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.

Our Most Faithful Contributor Writes

Certain recent pronouncements have inspired me to contemplate what changes Ontario’s College faculty and students might face upon their eventual re-opening.  And, more specifically, what principles and values would guide such changes.

Strangely enough for institutions of postsecondary education, I don’t hear “excellence of teaching and learning experiences” being explicitly articulated very often as a guiding principle.  An oversight, no doubt.

Anyway, for some faculty in the system, I suspect that this missive last night from our most faithful contributor might seem timely to the point of prescient:

The problem now is that, when we return to our classrooms, much may already have changed, It is likely that opportunities for additional “micromanagement,” “accountability rituals,” and invasive intrusions into teaching and learning will have been incorporated into our workplaces. Signs of this are already visible as we are compelled to align ourselves with the corporate agenda in terms of compulsory online learning. Worse, I fear, is to come.

So, when the call to return to the workplace comes, let’s not indulge in the hypocritical “korporate kumbaya” that awaits us. [. . .] Behind the smiles of “welcome back” and the virtual handshakes, there will be an employer strategy all worked out and tactics already in play to ensure that the backsliding becomes permanent. We must be ready to meet the challenge that’s awaiting us and be prepared for a larger struggle in 2021,

Meanwhile, you might want to reflect on the following. It’s a recent pronouncement by our sisters and brothers in Ontario Universities.   Short version:

“OCUFA concerned about bypassed collegial governance practices”

“The Ontario Council of University Faculty Associations has expressed concerns about collegial governance practices at the province’s universities during the COVID-19 pandemic. Although the organization “appreciates the priority university administrations have placed on protecting the safety and health of members of the campus community,” OCUFA states that some university administrators are failing to respect shared governance structures and are making academic decisions without the involvement or consultation of senates, academic councils, or faculty. ‘Ontario’s universities have a vital role to play in helping the province navigate this pandemic,’ OCUFA stated, ‘but it is only by working together that we can effectively guide our institutions towards a future where the vibrant energy of students and faculty returns to our campuses.’”

I am sure many of us might wish – perhaps a bit enviously – that we had their problems! Well, with a strong push in the next round of negotiations, we must get closer. When we return, let’s get organized, so that – in the event of the next pandemic or other imminent ecological or economic disaster – our task will be to protect our rights and not merely to win them for the first (or second) time.

Hmmm…. How to preserve quality education in Ontario’s Colleges during and following a pandemic?  (And from what or whom, precisely, might it need to be preserved?)

As ever, please feel free to share your thoughts to ontariocollegeprof@yahoo.com.

A Prof in Southwest Ontario Writes

I’m grateful to have already received a response to my last post.  The writer discusses the experiences of administering exams online and of trying to teach classes online in an synchronous (i.e., real-time) environment.  I’ve highlighted part of the last paragraph, which I think makes an important point that I expect to come back to in future posts:

The semester ended on a sour note. I had made use of the online exam proctoring tools provided by our college. The weakness in all of these tools is that if you mess up one little setting, it causes no end of frustration for both you as the professor and for your students. If I were running that same exam in class, it would have been very quick to rectify my oversight and announce the resolution. [. . .] When I’m running a laptop-based exam in class, I still stand at the back of the room; I’m aware of the ways that these tools can be bypassed in order to cheat. How can I ever fully trust the results of remote online testing? Fortunately, the final grades turned out pretty much the way I expected roughly matching the students’ performance on a previous test.   Still, I’m not happy with the whole experience.

In the rush to transition, I decided to go with synchronous delivery. I already had my PowerPoints ready but there was no way I was going to record narration for every single slide in advance. As far as the students who took the time to join the online session and interact, they tended to be the same ones who also showed up at 8am and were engaged. Even then, occasionally I would ask a question and not see a response. Could the students hear me? Were the students still awake? Were they dead?

I’ve heard this referred to as “emergency pandemic distance teaching” as opposed to “online learning.” I agree. If I had the time to plan it out, I’d arrange for different software tools that would allow me to see the students’ screens so that I could quickly and effectively diagnose their issues and answer their questions. Just because we are teaching technology courses, doesn’t mean that we aren’t missing important interactions when we take away the classroom environment.

