Saturday, October 26, 2019

Dire Education

The professor's joy is when he can see a light bulb turn on inside the mind of a student, who then shows recognition and understanding in this new found perception.  Of course, it is the student who ultimately determines whether the Aha! moment will happen.  The professor should not take credit for it when it does occur, especially since quite frequently the same environment that the professor creates evinces no such reaction in other students, even those who dutifully go about their studies.  They remain unaware that generating a spark of insight about the subject matter should be their quest.  They are quite content with getting the right answers on the homework assignment, without knowing why those answers are right; hence without being able to transfer the lesson they supposedly learned in the context of the homework to some other situation.

This type of professor's joy has eluded me this semester.  I may be too old to tap into student's intrinsic motivation, possessing no sense whatsoever what buttons to push. Where five or six years ago it was otherwise, the last few times teaching this has been the result.  But until this semester, I would always have at least a couple of outspoken students I could pretty much count on to chime in when I'd do my schtick as Socrates, so we could generate a little back and forth in class.  Now trying that feels like pulling teeth. To the extent that I've performed any social service with my teaching, the value lies elsewhere.

For the first time I can remember, I wrote a note to a Dean (first in the LAS office, then in the Dean of Student's Office) about a student I thought might be going over the rails emotionally.  I'm not sure whether she had already been getting assistance before I wrote that note or if my writing triggered that assistance would be forthcoming.  That's not something I need clarity on.  However, I do want to observe that doing this is probably outside of what most instructors perceive as their job description.  In my case, while I'm unlike my students in many ways, I did go through a rather serious depression in 10th grade and then again during my sophomore year in college. So while I'm no expert, I do have some sense of what is going on and some empathy for the students who are struggling this way.

The thing is, this student is by no means the only student in my class who is struggling emotionally.  Indeed, such struggles may be the new normal. There is discord between (a) very high tuition, (b) pressure to get a good job after graduation, and (c) the students don't know what they want for themselves.   To this I'd add the following.  Many of the students I see in my course don't appear competent at a cognitive level in the course prerequisites.  They've had years and years of school as credentialing, without it producing a foundation for further learning later in life.

If it is not these kids as rotten students, but the system as rotten in what it seems to be producing all too often, you have to ask: when will we wake up. Frankly, it seems nobody gives a ____ about these students.  At the U, we focus on the successes.  They are the targets for alumni contributions.  While these others we admitted, once their performance seems substandard we seem ready to discard them.  We let them graduate in some major that the campus doesn't get bragging rights from, such as economics.  But we're essentially sweeping them under the rug.  Of course, they get that.

The new thing on campus is trying to address inequality of income of the families of students, so we will admit those whose parents have below $60,000 in household income (approximately the median nationally) and fully fund their tuition. But we are not yet doing anything to address inequality as measured by SAT/ACT scores and, for example, the disadvantage that a student who is first in the family to attend college faces, as compared, for example, where both parents have advanced degrees. There is substantial intellectual inequality on campus and it is ripping us apart.  But we don't know how to address the issue, so we ignore it. And even if we attended to it, we would be divided by those who advocate for survival of the fittest approach versus those who would prefer a nurturing approach.

I used to think, circa 2012 and 2013, that with my insight from years in educational technology I could cut through all of this and produce something that was reasonably good for the bulk of the students I taught.  But now the circumstances are burying me.  I'm no longer up to the challenge. Yet the need to rise to the challenge is, if anything, greater now than it was then.  So what do we do about it?

As I've written elsewhere, I'm afraid people are too willing to offer up answers before they've done a complete diagnosis of the problem.  And in this case, I'm afraid that the biggest problem is that we're not willing to admit there is any problem.

You can't score a run if you don't reach first base.

Thursday, October 10, 2019

I never could be a campus CIO but....

On Tuesday after class I had a friendly chat with Tracy, who ran the back end of Illinois Compass after the debacle in fall 2005, when it was off-line for well over a week.  I probably hadn't seen Tracy for 10 years, maybe more.  We had a good talk, some of which was about the present, she now runs Library IT, but also a look back, a pretty blunt one.  I was curious about her perspective of what happened soon after I left the campus IT organization, at the end of July 2006, when I did become a CIO, in title only, for the College of Business. The discussion was about the people involved with campus IT who, unfortunately, didn't all get along.  There were quite divergent views about how things should be done.  That discord is an indicator of what I want to discuss in this post.

