COVID and Contract Faculty

Last week, we published a Letter from a Contract Faculty Member. I wanted to report on two replies that that letter received.

The first — from a former Partial-Load faculty — reads:

The Postsecondary Industrial Complex is an equal-opportunity exploiter of knowledge workers.

The other — from our most dedicated correspondent — suggests on the contrary that, while the industry may offer an equality of opportunity for exploitation of full-time and contract faculty alike, that doesn’t translate to an equality of outcome of exploitation between the two:

I think the “contract faculty member” is being too kind.

Management understands full-well that contract faculty “never get a break,” work through their “unpaid weeks,” “realize that the prep for online classes has to be done before the course opens,” and that “online delivery … [is] an even bigger challenge,” etc. In fact, they depend on it!

Management knows, as well, that contract faculty are ripe for intimidation, coerced into working under unfair circumstances for unfair wages, and can be terminated without cause for any hint of disloyalty or dissent. In fact, they fight for that “leverage,”

I hope these folks – among the finest and most dedicated teachers in the system – understand as well that the faculty strike of 2017 was largely about “them,” their ruthless exploitation, the necessity of getting significant job security, and a guaranteed path to full-time work.

That’s also what Bill 148 “The Fair Workplaces, Better Jobs Act, 2017” was about, and which Premier Ford repealed, along with cancelling the Kaplan arbitration award that opened the way for serious reform in the colleges.

In 2021, the current government will face the electorate and the “Academic Employees Collective Agreement” will expire. As an OPSEU Union steward, I can’t promise that the full-time and partial-load people will be as robust in negotiation and as courageous on the picket line as we were the last time, and I certainly cannot promise that the current government will be defeated by the voters.

Nonetheless, I can say that I am (as are all the people I know) 100% on your side and that we will do what we can to alter college governance, ensure academic freedom, and achieve the employment security we all need and deserve.

Best of luck with the new week.

Reach out to ontariocollegeprof@yahoo.com with your thoughts on your academic labour. Current topics of conversation include online class sizes, online education (done well vs. done quickly), and the challenges that we face individually and collectively as we attempt to change the way that we teach our approximately 330,000 students. Anonymity will be strictly protected.

Emergency Remote Teaching vs. Online Education

Having previewed the topic in an earlier post, I wanted to come back to the topic of what, exactly, we Ontario College faculty are currently undertaking.

In particular, I wanted to highlight one article: “The Difference Between Emergency Remote Teaching and Online Learning“, by Charles Hodges, Stephanie Moore, Barb Lockee, Torrey Trust, and Aaron Bond.

As indicated by the title, the authors differentiate between “Emergency Remote Teaching” — which is perhaps best described as the conversion or displacement of in-class courses to a virtual environment — and online learning, which describes a learning experience that is designed for the online environment and takes advantage of the properties unique to that environment to provide students with an effective learning experience.

The authors describe the two pedagogical situations as “meaningfully different”, and caution that mistaking the former for the latter will warp one’s understanding of the true potential of online education. (Emphases and hyperlinks below added):

What we know from research is that effective online learning results from careful instructional design and planning, using a systematic model for design and development. The design process and the careful consideration of different design decisions have an impact on the quality of the instruction.

[ . . . ]

[D]ecisions around class size will greatly constrain what strategies you can use. Practice and feedback, for example, are well established in the literature, but it’s harder to implement this as class size grows, eventually reaching a point where it’s just not possible for an instructor to provide quality feedback.

[ . . . ]

Thus, careful planning for online learning includes not just identifying the content to cover but also carefully tending to how you’re going to support different types of interactions that are important to the learning process. This approach recognizes learning as both a social and a cognitive process, not merely a matter of information transmission.

[ . . . ]

Typical planning, preparation, and development time for a fully online university course is six to nine months before the course is delivered. Faculty are usually more comfortable teaching online by the second or third iteration of their online courses. It will be impossible for every faculty member to suddenly become an expert in online teaching and learning in this current situation, in which lead times range from a single day to a few weeks. While there are resources to which faculty can turn for assistance, the scale of change currently being required on many campuses will stress the systems that provide those resources and most likely will surpass their capacities. Let’s face it: many of the online learning experiences that instructors will be able to offer their students will not be fully featured or necessarily well planned, and there’s a high probability for suboptimal implementation.

[ . . . ]

A full-course development project can take months when done properly. The need to “just get it online” is in direct contradiction to the time and effort normally dedicated to developing a quality course. Online courses created in this way should not be mistaken for long-term solutions but accepted as a temporary solution to an immediate problem.

The authors’ primary conclusion is a cautionary note — not against Emergency Remote Teaching, which they regard as necessary in current circumstances — but against schools’ or governments’ impulse to treat the results of the next months as somehow indicative of the quality of or potential for online teaching.