I note that the 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 looking forward to having the chance to look at some of the research on that issue, in upcoming weeks.

In the meantime, please don’t hesitate to reach out with your own experiences.  The current theme is our impressions about how the end of the semester wrapped up, but I’m happy to hear anything that you want to share with, oh, about 80 assorted colleagues (at the moment).  As ever, all submissions can be sent to ontariocollegeprof@yahoo.com, and will remain strictly anonymous.  The experiences of contract faculty and of students are especially welcomed.

More Reboots than Spider-Man

Hey there.

It’s been a couple of years.

Anything happen while I was gone?

In light of the current changes to the work of college faculty throughout the province, I wanted to try to revive this blog.  The current pandemic means that we don’t have access to our mailrooms, water coolers, hallways, lounges, offices, or any of the places where we have shared our concerns, offered our advice, discussed our challenges or achievements, and vented about our frustrations.

In short, the very factor that has inflicted enormous change on our work has also effectively denied us of our primary resource for negotiating change: In-person conversation with our colleagues.

I know that we — and in many cases our departments and schools — have made efforts to create spaces for social interaction.  But although videoconferencing does in fact permit contact and interaction, the medium impedes genuine disclosure more than it facilitates it.  (Have any contract faculty in the province, for example, had a space to discuss honestly amongst themselves the impact of COVID on their future employment prospects and livelihoods?)

I don’t know whether this or any blog can possibly fill that void, but I did at least want to try to create the space to do so.  My social distancing experience is no less unique than it is universal, and I’d like to learn more about the experiences of my colleagues, provincewide.

In the next couple of weeks I’ll be offering some thoughts about the research around effective online teaching and learning.  Feel free to recommend (at ontariocollegeprof@yahoo.com) some texts that you think are interesting or important.

In the meantime, let me ask the question that has seemed oddly and conspicuously unasked so far: 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?

Please send your thoughts — whether they be a sentence or a sermon — to ontariocollegeprof@yahoo.com.  All comments will be anonymized if reprinted.

(And if by chance any Ontario college students are reading this, please feel free to e-mail your experiences of the conversion to online classes, in recent weeks.)

In upcoming posts, I’ll be discussing a bit more about how faculty can contribute to this project, but if you want a sneak preview, you could click on the “How you could help this blog” link.  (Spoiler: You won’t be asked for money.)

I’ve missed you all.  It looks like I’ll be missing you all for a while longer.  Stay safe and stay strong.  We are in it together, so let’s try to be as together as we possibly can.

An Algonquin Student’s Perspectives on the Strike

Yesterday, I asked for people’s thoughts in the aftermath of the strike.

This came in the mailbox today from a student at Algonquin.

Algonquin students were quite an impressive voice throughout the strike — from burning up the phone lines of CBC Radio One in support of faculty to radio ads encouraging faculty to vote in favour of management’s offer, it was striking to see their  outsized presence in the provincial conversation around the strike.

I suspect that the author would prefer not to be anonymous, but we’ll stick with the general policy of the blog, for now.

Good morning

1) When Deb Matthews said the government was not going to get involved until a threshold had been met, she may not have been asked but definitely did not say what that threshold was. Clearly, the threshold she was waiting for was an opportunity for the Liberal government to make political hay. For 5 weeks, there was minimal involvement as her agents, the College Council avoided negotiations. For a grand total of 4 days they were at the table and significant progress was made, and then at the last moment, pulled away with their offer to the members of faculty. Was the council and government afraid that an actual deal would be made? Were they afraid of any accountability or did they just want to pass the matter off so that some one else could make a decision in arbitration?

This is supported by 2 facts: one, the NDP will not support back to work legislation ( not even if you put in place clauses that would help them get what they want out of an issue); and two, the fact that while Matthews and the premier were busy making political hay, the bloody Bill 178 had not been released to either the public nor even to the members of the Legislature that were supposed to vote on the matter! Andrea Horwath was right on the money pointing out that someone would be stupid to sign a blind contract, or agree to legislation that had not even been provided much less read for its contents.