Around that time, maybe a little earlier, I was part of an Educause committee called 2020, whose job was to project to the future (now only 2+ months away) and think back to the present about what Educause needed to do to be well prepared.  I don't recall our core recommendations, but I do remember that I brought to the attention of the group the lack of communication between the campus CIO and the Provost's Office, which had been my experience up to that time (and I believe may have gotten worse on my campus subsequently).  The issue is what could be done about this communication blockage.  I don't believe our Educause group solved that puzzle.  I hope to see some of these people, my friends and colleagues in the profession, at the Educause national conference next week.  While I have no longing for the work we did back then, I do miss them very much.  Maybe some of the themes in my post will become part of the conversation we have.

Let me get to the reasons for why I couldn't be a campus CIO.

Strength is not my weakness.
"Danimal" Dan Hampton

I like this line, a lot.  Dan Hampton was a defensive end for the Bears in their glory years.  He had a physically imposing presence. This line shows he had an element of wit as well.  I'm going to take advantage of the line to segue into some of the more obvious weaknesses I had then (which I probably still have, though they aren't tested nearly as much now).

(1) I didn't know how to deal with stress, which I felt almost constantly.  Eventually, writing this blog became one release point.  But though I enjoy writing it wasn't sufficient.  I put on a huge amount of weight during my time in campus IT.  And after I stopped jogging because my knees were no longer up to it, I didn't do nearly enough physical activity, only taking up walking several years later. I also drank like a fish, not a good thing to do on a recurrent basis.  And now I'm talking about when I was the Assistant CIO for Educational Technologies, where I was competent to do the job.  I could only see things getting worse on this score, if I were the campus CIO.  (I'm writing this with an Illinois-centric perspective, where the stress was palpable.  I don't know how it would be on a smaller campus, one that didn't have such a rich history with IT.  In this piece I'm going to keep the Illinois focus, because it's where I have concrete memories.)

(2)  My personal history with Ed Tech was first as an instructor who did ALN under the SCALE project (One semester before that I used PacerForum in my Econ class on a server hosted by the CHP program.)  Even after I took over running SCALE, a year later, my mindset was from the perspective of a user of technology.  The part that interested me was clever adaptations, made in an attempt to improve the teaching.  Some years later John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid came out with a book, The Social Life of Information.  The themes of that book captivated me.  I viewed the back end stuff as an enabler only, not as an object of attention in itself.  This was fine for a director of an ed tech unit, but might be a fatal flaw in itself for a campus CIO.   Further, when I was in the campus IT organization as Assistant CIO, I was viewed as a strategic thinker, not as an operations guy. It would be very difficult to segue from that to a position where operational concerns were of top importance and where the people who did operational work, much of the IT organization, felt I had their back.   I think the CIO position needs the support of the IT organization and it needs the support of the campus too.  Conversely the IT organization needs to feel the CIO is for them while also feeling that what they are doing is in support of the campus mission.  I likely would have been blocked in at least part of this from the get go.

(3)  The reality when I took over SCALE is that I was largely ignorant on a host of issues, particularly on how people learn, but at that time I felt a very strong need to self-educate and that became something of a passion.  Because of my prior views of big IT as an enabler only, I'm not sure I could develop the same sort of passion to self-educate.  (Here self-education includes talking with people who are knowledgeable about the issues, including those who report to the CIO, directly or indirectly.) Around this time Nicholas Carr came out with a widely discussed paper, IT Doesn't Matter.  In other words, IT was the 21st century equivalent to plumbing.  For me to be a campus CIO I would need a refutation to Carr's argument, one I could deeply believe in.  I'm not sure I could come up with that.

(4)  From the time I started running SCALE to the time I left the position as Assistant CIO for Educational Technologies, I had good connections around campus and in the Provost's Office (though not with the Provost himself after Larry Faulkner left).  Once there was turnover in the Provost's Office, that relational asset was lost.  I'm not sure whether it could be rebuilt or not.

(5) I never wanted to be campus CIO.  Climbing the hierarchy didn't get my motor going.  I was all about self-expression in the name of supporting what I cared about.  I didn't see the CIO position as enabling that.  This wasn't a Peter Principle thing, though that might be part of it. I simply couldn't see how becoming a campus CIO would count as personal growth for me.