I was struck by a colleague’s comment this week: Last year, and every year prior to that, students’ primary overall criterion for choosing one Ontario College over another was geographic proximity.  The longer our current switch to online education endures, the more irrelevant that criterion will become; it will be replaced by the schools’ respective reputations for the quality of their students’ online learning experiences.

Which inspires me to recycle a tweet:

Coincidentally, my Twitter feed just yielded this headline from the Chronicle of Higher Education:

I do wonder what would be the reaction of those students, if they were to pay the full amount for learning experiences that — “Let’s face it” (as the authors concluded) — turned out in some cases “not be fully featured or necessarily well planned, [with] a high probability for suboptimal implementation”.

So, let me end on a (hopefully) optimistic note: If your manager or any person in a management position asked you or your colleagues (as a group) or your Union representatives what you needed in order to provide students with an excellent online learning experience, please feel free to acknowledge that example of good management at ontariocollegeprof@yahoo.com.  Anonymity will be strictly ensured.

Report from a Prof at La Cité

I’m grateful to have the chance to publish these snapshots from around the province, as they come in.  Today’s is from the Collège la Cité, a French-language College in Ottawa:

Collège la Cité (Ottawa) has announced officially (in an official memo from the VP to its employees on April 27th) that the fall semester would be online.  They expect the faculty to develop all this online material in the next 6 weeks.

Last week I oscillated between rage and resignation, as I remembered all the unrecognized overtime and energy invested in teaching the last 4 (online) weeks of the Winter Semester.  Obviously, it was the thing to do. But why aren’t faculty recognized for the overtime hours, I mean the REAL hours, not the ones on the SWF that are meant for a ‘regular’ semester?   And this, in the context of a world crisis that brought major unbalance in all our work and private lives.

In my case, this means developing several online classes in 6 weeks, which even in non-COVID time is too much. There is no consideration for the faculty’s fluctuating mental capacity for creativity – they just expect increased production.

All of this was communicated right after we signed our ‘normal’ SWF (a coincidence, or a calculated management move?) and no one is proposing to review our SWFs and reduce our workloads to match the true prep hours that will be invested in this huge endeavour. Obviously, who can blame my employer for deciding to switch online in these grave times?  And I’m ready to pitch in extra effort, but I will not be abused.

This week I am over this emotional rollercoaster – and I have fallen back on my feet.  I remembered that I can be assertive and say NO.  I hope our local and national union will step up and help us deal with this collectively and not each on our own, isolated, with our immediate boss.  I feel that confinement and working from home will permit high management to divide and conquer, as we are all micro-managed. It is not a time to fight, but we need a collective voice and teacher representation at all decision tables. I also suggest we start with the the power of knowledge – if one negotiates to successfully obtain accommodations, let’s share them, to empower those afraid to ask.

Let’s share ideas, indeed.  And I’m grateful to our correspondent for contributing theirs.

One idea worth remembering — in light of an announcement about the Fall semester that was issued after the SWFs were signed — is Article 11.02 A 6 (a) of the Collective Agreement, which reads:

In the event of any difference arising from the interpretation, application,
administration or alleged contravention of 11.01, 11.02, or 11.09, a teacher shall
discuss such difference as a complaint with the teacher’s immediate supervisor.

The discussion shall take place within 14 days after the circumstances giving rise to
the complaint have occurred or have come or ought reasonably to have come to the
attention of the teacher in order to give the immediate supervisor an opportunity of
adjusting the complaint. The discussion shall be between the teacher and the
immediate supervisor unless mutually agreed to have other persons in attendance.
The immediate supervisor’s response to the complaint shall be given within seven
days after discussion with the teacher.

Failing settlement of such a complaint, a teacher may refer the complaint, in
writing, to the WMG within seven days of receipt of the immediate supervisor’s
reply. The complaint shall then follow the procedures outlined in 11.02 B through
11.02 F

Alternately, if the switch to online teaching represents a change in teaching assignment, one might want to consider at 11.02 A1(b) [emphasis mine]

The College may, where a change in circumstances requires it, amend assignments
provided to a teacher after the original assignment, subject to the teacher’s right to
refer any matter to the College Workload Monitoring Group (WMG) referred to in
(17)11.02 B 1 and if necessary, the Workload Resolution Arbitrator (WRA) [. . .] .


The correspondent concludes, “It is not a time to fight, but we need a collective voice and teacher representation at all decision tables.”  Well, I definitely agree that College Faculty need to be at the tables where decisions are made (a point made most effectively by Local 110 President Darryl Bedford). . .

. . . the question is whether we’re likely to get that invitation without a fight.

Letter from a Contract Faculty Member

Some reports from different Colleges are coming in. I’m looking forward to sharing those, just as soon as I remove potentially identifying information. As ever, feel free to report the view from your college (or your home office / kitchen table) to ontariocollegeprof@yahoo.com. Your anonymity will be my highest priority.