2) As always, this is political, and so too is the matter of students’ and their finances. What would have been worthy was a full refund to anyone wanting to drop out (done), some type of assistance for those in financial need (somewhat being done..) with the costs being shared equally be the Colleges and the government, BUT also, a partial rebate of 20-25% of the tuition paid, as despite any measure, the quality of the programs will suffer significantly, not to mention the 6 week interruption following only 6 weeks of classes (this week is primarily a review week with little being accomplished). As a result, many students, myself included, have signed up for one of the class action lawsuits being arranged.

3) I am personally disappointed that more students did not take the time to find out what the issues were about or to get involved. Some of the college presidents (St. Lawrence for one) were rather neutral and objective in their comments. Others, specifically Cheryl Jensen of my own Algonquin College, were rather pointedly on the side of the employer (who does, after all, pay her every cent of her $332,000 salary) and made comments without verification of details (I’d giver her a failing grade on that assignment…). It was particularly galling to hear financial critiques, noting Algonquin’s failed attempt in Saudi Arabia that cost $7.8 million dollars… that would have paid for quite a lot of instructors’ salaries.

On a related topic, I was very disturbed, as were many of my fellow students, with the irresponsible actions of our Students Association president, Victoria Ventura, who wasted $20,000 on radio ads urging faculty to vote “yes” in a misguided effort to get students back in class. Again, those funds could have been helpful for students in financial need, not to curry favor with those who appointed her to that position. Worse, she backed the wrong horse, and the SA looks like a horse’s ass instead. Her actions did, however, mobilize many students who were horrified by her actions.

In my program, a one year [. . .] graduate certificate [program], we were down by a third since January, due to the demands of this vigorous program. We lost another two students who did not come back after the end of the strike – a great loss for them and for us remaining in the program. We had only 8 weeks to go and then 4 week placements that would qualify us to write [professional] exams next August. Several people had travel commitments that will be interrupted further, or cost significant financial penalties, not to count the personal costs of people who are separated from family.

I can only hope that people will remember how this was mishandled by the government and will cast their vote for any party other that the Liberals June 7, 2018 on this basis alone, let alone all the other valid reasons for such action.

I hope you find these comments useful.

I thank you very much for the comments.  There’s quite a bit there to consider.

One of the saddest moments of the strike for me was to hear about the Algonquin students’ radio campaign.  I do respect the frustration that must have given rise to it, and although I did think the campaign was a bit (or maybe a lot) misguided, I can’t really blame any student who simply wanted to get the hell back in class.

And I was particularly sad to think that students could interpret my vote to reject the Employer’s offer as indifference to their semester (which is, of course, precisely what the Employer attempted to depict it as, since it’s presumably in the long-term interests of a College system for its administrators to turn students against faculty).

I’m sorry that the timing of the radio spots prevented faculty from explaining to students that student interests were not ultimately served by a model that permitted unlimited part-time faculty, nor one that permitted full-time faculty to work unlimited overtime.

I don’t dispute your characterization of this week as a review week — while some programs or classes might have more new content than others this week, it’s hard to imagine that one could come back from five weeks off with no need for review.  But the government’s obsession with getting classes running immediately, regardless of their content, regardless of preparation time (there was virtually none), regardless of return-to-work protocol (there was literally none) was striking.

(Which might permit us to ask what the government’s priority is — classes, or learning?)

It remains a mystery (to me, at least) how the Ministry, which sat on their hands throughout the bargaining process, came to the conclusion that the strike needed to be resolved within approximately four hours following the vote results.  Any efforts to help me figure out just what thought processes were at work — and the degree to which the Ministry was involved in shaping circumstances as opposed to being driven by them — should be directed to ontariocollegeprof@yahoo.com.


So, like everybody else, I’ve been busy.

I wanted to open things up a bit, however, to invite you to offer your thoughts about the return, the strike, your college’s plan for recuperating the semester, the mood amongst your students — whatever’s  on your mind.

Feel free to e-mail at ontariocollegeprof@yahoo.com.  All published comments remain strictly anonymous.


The (-$1,956.20) Signing Bonus?

Okay, a disclaimer: I’m going to try to math here.  I’m not very good at that.  Feel free to (politely) offer any corrections at ontariocollegeprof@yahoo.com.

•          •          •

Okay, so, we’ve been on strike.  And that means we’ve gone without getting paycheques.  And that’s pretty much how it goes: You go on strike, you lose pay while you’re striking; you return to work, and you stop losing pay.