(6)  There was a lot of political infighting within the campus IT organization when I was part of it.  It would have been necessary to put a stop to all the divisiveness.  Making that a focal point clearly was necessary, but it wasn't where my head was.  I never liked to manage down - even with the old Center for Educational Technologies.  I was all about managing out - being an ambassador to the rest of the Campus. I liked to doing that. 

I could make this list longer, but I think it sufficient to explain my title. Now, in spite of all of that, I want to consider what I brought to the table which might have been helpful in the CIO's role, and in so doing bring out some issues that might be generally relevant, not just at Illinois.

With that I want to cut to the chase.  I believe there is a kind of prejudice on campus that exists at upper administrative levels that is not often discussed.   The focus of this prejudice is on the person's background.  In your prior life before becoming a big-time administrator, were you a faculty member or not?  Being a faculty member was a big plus.   I wouldn't say it was absolutely necessary, but it was extremely helpful.  Conversely, if you were not a faculty member you already had two-strikes against you.  Further, if you were a CIO who could only talk about IT issues in tech gobbledygook or in Gartner-speak, you were doomed to the outreaches of the Provost's Office and you would never be invited to participate in the Council of Deans.  In contrast, if you could make IT issues available to other campus leaders in a language they could understand, then you might have a fighting chance to be an insider in these high level discussions.  The clincher is whether you could also participate in conversation that weren't about IT at all, be a good listener and make reasonable contributions then, so when it came to discussing the overlap between campus issues and IT, you would have the trust of the other decision makers, which would enable strategic conversations about the use of IT to proceed apace.  In this dimension I believe I would be reasonably good.

A core question about IT on campus is how much the central IT organization should be budgeted and about how much of IT function should be distributed around campus.  During the aftermath of the burst of the housing bubble, when campus budgets overall went south, there was some consensus built for greater central provision of IT services.  Ultimately, it seems to me as an observer now, much of that was on outsourcing with large commercial providers - Microsoft, Google, and come to mind.  There may also have been important conversations about services that need to be retained with campus hosting, though I was retired by the time those discussions were happening.  In any event, we tend not to make the budgeting part of such conversations public and it's been my experience that people tend to think about these things on a service by service basis, rather than consider the overall picture.   An overall picture is needed.  A realistic discussion that brings to convergence the expectations for IT funding, on the one hand, and the reality of the likely funding available, on the other is needed.  Given my economics background, I suspect I'd be as good at doing that as anyone else who might have the job.

There is then the issue about what happens once the CIO gets his or her wings clipped, being given the cold shoulder from the Council of Deans and/or from the Provost.  The experience I've seen is to retrench with IT peers around the country, and with folks with IT on campus.  The conversation, unfortunately, gets very insular. It's a kind of Prisoner's Dilemma.  It's not a good outcome, but it seems inevitable.  One might ask how to cut through this or if that is possible.

When I was doing the campus job as Assistant CIO for Educational Technologies, I was also the campus representative to the CIC Learning Technologies Group.  (The CIC is now called the Big Ten Academic Alliance.)  It was one of my favorite spots for interactions, with peers from campuses similar to Illinois.  The dinners the night before our meetings were better than the meetings itself.  There was no agenda then and people were quite open with one another.   The membership at the time was split between those who were faculty members in their previous life and those who were academic professionals doing the work.  We got along quite well across those lines.  But, the group when I first joined it also had people from the Provost's Office who were responsible for undergraduate education.  So there was the cross pollination I talked about above.  Yet the arrangement was not stable.  Those folks in the Provost's Office all eventually left the group.  They wanted to pass the baton to the full time ed tech people.  I gather that issue is still with us, as evidenced by this recent piece in Educause Review.

With that background as the canary in the coal mine, one wants to know whether the campus CIO truly integrated into the campus leadership is a pipe-dream only.  I don't know.  I will ask a different question instead.  Are the strengths I brought to the table replicable to some degree?  If they are and a candidate for the CIO position clearly showcased those talents, would the person be given a fair chance to become integrated into the campus leadership?

In my teaching I show students the theoretical ways that the Prisoner's Dilemma logic can be overcome.  It requires forward thinking and patience.  At my core, I'm a theory guy. It's how I was trained in grad school.  On a practical level, I'm much less sure on how to go about it.  In spite of that, I believe that schmooze skills have to be a big part of the answer.

Maybe, just maybe, the full answer can be found.