In particular, I asked for feedback from contract faculty; I think their experiences are crucial now. I’m grateful to be able to share the following letter. I’m keeping the professor’s college unnamed, but really — is there a single college whose contract faculty couldn’t describe the following?

I do love teaching and I get amazing feedback from the students. They keep me coming back. I’m invited to teach in many programs and always asked to develop new courses (online and face to face).

They don’t realize, though, that I never get a break — ever. The “unpaid week” between semesters is spent getting courses ready for the next semester. They don’t realize that the prep for online classes has to be done before the course opens, not when it opens. I know the time I will have to put in with over 30 students in 3 of the 4 courses I am teaching online and I fear I will just not be able to be as interactive as I normally am in an online delivery and it will be an even bigger challenge due to sheer volume of activities to get timely feedback to the students . . . also important in an online course. An online course isn’t simply doing a bongo session to replace a classroom.

I also know my course load is heavier than the full-time professors’, and this happens on a regular basis–not just this semester. It will be especially hard this summer not being resentful, as I try to handle this very heavy course load for 15 weeks (when others get a vacation to recharge), only to do it all again. Being isolated from the students will make it a challenge this summer for me as well, as I won’t get that boost or energy back that I usually get from the classroom. I also have course development on my plate for the fall.

 

Online Class Sizes at Conestoga College

[The story thus far: Faculty have been invited to report their online class sizes to ontariocollegeprof@yahoo.com.  One person has already offered their experience of online workloads at Humber College.]

I’m grateful today to receive in my mailbox some additional data points from Conestoga.

So… reportedly, Conestoga profs this summer are looking at teaching anywhere from three to five sections, with typical section sizes of about 30-35 students, and a reported guideline for an upper ceiling averaging roughly 40 students per section.

So… estimating 35 students per section would provide… up to 175 students for a FT faculty member teaching five sections?  (Although it sounds like 3-4 sections is more common for the summer semester.)

But here’s the thing: I was watching this promotional video from what I understand to be Conestoga College’s International Office (correct me in the comments below, if I’m wrong).  It outlines the variety of supports that would help international students to succeed in their studies at Conestoga.  I respect that video, and the work of the people who help International students to make that transition, safely and securely.

And given the current online environment, I wonder about the degree to which professors will need to be more engaged as an intermediary between students (not just International students) and those services.  Or, to put it differently, I wonder how–let’s say–120-175 students would find the supports they need in an entirely online environment, without the personal involvement of a professor.

As I’ve said before, the elimination of the “campus environment” (including something as simple as overhearing other students’ conversations in cafeterias and hallways) magnifies the role of the professor in the student’s entire college experience.  And if that professor has a weekly average of (I’m spitballing here) as little as 82-120 seconds to provide each student with out-of-class assistance, what would be the likely impact on the students’ (including International students’) academic experiences?

That last part sounds like a rhetorical question, but really it’s not.  For all I know, Conestoga College (or any other) might be providing faculty with more than the minimum four hours per week for all out-of-class assistance with students.  (In which case I would obviously be happy to redo my math above — let me know in the “comments” below.)

…Or perhaps they’re providing students with individual Support Staff mentors, to help them navigate the various academic supports that an unusually high percentage of students might require, to overcome some of the challenges inherent in isolated learning.

…Or maybe they’re providing faculty with ample time to prepare online courses that create innovative, individualized, and transformative learning experiences for the students.

…Or maybe they’re providing contract faculty with class caps that keep the demands of their grading and out-of-class assistance manageable.

Or maybe none of that is happening, in which case, well… maybe it’s a good thing if the students can’t overhear other students’ conversations?

Conestoga profs — please let me know if this corresponds with your experiences; all others, please help to fill in a provincewide portrait.  All communications to ontariocollegeprof@yahoo.com will be strictly confidential.

Interactivity in Online Courses?

In my ongoing research about what makes for effective online teaching, I had wanted to share the following passage from the introduction “Interaction matters: Strategies to promote engaged learning in an online introductory nutrition course“, by Jinan Banna, Meng-Fen Grace Lin, Maria Stewart, and Marie K. Fialkowski (Journal of Online Learning and Teaching 11.2 [2015]).

Even though their research concerns an Introductory Nutrition course (which might be seen as primarily concerned with communicating information and principles, rather than developing skills), it’s worth contrasting the interactivity that these researchers describe here, to the current discourse of “content delivery”:

In online courses, in which learner isolation and dropout is more likely to be an issue, interaction is a key component of fostering learning (Conrad & Donaldson, 2004). Although content may have been the main focus of online courses in the past (Nipper, 1989), interaction is now recognized as playing a crucial role in stimulating learning (Bernard et al. 2009; Lou, Bernard, & Abrami, 2006; Norris, Mason, & Lefrere, 2003). Activities that involve collaboration and sharing of ideas among students promote a deeper level of thought and create meaning for the learner (Conrad & Donaldson, 2004). Previous studies have identified three types of interaction that have been shown to support learning in online courses: 1) interaction with content, including the ability of learners to access, manipulate, synthesize, and communicate content information; 2) interaction with instructors, or the ability of learners to communicate with and receive feedback from their instructors; and 3) interaction with classmates, such as the ability of learners to communicate with each other about content to create an active learning community (Bernard et al., 2009; Moore, 1989).

