Sunday, July 28, 2013

Some new games in higher education


The Games Of Higher Education

By Professor Doom


Part 1: Technology Games

Once again the faculty is gathered and subjected to a new idea from Educationists, “Technology Enhanced Learning”:

Educationist: “By using this software for multiple choice questions, you can give partial credit for multiple choice questions.”

Faculty: “Isn’t simply guessing a form of partial credit for multiple choice exams?”

Educationist: “I don’t know about that, but the advantage to giving partial credit is now learners won’t get frustrated if they pick an answer that’s only close to correct. This will increase passing rates in your course, and retention.”

(We try out the software and use the default settings for partial credit)

Faculty: “You know, the way how you’ve got partial credit set up here, if a student just guesses randomly on every question, he’ll expect to get a 72 on any exam…that’s passing, and the student doesn’t have to know anything at all to pass.”

Educationist: “I’ve heard that before.”

Faculty: “…”

--With Education majors being such big customers of academic paper writing sites, perhaps it’s no coincidence that Educationists are perpetually defining down achievement.

     Every few years, administration gets excited about offering some new technological gimmick, always because they’ve been told employment of the gimmick will increase warm bodies. Despite the fact that the vast majority of studies show no significant difference between using these gimmicks or not, the vendors of such gimmicks always say their stuff really works, backed up with their own studies—much like studies paid for by tobacco companies generally don’t find any health issues with smoking.

     Often, the studies use a very biased sample (for example, preselecting only students that are interested in learning with the new technology to see if they learn using the new technology—students interested in learning generally learn better regardless of circumstance), or use a test-retest method on the same students, making it fairly easy to show improvement just by repetition. Sometimes the methods are very questionable to anyone with basic math skills, like my example above. It doesn’t matter how obviously invalid the new toy is, as long as there’s a promise of even a miniscule increase in retention, the new idea will be offered, and sometimes implemented regardless of what faculty have to say.


(E-mail from administrator): “I would like to see this website you’re making for the online course.”

(Reply from me):”Of course. Just click on this link.”

(E-mail from administrator):”I don’t understand. Can you come to my office and show me? I’ll be here all afternoon.”

(Reply from me):”Take your mouse pointer and click on the underlined words.”

(E-mail from administrator):”Come to my office today and show me at your convenience.”

--Once I received the grant for an online course, I had to make a website for it, though the site is now mostly shut down. I had no choice but to come to the administrator’s (spacious) office, and click on the link to get to my website. I note here that the administrator encouraged us, many times, to use technology. Granted, in 1998 not everyone knew all conventions of the internet. I guess.


     For example, administration encourages us to use Moodle, online software, for our multiple choice exams, because it’s been shown to increase retention. The default for multiple choice tests taken through Moodle is great from the student’s point of view: after the student makes his guess, the software tells the student if the answer is wrong, and gives the student the chance to change his answer.

     So, if the question is “DLKJFJG?”, the student selects “A”. If wrong, the computer warns him to select again. He then selects “B”, and so on, until he is told he is right. While I grant this does represent some problem solving skill by the student, this isn’t remotely learning, but that’s not the point. Statistical studies show that this system will help with passing rate, but one has to wonder if students are motivated to achieve real learning in this type of test-taking environment. Such questions are irrelevant, as Moodle does help with retention, which is all the administration cares about.

     Now, faculty giving such tests will generally notice student scores dramatically improving, and that increases passing rates. Increased passing rates result in praise from administration. Faculty could go and change the settings so that the tests are now somewhat legitimate but this would lead to reduced passing rates, student complaints, and pressure from administration. It…really is no wonder that student “success” improves with this software.


Part 2: Withdrawal Games


“Ok, my course grades for assignments are F, F, F, and F. What’s my average?”

--every semester, at least one student asks me this question. I find it particularly saddening when the student is in my statistics class.


     In the old days, dropping a course was a big deal, and a student could only do it 3 times throughout his 4 year degree. It wasn’t done lightly, but if a student was going to fail, dropping could save his GPA, and keep him from being kicked out of college.

     If a student’s GPA falls low enough, he may no longer qualify for scholarships and loans. It’s crazy how little is necessary for a “scholarship”…that word means little now, though in the past it only applied to top students. Students losing scholarships cuts into college revenue, and such is intolerable for the administration, so polices have changed what a scholarship means. While encouraging cheating and questionable course practices do much to prevent a low GPA, administration introduced a further tactic to help students get by: infinite and very late withdrawals. Now, a student registering for a course can drop the course, with no academic penalty, well past mid-terms, sometimes with just a few weeks before the semester ends. Only the most brain-dead can fail a course now, and students taking introductory courses five years into their degree program (having taken and dropped the course a half dozen times already) are now quite common.

     Up until now, sometimes I’ve referred to passing rates (the rate of students passing the course), and sometimes to retention rates (the rate of students not dropping the course). While these words should mean different things, when the withdraw deadline is deep into the semester, they really do mean the same thing. Nevertheless, just as “remedial” turned into “developmental,” and “student” turned into “learner,” so too has “passing” turned into “retention.”

     Keep this in mind, every time administration says to increase retention, what’s really being said is to pass more students. Retention and passing are the same thing. At one state university, I was called “pathetic,” among other unpleasant words, for not reaching the departmental goal of 85% retention, even as the top students consistently said I was one of the few faculty that was actually teaching anything. Keep that in mind: if 20 poodles signed up for calculus, the instructor had to decide whether to pass 17 of them, or look for another job. I remind the reader: accreditation has no problem with this.


