What Failure? Supporting a Succeeding UC Online Course

I’m certainly no starry-eyed uncritical worshipper of online learning. In fact, I have something of a reputation as a very frank critic, which was solidified with my book The War on Learning. This status as a skeptic is likely to be further reinforced with my new edited collection about “the MOOCs moment” that is slated to appear soon from the University of Chicago Press.

So, it’s not surprising that I regularly get sent news items about bone-headed failures from people chortling about the obvious shortcomings of instructional technology in higher education. What has been disconcerting is that many of these disaster stories involve experiments by the University of California, which I know from first-hand experience to be certainly a flawed participant in online learning initiatives but very far from being the worst in the research university cast of characters afflicted by all of the seven deadly sins, especially avarice, when it comes to online learning. Despite (or perhaps because of) its wariness of hype, UC has been described as a “laggard,” a system stepping back from an “ineffective strategy,” and an embarrassed institution saddled with a public “flop.”

I’m not sure these characterizations of slothfulness are entirely fair, given UC’s longstanding commitment to a slow and steady approach, typified by the cautious counsel of UC Berkeley’s Diane Harley of the Center for Studies in Higher Education and U.C. Irvine’s Peter Krapp, who chaired the committee that produced the influential “Choices Report” that outlined costs and benefits very soberly and seriously. Although the governor’s new budget does allot more dollars to improving online access, resources are being apportioned to many different face-to-face parts of the university.

I’m thinking about this because I just saw the extraordinarily high student evaluations for Public Rhetoric and Practical Communication, an online course that I developed with Jonathan Alexander of UC Irvine, Carl Whithaus of UC Davis , and Jim Donelan and Chris Dean of UC Santa Barbara. The course — which explores online identity and digital composition —  includes video from a stellar roster of UC experts: Mimi Ito on online communities, Tom Boellstorff on virtual worlds, James Fowler on social networks, Scott Klemmer on interface design, Ben Bratton on the limitations of TED Talks, Christine Borgman on digital search and preservation, and many other luminaries.

But, the real star of Public Rhetoric and Practical Communication is Alexandra Sartor, the person who is teaching the course and who received an extraordinary 100% rating on “Recommend Course” and a 100% rating on “Recommend Instructor” in the official student course evaluations published on CAPE. This is no minor feat. Fifty students filled out the survey. It is difficult for 50 students to agree on anything, much less 50 students from different majors, schools, and disciplines asked to evaluate a required upper-division writing course with a history of occasionally dismal evaluations that have been known to go as low as the 20th and 30th percentiles in its face-to-face lecture iteration of the course. (All of this is public knowledge, UCSD faculty evaluations have been posted online for many years.)

I know that student evaluations aren’t always the best gauge of teaching effectiveness according to empirical studies and that the high grades students were expecting might have biased the results. Then again, because students write much more in this online course than they do in a traditional writing course, it can be difficult to maintain a traditional bell curve, so grades skewing higher in a course that foregrounds online literacy is not surprising.

That said, perfect evaluations are extremely rare in any college course larger than an intimate seminar, and so Sartor’s achievement merits some attention. I hope that researchers will take a look at this unique online class to examine its best practices. Even if headline-grabbing MOOC madness may have passed, online learning continues to be on the rise across a spectrum of institutions, and others could benefit from lessons Sartor learned.

Naturally, not everything in course development went perfectly. There were problems with everything from authenticating students for access to synchronous sessions in video chat to squabbles about intellectual property. It was difficult to move forward with our campus faculty cohort when many professors were pulling out of the ILTI (Innovative Learning Technology Initiative) program if they thought that their rights to potentially lucrative multimedia textbook materials might be compromised by UC or were avoiding participating in time-intensive pedagogical retraining. Unionized teacher assistants and lecturers were anxious about the terms of interpretation of existing collective bargaining agreements. And undergraduate students wanted these labor-intensive courses to be cheaper rather than priced where a traditional course would be. Every week, finding the right balance between spurring participation and managing extremely large volumes of online responses could be difficult. Thankfully, Associate Vice Chancellor Barbara Sawrey delegated additional funds for training to help teaching assistants manage their many tasks.

At this point, I don’t have a dog in the fight: I’ve retired from the University of California and have assumed a new position on the other side of the country as a tenured professor at William and Mary. But, look to this space for interviews with Sartor, ILTI instructional designer Ava Arndt, and other members of the successful team for more on this story.

Banner image credit: Scott Friese