Monday, October 07, 2019

Tiding the STEM

This post will give a brief analysis and then delve into a proposed solution.  A much more thorough analysis of the general issues was given in a post I wrote back in 2013 called, The business and ethical dilemmas of undergraduate education at public R1s.  This is the most salient paragraph from that piece for what I want to argue here:

Yet I've also become distraught with the regular classes - too many students don't have enough on the ball.  Then there are a few students who do, but some are so alienated by what I gather has been their prior experience, anti-nurture if you will, that they've tuned out.  My little corner of the world may be just that and the rest of the world may be quite different.  But if not, somebody in the know should be screaming about this.  That's what I'm trying to do with this post.

In that post I talked about two possible models of undergraduate education.  The old model employed the grab-the-brass ring approach, in which elite students commanded a lot of attention and got a very good education, while the remaining students did not.  The new model I called the nurturing approach, where even average students have access to a good education and the instructors they interact with treat them as serious students.  The reason for moving from the old model to the new model was a consequence of how undergraduate tuition counts in the overall picture of university revenues.  Undergraduate tuition now is a big deal where when I started it wasn't.  While it is true that in-state tuition is much less than at a ritzy private university now, it is actually more, even after inflation adjustment, than what tuition at such a private university was when I started.  So it takes a big bite out of a middle-class family's income.   If the university is going to rely on undergraduate tuition for revenue it must deliver a decent education in return, for the typical student, not just for the top performers.

Now I'd like to mention several facts that have come to my attention since writing that post in 2013.  Many students I'm currently teaching seem quite stressed out.  This is partly due to their being on the job market and going through the process of interviewing with recruiters and/or their making preparation for graduate/professional school.  (And it may partly be due to their sensing in themselves a certain lack of competence for the new world they will be entering after they graduate.)  I wrote about this, along with one possible solution for alleviating some of this stress, in my prior post called Should We Offer On-Campus Students Online Self-Paced Courses As A Scheduling Option?  What I didn't mention in that post, though it should be evident, is that any mitigation taken to lessen student stress, whether this one or something else, will come with a price tag.  So one wants to know how those resources might be obtained.

Next, regarding the leadership on campus, it seems more heavily STEM concentrated now than I can remember previously.  Of course, STEM will always be quite important on campus.  But there used to be more balance among the leadership than there is now.  When I started with SCALE about 25 years ago, the Provost at the time was Larry Faulkner (Chemistry).  And a soon to be Associate Provost who would have ed tech in his portfolio was Dave Liu (Computer Science).   But the Associate Provost for undergraduate education was Susan Gonzo (English as an International Language) and that gave the overall approach some balance.  Susan was also on the SCALE advisory committee and Dave Liu had a few folks who had accomplished quite a lot with ed tech tour some universities in Taiwan with him to showcase what we were doing.  I was one of those who went on the trip.  So I became reasonably closely connected to this leadership.  Now the Provost is from Electrical and Computer Engineering, the Associate Provost for Undergraduate Education is a physicist, and I heard only last week that a new person has been hired for what might be considered the sequel to the Dave Liu position.  She is a mathematician.  In addition, the Director of CITL (the campus learning center) is a biologist.   I don't know these people so don't want to comment on their individual talents, but I sense less connection with folks on campus outside of STEM.

Third, regarding the flow of funds, I am aware that there is a new budgeting model on campus for how tuition dollars track the students that pay this tuition.   The payment per IU (what we at Illinois call a credit hour; it stands for instructional unit) is much greater under the new model than it was under the old.   The new budgeting model applies to payments from the Provost's Office to the Dean's Office in the various colleges.  In any such scheme, one should expect some funds to be retained by the level that is higher in the organization chart.  So I've been told that the Provost's Office keeps the differential in tuition that international students pay.  But for the in-state tuition, my understanding is that more of it now flows to the colleges than before, though I don't know the precise formula.  We should also know, however, how the flow works from the Dean's Office to the Department Head's Office.  Has the new model changed that flow as well?  I heard last week that in LAS it has not, or to be more precise for LAS Social Science departments it has not.  (In addition to Economics, Statistics should be lumped into Social Science for this purpose.)

Fourth, regarding enrollments, for the campus as a whole undergraduate IUs have grown about 10% over the last 10 years while undergraduate students have grown about 8% in that same period.   But specifically within the Economics Department, when I wrote that piece on the business and ethical dilemmas back in 2013 the number of majors was somewhere in the range of 800-850.   I learned last week that there are now 1100 majors.  And that's in only a 6 year period.   So the rate of growth in Economics majors is close to three times the rate of growth of students overall.