In creating the most effective learning environment in distance education courses, course features that encourage the three key types of interaction must be selected. Student-content interaction may take on a number of forms, including watching instructional videos, interacting with multimedia, as well as searching for information (Abrami et al., 2011). To create a vibrant online community, instructors must facilitate sustained engagement with course material and use specially tailored assignments (Hege, 2011). With regards to student-instructor interaction, the social presence of the instructor is an integral component of a successful online course; the instructor must perform activities that translate virtual interaction into an impression of a “real” person (Dixson, 2012; Kehrwald, 2008). To interact with students, instructors may incorporate both synchronous activities such as telephone correspondence, and asynchronous, such as e-mail messages (Abrami et al., 2011). Similarly, to foster student-student interaction, synchronous activities, as in videoconferencing or chatting, or asynchronous, as in discussion boards (Abrami et al., 2011), may be performed. Social media, which refers to technological systems promoting collaboration and community (Joosten, 2012), is another tool that may be used to encourage interaction among students. Social networking sites, such as Facebook and Twitter, are now used widely among college students and have been employed as learning tools in the online classroom (Tess, 2013). A number of previous studies have indicated positive effects of online social networking on learning. In a study investigating the learning impacts of online social networking on university students, Yu and authors (2010) found that this type of interaction not only directly affected learning outcomes, but also helped the students attain social acceptance from others, and adapt to university culture, which play an important role in improving learning outcomes (Yu et al., 2010). Social media has become increasingly popular in enhancing communication among college students studying a variety of subjects; for example, a recent study reports on the use of social media in an introductory statistics course (Everson, Gundlach, & Miller, 2013). The authors point to the importance of meeting students where they are with regards to use of technology, and suggest that social media may be used as a way of encouraging students to participate in their learning experiences (Everson, Gundlach, & Miller, 2013). As previous studies have demonstrated that small group rather than individual learning has significantly more positive effects on student achievement (Lou, Abrami, & d’ Apollonia, 2001), student-student interaction is particularly important to promote in the online environment. Research on all three modes of interaction, however, has shown that each one favorably impacts student achievement (Bernard et al., 2009).

 

A Humber Prof Responds

In my last post, I invited Ontario College faculty to report on the maximum number of students in their online sections (past, present, or future).  I’ll repeat that request: Please e-mail ontariocollegeprof@yahoo.com with your school, your program, your status (Full-time or contract) and your maximum students per section.  Feel free to pass along anecdotal information. All replies will be kept anonymous.

I’m happy to pass along one reply that I’ve (gratefully!) received, from a colleague at Humber (I have amended it very slightly to remove some potentially-identifying information).  Please note that I cannot confirm the truth of the following claims:

I have found that the total number of students I have per term is far more important than individual class or section size. I am full time faculty and teach at Humber.  The online class size is 40, the in-class is 40 for diploma and 65 for degree. I have between 185 and 210 students per term spread between 4 or 5 courses/sections. The increase in the workload was significant this term when everything moved online. This is a function of both the mechanics of handling the site and greater screen fatigue. I could do a lot of creative things with my students (and often do) but in the end I am really limited because of the overwhelming volume of students per term.

Okay, so can any other Humber College professor confirm whether these numbers reflect their own experience of past or projected online class sizes (which may, after all, differ by program)?

The point that creativity is indirectly proportional to student numbers (beyond a certain minimal threshold) strikes me as intuitively true.  The more students there are, the less we can shape teaching around their individual interests and needs.  Heck, the less we can learn their individual interests and needs.

It’s certainly possible that we could create reasonably effective ways of “delivering content” to an online “audience” of 210 students, as some of the instructional materials would have it.  (Hypothetical writing prompt: Audience, from the Latin audire — to listen.  In approximately 200 words, discuss the significance of this word in a pedagogical context.)

What seems less likely is the probability of engaging students in meaningful and memorable learning experiences in that time.  Now, normally it might be enough to “deliver content” in a highly standardized, pre-fabricated model.  But when every PSE institution is teaching online, then the differences between the schools that are able to provide transformative learning experiences online and those that do not do that will be made evident, rather clearly.

As I said before — with in-class instruction (or even a combination of in-class and online courses/instruction) — there’s much more to the students’ total learning environment and experience than the classroom teaching.  When we go strictly online, the students’ learning experience is created almost entirely by the professors.

One aspect of that total learning experience that we can look at involves the individual attention provided to each student by their professors.

