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Post The Move to On-Line Learning
Created by John Eipper on 05/29/19 11:08 AM

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The Move to On-Line Learning (Enrique Torner, USA, 05/29/19 11:08 am)

Not long ago there was a discussion on the status of university faculty on this Forum. I would like to return to that discussion, but in a slightly different direction.

During the time I have been on sabbatical this past year, Minnesota State University, Mankato has gone through some financial pressure, and with it, some administrative and academic changes that have affected my department, World Languages and Cultures. On the one hand, the big bosses want faculty to draw more students and more money, as enrollments are declining, so to compensate for that, they have pushed for online courses. On the other hand, they also expect us to grow our graduate programs, not only in numbers ($$$), but in quality as well. These two demands have presented and produced an untenable and stressful situation that I would like to explain.

MSU Mankato just celebrated its 150th anniversary with great fanfare, trying to reach out even further than in the past. It's mostly a medium-sized state university that, until the last few years, offered undergraduate and master degrees. Just in the last 5 years of so, we have started 4 doctoral degrees, and one can now earn a doctorate in Education, Educational Leadership, Doctor of Nursing Practice, and Doctor of Psychology. It will be interesting to see if these doctoral programs lead to anything meaningful, but, personally, I remain very skeptical about this push.

In our language and culture department, there has been a switch from language to culture-oriented courses. Now we emphasize more the fact that we are teaching students about cultures from other countries, and that our courses are not just language courses. We have been offering more courses in English--especially in not so common languages, like German and Scandinavian--to be able to have bigger classes, and, in these classes, students learn about the culture, history, and literature of the countries in which a specific language is spoken. In Spanish in particular, the language I teach, the switch to content-based courses has been astounding and, in my opinion, at breakneck speed. We now offer eight different degrees: Bachelor of Arts, Bachelor of Science, Spanish for the Professions Bachelor of Science, Minor, Master of Science, Spanish for the Professions Master of Science, Spanish for Professionals Graduate Certificate, and Spanish Teaching Bachelor of Science! Most of these degrees have been created within the last 5 years or so. I dare you to find a Spanish program with as many degrees as ours! Not that I'm proud of this.

In addition, we offer a high volume of Spanish courses online. Our program has 6 full-time tenure-track faculty members, and I am the only one who doesn't teach any online courses, and it's because, so far, I have been able to use my seniority and academic freedom to refuse to do so and get away with it. With 27 years of teaching here (20 years give you "super tenure," meaning they can't fire you no matter what, they have to give you a job somehow somewhere), I am the most senior in my department (with one colleague having the same seniority as me). The main reason I don't teach online is because my technology skills are not very good, and, even though I have gone through all the training sessions to teach online, I don't feel comfortable enough to jump in. To be honest, doing that would be for me like jumping in one of those long and dark roller coaster tunnels! What if something goes wrong? Besides, I believe that, though convenient, learning a language is best accomplished face-to-face, not online. Also, I find online teaching highly challenging and impersonal.

The argument for online courses is, of course, revenue at low cost. However, it comes at faculty expense. But, is it worth the trouble? In our case, I don't think so. Looking at the current registrations for this coming fall, I foresee trouble even before we start teaching: only one class section is closed, and many have low numbers, though they can still grow. And there are two graduate only classes (online) with no students registered! I foresee last-minute emergency changes. This brings me to my last discovery: last night, looking at this fall schedule, I realized there is no 600-level course corresponding to my 400/500 Spanish literature course. Up until before my sabbatical, all our senior courses accommodated graduate students at 500 and 600 level, or, basically, could be 3 courses in one, with different requirements depending on the level of the course. I found out today that 600-level courses are not allowed to take place along with their corresponding 400 and 500 any more: starting this coming fall, they can only stand by themselves, meaning only graduate students may take them. This sounds nice and ideal, but it presents the problem of finding enough graduate students to sustain them: in all my years at the university, the highest number of Spanish graduate students we have ever had was about 10-12, and that was many years ago. Looking at the current registrations, even with online courses, 5 is the highest number of students enrolled in any of our graduate only courses.

Finally, let's look into how faculty's workload has changed over the years. Traditionally, Spanish faculty have been teaching three 4-credit courses. Many years ago, I remember teaching 2 sections of the same course, which meant you only had two course preparations. That didn't last long: soon after that, we were teaching three different courses that required individual preparation. No big deal. Today, however, in order to offer all these different degrees, some faculty are having to teach 4 or even 5 different courses, some with a lower number of credits and a lower number of students, but still requiring a different class preparation! Why all these only-graduate courses? In order to accommodate the requirements: students need to be able to take the different required courses within a given time span; and, at least 50% of their courses have to be at the 600 level. Given the circumstances, all 600-level courses are online. Since I don't teach online, I have been forced out of teaching 600-level courses, or our most senior, and best students! All of this... while I was sleeping... on sabbatical.

So, dear WAIS university faculty members, current and past, have you seen a similar trend at your institutions? Do you picture your future teaching from the comfort of your homes at a computer, on your favorite reclining chair, with your favorite drink and snack? Are our students going to follow this trend and go to college without leaving home? It would be certainly cheaper and more convenient, but... better? Definitely safer, but better? I don't think so. I think we are becoming more and more isolated as more and more technology is being created: social media is creating havoc in our youth, raising suicide rates among them; family members may be together inside a house, but each of them lives in a different cyberspace world right at their fingertips; and all this cyberspace is becoming more dangerous every day, with all types of cyber criminals lurking around and threatening our peace and well being.

JE comments:   "Have you seen a similar trend at your institutions?"  Enrique, this is what's going on everywhere.  Adrian College like MSU Mankato, is vigorously expanding its on-line classes, although not yet in the traditional "liberal arts" subjects.  Administrators love the low costs of on-line classes, and students often appreciate the convenience.  But is the learning the same?  And as Enrique Torner asks, what about the human cost of increased isolation?

I'm a skeptic too, although I have never taught or taken an on-line course.  Who in WAISworld has?  Granted, there's some irony here:  WAIS is based on a "distance" model, and we've developed a very tight-knit community, from the convenience of our homes--and often in our jammies.

Greetings, by the way, from Warsaw.  Jet-lagged.  Our three flights were uneventful, and (most of) our luggage even arrived!  Still waiting for delivery of the final suitcase, which was left back in Munich or Toronto.


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