Last, the New York Times produced tables of family income distribution for students and how these students fared after college income-wise.  This is the page for Illinois.  (There is some weird programming at the top of the page, which makes it a little harder to access the rest of the content that is there.)  The upshot is that Illinois, like many major public research universities, seems an engine for income redistribution - upward.  In colloquial terms, it is welfare for families that live in the northwest suburbs of Chicago.  In an idealistic conception of public universities, they provide opportunities for all and thus serve as great levelers of the income distribution.  The data shows otherwise.  One then wonders whether this perpetuates down onto the Campus and whether one should look at the STEM versus Social Science divide as a mirror of the divide in income distribution.

* * * * *

I was tempted to write a bunch of recommendations about how the Campus should change, based on the above, but it occurred to me that not enough is known, on a drill-down level, to have an interesting and intelligent conversation about these matters.  So the suggestions below are all about transparency - provide information that is publicly available with this drill down look.  What follows are a bunch of suggestions in this regard. 

Replicate the kind of information one can find in the Campus Profile, but do it on a department by department basis.

On Majors in the Department
  • Report the 25th percentile and 75th percentile on standardized test scores.
  • Redo the the New York Times table on family income distribution for each major.
  • Report how many IUs are taught by tenure track faculty, specialized (teaching) faculty, and graduate students.
    • Do this disaggregated for 100-level class, 200-level, classes, 300-level classes, and 400-level classes.
  • Report how the IUs are distributed among these various levels for a student who graduates with that major. 
  • To get a handle on required classes that get closed out, report on day 10 enrollment numbers (the 10th day is the last day students can add a course without permission from the instructor) versus room size.  If there is wait list information, report that as well.  There needs to be a time series of this.  Temporary (lasting for one semester) close outs are to be expected when demand for a particular major increases.  Ongoing close outs are a different matter and deserve closer attention. 
  • Report on section size, for classes with only one section.  Report on pooled section size for cross listed courses.  For large lectures with discussion sections, report on both lecture size and discussion section size.  Again do this disaggregated by course number.
On Faculty in the Department
  • We need a time series on the faculty/majors ratio.  
    • We need a separate time series of this ratio for tenure track faculty and specialized faculty.
  • Likewise we need a time series on the size of the doctoral student program and the tenure-track -faculty/doctoral students ratio.
  • If there is a Professional Masters program in the department, we need similar information for it.
Part of the issue here is whether the undergraduate tuition is subsidizing doctoral education, which would be the case if tuition revenue outside of what is generated from the Professional Masters program ends up paying some of the tenure track faculty salaries, yet those faculty teach PhD students and perhaps Masters students, but not undergraduates.

On Instructional Personnel Spending Per IU

This is the heart of the matter, but it will take some work in getting the necessary information and then putting it together correctly.  One needs: instructor salaries, teaching loads, and percentage of appointment devoted to instruction.  From this one can determine spending per course.  One then divides that by credit hours times number of students enrolled.  We would expect this number to rise by course number, with 100-level courses having the lowest spending per IU and 400-level courses having the highest spending per IU.   Holding course level fixed, how does the number vary by major? Is it relatively flat or is there a significant gradient?  My worst fear is that for 300-level and 400-level courses it is lower for Social Science majors than it is for STEM majors.  But I don't know that; it's only a hunch.  That's why it would be good to do such a study.

* * * * *

We live in a world where data driven decision making is the new mantra.   The university provides a lot of institutional data already, but it is too aggregated for the purposes of this piece.  Further, while faculty salary information can be obtained, as far as I know it is never put together with faculty teaching information.  If we wanted to tell students and their families how their tuition dollars are spent, we'd need to do this.  So a case can be made for performing the above exercise as a way to educate the public on these matters.

I want to give a different argument here as well.  Above I quoted my post from 2013 to say - too many of my students don't have enough on the ball.  If that's not just my class but is actually happening broadly, what should be done about it?

In Engineering they have an attrition strategy (a weed out process).  A good fraction of students who start as Engineering majors transfer out of the College of Engineering.  Recently, I've become aware that Economics is one of those majors they transfer into.  What should happen to these students then?  Overall the campus doesn't want to follow an attrition strategy, especially if that means the student dropping out of the university entirely.   Thus, there seem to me to be two possibilities on how to proceed.  One would be letting the students slide through in spite of not having enough on the ball.  The other would be to follow a nurturing approach and try very hard to get these students up to speed.