If we were to focus on the total number of students in a workload (as I understand the respondent to ask us to do), then the thing that jumps into my mind is that so many of us are allowed the minimum of four hours for out-of-class assistance to students.  Now, in an online context, the line between class and out-of-class might be a bit less clear than a classroom teaching context, but let’s suggest that for the sake of hypothetical argument here that we restricted out-of-class assistance to mean “online office hours” plus “responding to student e-mails”.

[Please click on “Comment” to report any errors in my math or reasoning below — any errors will be corrected promptly.]

So, four hours for out-of-class assistance is the minimum allowable on a full-time faculty member’s SWF.  (Additional hours can obviously be assigned as complementary functions, and a teacher with more than 260 students is entitled to more upon request.)  Four hours = 240 minutes.

So… the student who was one of an online teacher’s 185 students would be entitled to an average of one minute and twenty seconds weekly of the professor’s time to meet during “office” hours and to have their e-mails answered.  With 210 students in the teacher’s total online workload, that time-share goes down to… an average of one minute and nine seconds per student per week.

And if a teacher were to be assigned the limit of 260 students (after which a formula for additional time may be triggered by the teacher), then each student would be allocated, on average… about 55 seconds per week to attend to students’ out of class needs, I think?

So… I’ve never taught in a strictly online setting before — I can’t speak as to whether an average of 1:20 or 1:09 or 0:55 per student weekly is sufficient to answer their questions about assignments past and present, about the requirements of the course, about extensions or late assignments, about how to access different online supports of the college, about difficulties that they may be having with group-mates, or about individual challenges in understanding course texts or material (to list a few things that tend to come up in my e-mails or during my office hours).

And let’s remember that contract faculty are attributed no specific time whatsover to attend to the individual needs of students.

I invite others to reach out at ontariocollegeprof@yahoo.com to report on their experiences about the demands of e-mail or out-of-class assistance in an online course (and whether synchronous online office hours are even a realistic choice — something I’ve been debating recently).

 

Optimal Online Class Sizes?

So, I’m working off of the premise that several Ontario colleges will be offering online courses over the summer.  Maybe we’ll get a more complete picture later on.

So here’s the thing that I’ve been considering about taking our Colleges completely online.  Some students like online classes — some probably opt to do their entire postsecondary education online, where that’s possible.  And those that have the level of  self-discipline and self-motivation to succeed presumably do succeed, and even flourish.  And it’s entirely possible that some of our students who are accustomed to in-class learning will similarly flourish in the online environment.

But I’m thinking of the others — the students who may have only bothered to come to my class because their friends were going, or because they had a test in a different class on the same day, or because they came to school in order to play WoW on the school’s servers.

For those students, their College experience was more than the sum of its classes: It included socializing, working out, clubs, the library, Tim Horton’s, residence life (for some), counselling, study groups, and probably a ton of stuff that I’m forgetting or that’s particular to different Colleges.

But if those students are studying exclusively online this summer, then it seems that their College experience will be the sum of its classes.  The class experience, plus… what?  The library website, and different faces on their screens or voices at the other end of a phone line.  And that’s it.

Which means that the learning experience that our online classes provide is vital.  If it’s not adequate, there’s nothing else to inspire students to give the school a pass or another chance.  Students, in short, will be studying with no learning community beyond the one that their professors are able to create.

(Research by Andrew Tiger & Landon Preston [2013] found “a negative correlation between the online classes and alumni giving, among other predictive variables used in alumni giving”.  Alumni were less likely to donate, the more online courses they took.  Landon & Preston consider two possible explanations:

The first interpretation states that Astin’s theory of student involvement proves true, and the less interaction an undergraduate student has on campus will diminish their undergraduate experience, making them less likely to give back as an alumnus (Astin, 1985). The second interpretation draws from the business literature which posits that e-commerce experience is inherently related to the online experience itself, i.e. quality and speed of exchange, significantly saved user time, etc (Floh and Treblmeier, 2006; Huang, Cheng, and Farn, 2007).

I interpret the first hypothesis to mean that involvement induces identification and investment.  Alumni don’t donate because of what they purchased; they donate when they feel that their school transformed them and their lives.   

I’m likely misunderstanding the second interpretation they posit, but it seems to suggest that when education becomes inherently transactional (instead of transformational) then students feel no responsibility once the transaction is completed.  (To quote Mitch Hedberg, “I’ll just give you the money; you give me the donut.  End of transaction.”)  

But alumni donations aren’t what I wanted to talk about — the student’s Learning Experience is.  And in an online class — especially in an asynchronous model — that learning experience is denied some of the standard foundations of human intimacy that exist in the classroom.

(I propose that we consider referring to asynchronous teaching as “isolated learning” instead — at least 5% of the time — to acknowledge this fundamental context of the student’s phenomenon of learning.)

So: the online learning experience.  Students grades, retention, attrition, will depend on it.  As will, to a less predictable degree, future enrollment, and our schools’ reputations.  If the educational experience is standardized, it will be indistinct.  If it is prepackaged prior to the participation of the students, then the students will in fact be part of the package.