Part 3: Fishing Games


“My father bought me this night course because I wasn’t learning anything at my high school.”

--explanation a 15 year old gave for being in my evening College Algebra course. She got a C on the first test, showing that indeed her background was a little weak. However, she aced everything past that point, scoring 30 points higher than the next highest score in the class on the university’s departmental Final Exam. And I’m pathetic. For those reading between the lines, yes, almost all students failed the departmental final exam, although administration saw no reason that would conflict with the departmental 85% passing rate (the faculty wisely chose not to make the final count for part of the course grade…but we still bothered with such finals, just for show).


     Despite all the pressure to offer ever more negligible courses, assisting the students in their own fleecing, there are nonetheless many faculty that still try to keep some small shred of integrity, desperately clutching their legitimacy despite the endless student complaints and consequent harassment from administration.

     Some faculty simply don’t want that harassment. Students needing to pass a critical course will systematically take each faculty member in a department until they find someone compliant, one that’s not interested in teaching. This process is called “fishing,” as in “fishing for an instructor that is easy.” Adjuncts make perfect fish; they have a very tenuous, very expendable, position at the institution, and know that student complaints will be the end of even their most menial job. A student’s best bet for getting an easy course is to take an adjunct, as adjuncts have no security and no defense against administrative pressure for low complaints and high passing rate. This is one more reason why administrators prefer hiring adjuncts over full time faculty, especially the uppity sort that think they should challenge and educate students.

     Unfortunately, fishing for an amenable instructor, withdrawing semester after semester until getting lucky, can slow down a student’s progress towards graduation. Thus, the withdrawal game combines with the fishing game to create a system where most students do not get their degree within six years of entering college. This is something of a scandal, and administration was quick to respond with policy changes to facilitate more rapid fishing.

     At one accredited institution students were allowed to register for multiple sections of the same course, dropping the redundant ones before the semester ended. How delightful! Now a student could fish out two, or even three, faculty members for a particularly problematic course (i.e., math), in a single semester, until finally landing the lunker. This was a great help for students trying to graduate quickly.

      This new policy pitted members of the same department against each other to offer the simplest courses possible. As an added bonus, this made achieving a high retention rate all but impossible—20% of a class could easily be these double- or triple-registered students—leading to even more chastisement of “under-performing” faculty not making their retention quota.

      How can there be any integrity in a system where admin can literally pit faculty against each other to offer the least amount of content in their courses?


Part 4: More Fishing, accidentally in a good way

     A slight variant of the fishing game is the new policy for students to re-take a course they’ve already passed, for a better grade. So, a student who gets a B in College Algebra can go fishing with another instructor, hoping for an A on the next try. Strangely, I’ve had students fish me like this and improve their grade from another teacher…and had students go from me and fish a better grade from that same other teacher. Taking a course multiple times can absolutely help a student better understand the material, although for the student it’s more about getting a better grade the second time around. I certainly understand the student focus on GPA, and actually respect students for doing this (it’s what they were trained to do in public school, after all), but if administration wanted students to graduate more quickly, they could just stop allowing students to re-take courses for relatively frivolous reasons. This is a classic example of a stopped clock being right twice a day: administration allows this type of fishing because it obviously helps with revenue and retention…coincidentally, legitimately taking a course multiple times also helps a student get an education.


I need a paper on 15th century sewage systems in Finland by Monday. It needs to be at least 10 pages long, with citations in APA style. Can someone help me? I need someone honest.”

--job posted on a site for writers-for-hire. Obviously, the professor was trying to pick a topic for which a ready-made paper would be unavailable, and was unaware that nowadays whole papers are written on demand. The request for someone honest caught my eye; in the detailed project description (which included a cut-and-pasted assignment description from the professor) the student complained the previous writer took his money and disappeared, hence the short notice. Rather makes me wonder at  weaker students that ask to turn in even very brief papers a week late, and then ask for more time…they probably can’t find a writer.




     So to summarize where we are, vast quantities of people are suckered into taking out loans for higher education. This education is certified very questionably by accreditation, but the simple fact is a significant proportion of these victims really aren’t going to benefit in any way from education, legitimate or not. Rather than being honest, and telling these people, “Look, we gave you a chance, we gave you the money, we even tried every ridiculous idea Educationists gave us, but no matter how much you cheat you’re really not going to get much out of this besides a lifetime of debt, go do something productive now,” numerous policies were enacted to keep these victims in the system for many years, deeply indebting them and harming their ability to earn an honest career.

     These abominable policy changes came from administration.  Because administration only cares about getting those loan checks, it becomes administration’s highest goal to maximize the number of checks coming in, and this naturally translates into maximizing the number of students on campus.  Up until now I’ve mostly pointed the finger at administration for many of the corrupted policies that define college education in America, and I admit to bias here in my estimation of ultimate responsibility. This assessment is a little unfair. If faculty, perhaps, had more of a collective spine, then maybe the corruption would not be so bad. I’ll address that soon.

     Until then, consider the following. For much of the 20th century, the American higher education system was a standard for the world, and attracted students globally. Has changing all the rules of higher education in the last 20 years improved anything at all? Besides administrative salaries for ruling larger institutions, of course.

Think about it.

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