The Economics major is particularly odd in that most of the students really want to be in the College of Business, but lack the credentials to get in there.  So Economics might be called the Business Lite degree.  If it comes with reasonably well paying jobs at the other end of the tunnel, everyone can take a heads down approach and continue as we've been doing.   But when fundamentals don't match up to the market price, there is a possibility of a bubble in the making.   Bubbles tend to burst and at the most inconvenient times.   This is why I think these matters are worthy of a closer look and why the campus, already in possession of much of the necessary data, should make substantial further effort to get the disaggregated view of how tuition pays for instruction at the undergraduate level.

This would be a project where lots of people would like to see the results.

Wednesday, October 02, 2019

Should We Offer On Campus Students Online Self-Paced Courses As A Scheduling Option?

This post falls in the category - you can't fight city hall.

I am overwhelmed in teaching the one undergraduate class I have.  Part of that is me, where in the last year or two I've become a complete alte kaker, so am kvetchy much of the time.  Yet before the course started, I still had some idealism in me. I thought I could open the eyes of some of the students to change the ways they go about things and encourage them to think more deeply about what they are being taught, making introspection part and parcel of their regular process.  For the most part, that now appears to be a pipe-dream.  There are several factors I'm encountering with the students that are blocking this outcome.  The blocking is what I mean when I say you can't fight city hall.  If you take those factors as givens, and largely unchangeable, then you might ask a different question.  What can you do to make the lives students lead easier as they go about their coursework?  It's not as noble a goal as getting them to learn more deeply.  But it may be more realistic under the circumstances.  Let me give some background.

The class I teach is an upper level undergraduate course intended primarily for economics majors.  It's called The Economics of Organizations.  I do not require attendance in class.  And I allow students to submit their homework past the deadline and still get credit for it.  As one former student has said, I try to treat the students as adults.  It's their responsibility to perform that way. Many are seniors who are interviewing for jobs.  They expect/hope to get a position where they are treated as a working professional.  Yet the performance of many in my class is anything but professional.

The class has 38 students on the roster.  I would guess that no more than 10 of the students regularly come to class and get their work done on time.  With one notable exception, these students tend not to speak up in class.  Last week I polled those present on whether they'd register for this class if it were offered totally online.  In response, one of the quiet students who sits near the front responded that he would not take it.  For him, coming to class was important.  In behavioral economics terms, it is a nudge.  Coming to class gets him to take the schoolwork seriously.  Several of the other quiet students agreed with that.

There are 10 to 15 students who mostly come, but not always.  They try to keep up with the homework but sometimes get behind on it.  And then most of the rest of the students do not attend much at all.  Truthfully, I can't tell whether they are slower to do the homework.   Then there are two or three students who are still on the roster, but otherwise don't seem to be part of the class at all.

If the student learning was evident, the lack of attendance and being tardy with the homework wouldn't be that big a deal.  The thing is, however, students don't seem to be getting what I'm intending them to learn.  There's a variety of evidence to support this proposition.  The most recent one happened yesterday in class when we did a bargaining experiment to test what our textbook calls The Efficiency Principle - parties to a bargain will achieve an efficient outcome.  For about half the class, the experimental results supported what the textbook claimed.  But the other half either were irrational or didn't understand what they should have been doing in the experiment. My thesis is that there is a significant group of students where not understanding what is being taught is ongoing for them.  They go about their homework to get through it, but do not wrestle with the ideas at all in a way to internalize the ideas.

This is not a new thing for me.  Looking for the Excel workbooks I used to produce the experiment, I stumbled upon this video, which I made for the class back in 2016.  The first half of the video talks about the issue described in the previous paragraph, though the evidence it uses on which to base the conclusion is somewhat different.

If I set the bar in the class so that only students who did get it would pass, there would be a lot of flunks or a very high dropout rate.  That would be inconsistent with the other economics courses these students are taking. Given that, my idealistic aspiration is to encourage students on their own to try to clear the bar, but then not punish them grade-wise if they do not.  However, my course is but one of many that these students take.  Their patterns in doing homework and attending class are shaped by the overall environment they encounter.  So my encouragement has a very limited impact.