For this reason, it’s essential that the online learning experience provides a sense of genuine community — of engagement, rather than content delivery.

Which leads me to ask about the single most significant feature in the Colleges’ control about the online student experience: Class size.

From an InsideHigherEd article on the topic of online class sizes in American Universities:

Residential enrollments fell 3.2 percent from 2012 to 2015, while at the same time, distance education enrollments went up 11 percent, according to the 2017 Digital Learning Compass produced by the Babson Survey Research Group, e-Literate and the WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies (WCET). Looking closer, online class registrations for private nonprofits jumped nearly 40 percent during the three-year period, in large part because the institutions had a smaller online student base to begin with. Public institutions, which still teach two of every three online students, saw online enrollments increase by 11.4 percent.

Even with a long history and steady growth, it seems every institution has its own formula for setting online class sizes. “We go course by course, college by college,” Dowden said. “We have discussions with department heads and faculty members. … It’s not a good practice to say ‘[The limit] is 30.’”

University of Massachusetts at Lowell caps undergraduate online classes at 27, with 25 the max for graduate courses, said chancellor Jacqueline Maloney. UMass Lowell’s face-to-face classes can be as large as 75 students, with the average being 29 for undergraduate and 16.5 for graduate students.

“There are temptations to increase class sizes,” Moloney said. But, she added, the lessons of the for-profit institutions that increased class sizes to boost profits “squeezed the life out of that experience.”

UMass Lowell has 28,000 online enrollments. The university has offered online courses for 20 years, and recently began an online English degree program, Moloney said.

Some institutions’ online course classes are larger. For instance, Brigham Young University at Idaho’s face-to-face class cap is 50 and its average online class is 37, said Alan Young, the university’s online learning managing director.

Russ Poulin, director of policy and analysis at WCET, was adamant about the top limit. “The rule of thumb is 20 to 25; [that’s] where you should be,” he said, adding faculty members can teach online classes within this range without feeling overwhelmed.

But Steve Covello, an instructional designer and online instructor at Granite State College in New Hampshire, said small is best — effective online class should be between 12 and 15 students.

And from Barbara Burtch in “Class Size in Online Courses: What the Research Says” (emphasis mine):

While there is no easy, cookie-cutter answer to the online class size question, research supports the fact that it is an important consideration. Class size can be a factor in a student’s course experience and outcomes, as well as in an instructor’s experience teaching a course (Lowenthal, Nyland, Jung, Dunlap, & Kepka, 2019). The reason for this is that class size is positively correlated with the amount and quality of interaction between instructors and students in the course (Parks-Stamm et al., 2017). [ . . . ]

So what does the research indicate about optimal class size? Sieber (2005) recommended a class size of 12 for instructors new to teaching online; Tomei (2006) also recommended a class size of 12 in relation to the course level (for a graduate-level course) rather than the amount of experience the instructor had teaching online. Colwell and Jenks (as cited in Burruss, Billing, Brownrigg, Skiba, & Connors, 2009) set the upper limit for a desirable class size as 20 for an undergraduate course and between 8 and 15 for graduate courses (p. 34). Burruss et al. concentrated on finding the class size that fostered the correct balance of interaction in the course — not so large that students feel lost and disconnected and not so small that there are too few opportunities for interaction (p. 39).  Yet, Lowenthal, Nyland, Jung, Dunlap, and Kepka (2019) pointed out the likely push from administrations to teach high-enrollment online courses.

Parks-Stamm et al. (2017) looked at student and instructor posts and interactions in 500 online courses to find factors contributing to those interactions. They found that both class size and the amount of instructor participation had a significant effect on interactions and that these factors were related to each other. While the amount of instructor participation did not predict the number of posts per student in courses with 15-30 students, courses with fewer students showed significant differences in student participation depending on the amount of instructor participation. In other words, in the courses in this particular study, student interaction in classes of 14 or fewer students increased when there was more instructor participation.

So, having introduced the topic, permit me to ask a favour:  Please report (either in the comments section or by e-mail at ontariocollegeprof@yahoo.com) on the class sizes of online course sections in your school over the summer semester.  Let me know:

  • What school you teach at (universities will be fine, too)
  • What your sections’ student enrollment caps are
  • Your program or area of study, if the class sizes are specific to your area.

…and if your College also happened to give larger classes to contract faculty than to full-time faculty, that would also be most… enlightening.

I’ll see if I can report on numbers as “rumoured” (if you’re communicating second-hand information), “reported” (if you have direct knowledge) or “confirmed” (if you can send any kind of a screenshot).

I think that it would be valuable information for us as a community of academic employees to have.  Others, I suspect, might find it interesting as well.

COVID’s Metamorphoses

( ↑↑↑ Stamped it, sealed it! ↑↑↑ )

Sooo…… the sudden shift to online pedagogy has been occupying my mind for virtually every waking hour of the last six weeks, it would seem.