Except when you vote to accept an offer that says something different.  And that’s what the College Employer Council is asking faculty to do.


Ontario College full-time faculty generally receive paycheques biweekly, twenty-six times a year.  So each paycheque that we receive represents two weeks’ pay (which we could call either 14 days or 10 working days).

At the same time, we earn our salary based upon ten months’ work.  Our vacations are unpaid: Even though we receive paycheques during our vacation, those cheques are payment for work completed prior to the vacation (for which the Colleges collect the interest, but I digress).

Why does this matter?  Usually it doesn’t (unless you’re trying to figure out the best day of the year on which to retire), but the College Employer Council’s proposed Return-to-Work protocol provides an unusual case in which the issue becomes rather significant.

Item #1 of the protocol (found on pp. 17-18 of this document) states:

The reduction in the annual salary for a full-time bargaining unit member will be 1/216 of the annual salary for each working day of the work stoppage.
The basis of that figure?  It’s not entirely clear.  The Employer hasn’t to my knowledge provided a justification for it (I assume it has something to do with removing the vacation period from the equation), and justification might be entirely appropriate, given the following points raised by the Union:
  • The 2006 Return-to-Work protocol stated that each day of striking would be equivalent to a loss of 1/261 of the annual salary (which is less money than 1/216 of annual salary, as currently proposed), and
  • The benefits booklet, when trying to calculate buyback of unused sick days for faculty hired before 1991, calculates the value of the sick-day based upon a 1/261 measurement

Why was 1/261 used?  I’m not positive, but I assume it’s because 365 days a year minus 104 weekend days equals 261.  At the least, the presence of that figure in the benefits booklet suggests that 1/261 is a formula that had been mutually agreed-upon.

•          •          •

But I’m not really trying to talk about whether a day of striking is equivalent to 1/216 or 1/261 of the year’s work “missed”.  I’m instead trying to share one realization that I only heard about recently:

The paycheques that we have been sacrificing are not based on the 1/216 figure that the College is saying should be the basis of the deduction from our salary.  Like I stated at the top, we’re paid our salary at a different rate than we earn it.  And that matters in this instance.

The Council’s offer contains a Return-to-Work protocol that would have the strike end, if I understand correctly, on Thursday, November 16 (the day on which the ballots will likely be counted), for a total of 24 non-weekend days.  [I note that the protocol’s reference to “the official return to work date” is a bit imprecise, but let’s say that we go back to work on the next day.]

So, the math is (hopefully) fairly straightforward.  We’d know how much annual salary would be lost, per the protocol, based upon the following formula

24 days x 1/216 of annual salary per day x annual salary

= 24/216 of annual salary

= $8,420.33 for FT faculty member at Step 10, or $11,559.33 for one at Step 20.

(Both figures are based on the 2016-17 salary charts, and don’t take into account the salary increases proposed, effective to the date of ratification.)

BUT — and here’s the essential point — that amount is higher than the amount that we’ve lost so far from the paycheques that we haven’t received, because each month’s paycheques only provide 10/12ths of the money earned over that month.

Our biweekly paycheques are based on annual salary divided by 26 cheques (with each cheque representing 10 working days — sometimes with top-up cheque at the end), so our paycheques reflect a rate of 1/260 of our salary per day.

If my math (annual salary/260*24) is correct, a Full-Time faculty member at Step 10 during the same 24-day period would have foregone $6,995.35 in missed paycheques — one at Step 20 would have foregone $9603.13 in missed paycheques.

Meaning? If my math is correct, the Council’s Return-to-Work protocol, which faculty are being asked to vote to accept, would mean that a full-time faculty member at  Step 10 would owe an additional $1,424.98 from future paycheques between the official return-to-work date and August 31; a faculty member at Step 20 would owe an additional $1,956.20.

•          •          •

So let’s be clear: A brief reading of the College Employer Council’s return-to-work protocol indicates that faculty will be expected to make up a month’s worth of lost work; that there are no provisions in the protocol for faculty to get paid for that month’s work; and that, indeed, Full-Time faculty will be charged additional money from future paycheques, in exchange for the honour of returning to complete this uncompensated work.

Which leads to only one question: Has there ever been a more ridiculous “signing bonus”?