There is one more factor that bothers me.  I surveyed the students on this.  Among those who responded, the bulk said that if they miss class they use the class Website as a way to catch up (as distinct from asking a classmate about what happened in class).  But the intent in the course design now is for the class Website to supplement the in-class activity, not to replicate it.  So those who don't attend miss things.  As long as they can get through the homework, missing these things doesn't seem to bother them.  Just yesterday, a student who missed class unabashedly emailed me about the homework that is due tonight.  He was stuck on a particular problem.  Earlier in class, I gave students a tip so they wouldn't be stuck on that problem. Should I have to repeat that tip online?

Actually, each week I have a post about the homework and students are supposed to ask their questions about the homework there.  Indeed, there is quite a thread about doing this.  The thread demonstrates that many students don't have competence to work through the algebra and/or they don't understand the tutorial I had them do earlier in the semester about how to enter answers into the Excel so it will say they have the right answer if their formula is correct.   It is hard to teach economics on this level when students seem so uncomfortable with doing the math.   Getting back to that thread, students have to know it is there and they have to read through my responses, not just the panicky queries by the other students.  For students who aren't coming to class frequently, they probably missed these instructions about how to get help on the homework.

So, the title of this post is asking whether we should accommodate those students who aren't attending regularly nor getting their work in before the deadlines by making the class entirely online and self-paced for them.

My background with self-paced classes is limited.  Back in fall 1972, as a college freshman, I took multivariable calculus in self-paced mode.  The textbook was Thomas' Calculus and Analytic Geometry.  You could attend lectures given by George Brinton Thomas himself.  (I still remember his humorous explanation - it takes two hands to multiply matrices.)  Then you could go to a testing center at any time to take competency tests on the subject matter, six in all.  This space was staffed by upperclassmen, who would grade the test on the spot.  One of those I had to take a second time around.  Nevertheless, I recall finishing the last test about a month before the end of the semester, which allowed me to concentrate on other courses then.

The only other experience I have is in supporting Jerry Uhl, one of the founders of the Calculus and Mathematica approach on campus.  At the time they had already started to teach an online version of C&M , which was called NetMath.  Jerry's idea was to do a Netmath version of differential equations,  offer it only to students who had already dropped the on ground version, do this in the spring semester only, and if necessary give the students an incomplete grade, letting them finish up the course in the summer.  Jerry did this as one of the projects among The SCALE Efficiency Projects.  It seemed quite effective except for one serious caveat.  Most of the students taking differential equations were in Engineering.  When some of the administration in Engineering heard about this offering, they got upset.  They thought it was an unfair advantage for students to be able to get an incomplete.

That was 20 years ago.  I have no idea where current thinking on campus is on this matter of granting undergraduate students incompletes.  But I can report it now somewhat common for students to tell me they have to miss my class because they have a midterm in another class that day.  This makes sense because....?  If we acknowledged that students are over programmed, in general, and then episodically the stress levels amp up even more, as high stakes tests in courses take their toll, we need to find some way to release the pressure.  In that way of looking at things, granting incompletes makes sense.

There is still a different issue to confront.  I like to use Socratic Dialog in class, partly as a way to get students involved in the session, and partly because it models how people (should) think and I want to give students a method they should aspire to in their own thinking.  But economics students are mainly getting straight lecture in their other courses.  So that is what they are used to.   Micro-lectures can readily be delivered online.  I am reasonably proficient in producing them.  I already have micro-lecture content for some parts of the course.   Would students who aren't coming to class now watch online micro-lectures?

My guess is that if they could do the homework without watching, most would go that route.  That would parallel the current behavior that I'm seeing with those who skip class.  On the other hand, online viewing when and where the students wants to do that is clearly more convenient than going to class at a pre-scheduled time.  So on the fundamentals of this admittedly theoretical analysis, it could go either way.  Further, if we really considered the current reality on the ground, then we shouldn't be such purists in considering the student behavior we'd find acceptable.

In other words, online self-paced offerings for on ground students as an option should definitely be thought of as a second best solution. A first best solution would address the idealistic concerns I sketched at the beginning of this piece.  I do have some other posts with suggestions in the more idealistic vein, which of necessity would have to be implemented much earlier in the students' trajectory through their school years.  In the spring I wrote, A Summer Camp for Teaching College-Level Reading and Learning to Learn.   A few years earlier I wrote, The Holistic First-Year College Course - A Non-Solution.  Each of these offers a fairly drastic solution for addressing the underlying issues. Yet these solutions seem so speculative and unrealistic that one should ask what can we do now that is do-able?  That's how my the idea in this post should be considered.