And today, the theme that seems to have occupied my Twitter feed today is the question of what we have been doing over the last few weeks, and whether it counts as “online education”.

The jumping-off point was an excellent article by Zach Schermele in Teen Vogue, on the different challenges that students are facing as a consequence of the switch to online learning.  The following detail struck me:

Dr. Thomas Lecaque, an assistant professor at Grand View University in Iowa — who has at least one student now doing the majority of his schoolwork from a smartphone — says around a third to half of his students are still in contact with him, and many of those he hasn’t heard from lack the technology to get in touch. Their emotions “run the gamut,” he says.

“Some of them are fine and bored,” he told Teen Vogue. “Many are stressed about changed classes in the midst of all of this; some are working new jobs with new hours; some are worried about family members.”

Lecaque described distance learning as “triage pedagogy” — an effort to “stem the educational bleed as best we can in order to survive the rest of the semester.”

Maybe I’ll have time later to speculate on the experience of trying teach a student (who is armed only with a cellphone) how to write research papers.  For now, I want to look at  the term used in the last paragraph: “Triage pedagogy” — a phrase designed to specify what faculty did to wrap up a semester in circumstances that were catastrophic in every sense of the word.

But that designation is also significant in the way that it differentiates the online final lap of the semester — not only from the in-class teaching that preceded it, but also from online teaching per se.

And that distinction between “converting courses to online” vs. “online teaching” proper seems significant, as indicated by the following CHE article:

I intend to look more in upcoming days at the difference between “online education” and “triage pedagogy” (or “emergency remote teaching” as may be the more precise, if less vivid, nomenclature).

But for the moment, I’d like to take a moment to refer back to an earlier post, in which I said:

[T]he phrase bandied about in many circles is “converting courses to online” rather than “creating online courses”.  But I suspect that the discourse of ‘conversion’ (as in “Dollars-to-Euros”) is likely setting ourselves — or more specifically, our students — up for a kind of failure.

The underlying principle behind the concept of conversion is that there is a clear distinction between content and medium — between what is learned and how it is learned. 

I’m grateful that a GTA prof responded to that, to remind me of another phrase that we’re hearing in the air:

[T]he term invoked (like a mantra repeated by managers who have clearly been conditioned to use it) is ‘alternative mode of delivery’. This is a phrase I refuse to use. As a teacher, I don’t “deliver content.” I facilitate an environment in which learning (hopefully) can take place. This is the fundamental philosophical difference between faculty and (at least some) college management. They see us as in the ‘content-delivery’ business. We see ourselves as educators. I will continue fighting for the latter.

The “content delivery” discourse is problematic for many reasons, not least of which because it appears to ignore the last six decades of educational research.  (And dare I suggest that it suggests the PSE industry’s alleged concern for “student-centred learning” was, in fact, a pretext for a “customer service” model of education?)

But here’s the bigger problem: If a school is to maintain that it’s in the “content delivery” business, how exactly does any school justify students’ attending that school instead of any other?  Notice that the marketing of Ontario Colleges treats the discourse of content delivery as anathema, focusing instead on the rhetoric of transformation and actualization.

And transformation and actualization are why students come to Ontario colleges. (At least, according to the colleges’ marketing departments.)  And, until we return to the classroom, the colleges might in turn want to be a bit clearer about how they intend to structurally facilitate online classes that can live up to that promise.  (Smaller class sizes? Time to prepare innovative courses?  Programs that prioritize unique learning experiences over standardized curricula, evaluations, and formats?  Classes whose faculty have enough time to change the class throughout semester, to respond to the actual needs and interests of the specific students?)

But here’s what I know: Teachers like the letter-writer above can give students an unforgettable learning experience and a reason to attend their College instead of any other.  But that can only happen if their expertise is respected and valued, and if they’re provided sufficient time and resources to create those experiences.

A Health Sciences Professor Writes…

It’s slightly embarrassing for me to be facing a backlog of topics so soon after renewing this blog.  I had originally intended to look at some of the research around the online learning environment that we now confront, but each topic leads to new questions.

I wrapped up my ‘reboot’ post by asking you, my colleagues: “How did your Winter semester end?  What was the experience of abruptly shifting the transmission from ‘classroom’ to ‘online’, while at cruising speed?  What do you feel about your students’ accomplishments throughout the semester?  In what way did their learning — or your teaching — benefit or suffer from the online environment?”

And whatever other topics I might want to get to, sometimes a letter absolutely needs to go to the front of the line.

The following letter is from a College professor teaching in Health Sciences.  The first sentence is astonishing in its simplicity and its implications for our College system:

Firstly, I must say that it has been so long since anyone at the college has asked my opinion (as an educator and a professional/expert in my professional field) on what is important to my students on the one hand, and my profession on the other hand. While I have generally avoided opportunities to post messages, it is the fact that you ask questions that inspires me to write. 

