Thursday, October 04, 2012

Ask The Prof

This post is about an ongoing experiment regarding free online office hours for microeconomics available to any student on the Internet.  Up to now the flow has been a trickle, so it is far too early to conclude that this is the next wave coming, or anything like that.  But I think the general idea is interesting and worthy of some discussion.  You can get a sense for how it works here.  The About tab and The Reasons For This Site tab provide information on why the the experiment was initiated.   Here I want to talk about some bigger picture ideas that might tie in even if the experiment is only modestly successful.

First, I am fascinated with the notion of students going outside the confines of the course they are in to search for freely available help online.  I'm not talking about cheat sites here.  I'm talking about students who do want to learn the subject matter in the course they are taking but for reasons we can only conjecture about want to go outside the confines of the course itself - by which I mean the instructor, the textbook, course materials provided in the LMS, etc.  This going outside the course demand is modular and intermittent. Perhaps it emerges for a hard topic where both the lecture and the textbook are opaque and where going to the instructor's scheduled office hours is too daunting; showing one's ignorance in front of an authority figure is painful.  These students are simultaneously motivated and yet constrained by their lack of understanding of the subject matter.  They can be empowered by providing them with an alternative path, which is what the seem in search of.

Second, so much of what is done online today falls under the heading "Content Push" and is in some sense disappointing.  Of course there is some very high quality content in this category and some that makes quite effective use of the technology.  Alas, that remains the exception.  Online office hours get far less attention and remain a relative novelty.  My guess for why is that most instructors have no experience with online office hours so they don't perceive the possible benefit.  Further, instructors who do have substantial experience with email queries by students may very well react by trying to block the activity rather than channel it to some other venue, for fear of being overwhelmed by the flow and lacking the resource to staff the channel by others.

In the the middle to late 1990s I had quite good success in my intermediate microeconomics class by using undergraduates who had taken the course from me previously and having them staff the online office hours, paying them as hourlies to deliver the service.  Indeed, I continue to believe that this use undergrads was the most powerful innovation in instruction that the move online enabled, as it encouraged extensive use of office hours in a democratic fashion and thereby promoted student engagement.  As I've written elsewhere, most recently in this post, one has to make changes in the course around how homework is done and evaluated in order to motivate students to utilize this alternative channel. My experience was that when these changes were put into place, the channel would be heavily utilized.

So in the late 1990s I developed an expectation that the approach with undergrads would diffuse broadly.  Mainly that has not happened.  Undergrads are used heavily in the various University 101 courses and in a handful of other courses.  But they aren't utilized in the vast majority of courses that didn't previously have graduate student TAs, because that would be a cost add, and they also aren't utilized in those courses that do continue to have graduate student TAs.  Further, those courses tend to deploy the gradate students in their own sections but not to use them in a pooled way over the course as a whole.  So online office hours are not a prominent feature of these courses and I dare say that the traditional form are not used by most students.

Third, indeed you can use online office hours to pool across the different sections of a course, but the economies of scale by no means end there. You can also pool across the same course offered at many different universities, given the following.  There is apt to be substantial idiosyncrasy in a how a course is taught going from one campus to the next, reflecting both individual instructor predilection and the composition of the student body taking the class on the particular campus.  A person staffing online office hours done at full scale must be competent in dealing with the idiosyncrasy, both in answering the question as posed for the student posing it and in making the response intelligible and relevant for the student taking the course elsewhere.  This requires both substantial subject matter expertise and enough teaching experience to have a sense where students are apt to struggle with the content.

The further implicit idea in the experiment is to rely on baby boomer faculty at or near retirement who do the work not for pay but rather as a give back activity to a younger generation.  This is a high human capital group of people who are well heeled, if not in the absolute then at least compared to the population overall.  My sense is that many in the group would be willing to participate on these terms if: (a) they themselves felt competent as the online TA and (b) they had a sense that the activity was socially useful to the students.

My limited experience with this experiment suggests this is possible.  It offers some reason to continue with it and amass more evidence on this score.

Let me close with one other observation.  At present, students find the Ask The Prof site via a mention and a link at my YouTube channel or from the descriptions of individual videos which have a similar mention or link.  On the one hand, this allows the credibility of Ask The Prof to be determined in advance by the perceived quality of the video content.  So perhaps bundling free content distribution with online office hours is sensible.  On the other hand, given that the videos themselves attract only a limited set of eyeballs, the light flow at Ask The Prof is then not surprising.  One almost certainly would want to try a more aggressive promotion of such a service to test whether there is substantial demand for it.  That offers one reason why I hope others will take up the baton and push the idea fully through its paces.

No comments: