing on zoom, putting materials on Blackboard/Canvas, maybe video-capturing a lecture or two, and hoping for the best (I have heard there are versions of zoom that allow for 1000 participants and that some institutions are using it but…ew). If this is the way institutions try to teach first-year students next year, we’re going to have a calamity on our hands. This kind of “remote instruction” is bad enough for upper years, but for learners new to higher education, this kind of sink-or-swim is going to lead to much higher-than-normal dropouts. And that, in turn, could be disastrous.
I think large institutions using these kinds of strategies basically have two options here. The first, obviously, is to stick with the remote teaching approach, but replace lectures entirely with 20-person remote-teaching sessions on zoom. And yes, that either means hiring a lot more sessionals or getting tenured faculty to temporarily agree to increase their teaching loads (and, presumably, decrease research) for the duration of the crisis. The second is to dump an enormous amount of time and effort into making those classes genuinely  online courses, with strong online learning resources and available support. In other words, actually do to them what many people claimed MOOCs would do: improve on the 1000-student classroom using the best online instruction (which, by the way, still means a lot of TAs to help students individually). If you’re in charge of triaging which courses get extra resources for improved online delivery, these courses are *absolutely* the ones you want to put your money into.
 (My feeling is that the teaching requirements involved in any “move online” for September probably requires a radical re-think about staff teaching loads, at least in the short term, which may create labour disputes. But that’s for another blog)
Obviously, course content and course size are not the only issue. Within each course, a *lot* more effort needs to be made in terms of communications, particularly when it comes to making sure students get all the help they need. Learning better to communicate empathy, and to interpret rules flexibly and fairly, will be key as well. And of course, all the other pieces of the puzzle like advising and counselling and various types of academic support are important, too.
But is all starts with the simple but urgent goals of making sure the content and format of those introductory courses do not chase students out of the system. Institutions that ignore this simple truth do so at their peril.


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