Your questions make me think (YEAH!) about how my primary job as an educator is to encourage learners to ask questions–of everything. When I read the questions you posted, my thoughts harken back to the days when I was fortunate enough to find a place within the public system to be an educator…..in fact, to be an influencer. I treasured the opportunity! My thoughts, opinions, education and experience were vetted and determined to add value. In this way, I surmised that the sum of my experience, in all its various aspects warranted sharing with those who were entering this profession. 

Reading your questions causes me to recognize that it is clear that there has been a shift in what the college administration thinks is of value in its teachers/experts.  Reading them makes me think about the system I entered, vs. the system as it is today.  

The questions you pose mirror my own daily thoughts about my responsibility as an educator and an expert in my own professional practice. I always ask myself, “Is what I am doing working for learners as students in the college community AND as health professionals?”  And in 1995, that was enough to drive my practice…… but now, more and more, I am told by administration (and the policies they create) that my instincts, education and expertise are wrong at best and biased at worst. They “suggest or require” that we encourage students to continue spending hard earned money (or worse, borrow more money) and time to continue an education in a field they may be unsuited for, or not ready for or not interested in. While I wholeheartedly have always believed that students/learners ought to find safe spaces in learning environments to explore their interests and be allowed to succeed, to exit, or even to exit and return, I believe we have a moral imperative to be honest about learners’ accomplishments. How else can they learn? How else can they discover truth?

I am also struck with the notable lack of these critical questions of us (faculty) as we traverse this reactionary environment created by COVID. Perhaps this environment creates an opportunity to examine a critical shift in the philosophy of management since I joined the college community in 1994. By that, I mean that when I joined the community of educators at the college, my dedication to the best outcomes of students, the college/institution and the professions/sectors I represent was recognized by the administration. It used to be that when change was required in our programs we, the faculty, were engaged to identify and address problems. We, the faculty, directed change. In those days,  we were not considered to be “employees” who had to be controlled, told what to say & continually counselled about what conditions determined a student’s competence. We were considered to be individuals whose experience, education and judgement were to be valued both by the college and the professions we represented. Our role as educators meant we had the significant responsibility  of ensuring the best for students, society, the taxpayers who paid our salaries (and who in turn relied on the professionals we educated) as well as the College.  If we did our jobs, all were better off. 

Recently, I am hard pressed to say that I am anything more than an employee who is told regularly by my Chair–and those above her–what courses are important, how they should  be organized throughout a program, how the evaluation(s) should be structured, and when they should be ignored for special circumstances.  After 25 years of experience, I now find that my supervisor regularly expresses to the faculty team that we need to be told what to say and how to act.  In addition, it is clear that administration believes our teaching has to be monitored or overseen by a supervisor. The irony is that if I were a working in my profession rather than teaching, I would need no such supervision.

I am so deeply saddened by this.  It may be the end of my “tour of duty”, and I truly love inspiring learning in others and working in an environment that allows me to immerse myself in life-long learning. It appears that teaching no longer supports those imperatives.

I am aware that I have not answered the questions you pose….but on the other hand, those questions have raised more questions! How do we, as educators, dedicated to both learners and to our professions, influence the system for good? 

The letter ends with a rhetorical question, to which I’ll offer a literal answer:  We influence the system first and foremost by believing in the value of teaching and insisting upon the respect that the value of teaching merits — that our value as teachers and experts merits.  That is absolutely the necessary prerequisite to any other influence we can possibly hope to wield.

Today, I changed one detail of this blog.  When it started about 10 years ago, I settled on the tagline “It’s not about Unions; it’s about Ontario College education” — that was mainly in order to try to appeal to an audience beyond the union faithful.  Today, I changed that tagline to the one that you can see at the top of the page: “Dedicated to the radical proposition that professors are qualified to make educational decisions”.  It’s worth considering what has transpired in the last 10 years that would legitimate that change.

And that change appears to be at the heart of what is described in the letter: Far too often, College management and “the Employer” (however broadly defined) act as if faculty were the greatest threat to the effectiveness of the College system — as if our expertise and education and professionalism needs to be carefully constrained and structurally disempowered.  That faculty be kept as far from meaningful decision-making authority as possible.

Don’t take my word for it — the College Employer Council was willing to shut down the entire public College system for five weeks in 2017, in order to keep faculty alienated from academic decision-making authority.

I’ll talk more about that perversity later on.

For now, let me encourage you and your colleagues in the broad PSE sector to pay careful attention to your Employer’s conduct in these months of April through September, and to treat that conduct as the single greatest possible evidence of your institution’s respect for you as an teacher, and the work you do.

How’s your employer doing on that front, so far?  Let me know — let your colleagues know — by e-mailing an anecdote or observation to ontariocollegeprof@yahoo.com.  Anonymity will be strictly preserved, and the experiences of contract faculty are especially valued here.