Yesterday evening (as I write*) I spent 40 minutes filming three minutes of video. It was a clip explaining how to collect aquatic insects, for my newly-online-with-lab-at-home Entomology course. That “40 minutes” is just camera-rolling time. It doesn’t count planning what to film, travel to location, or editing the video later for posting (I only stepped on a slippery rock and swore on camera once; but it was a good reminder that I should probably learn how to bleep the audio track).
Perhaps you feel that the title of this post is the most obvious statement I’ve ever made. It’s certainly obvious to me, and to my colleagues, but it’s not necessarily obvious to students, or to their parents, or to the news media. That’s understandable, as those folks don’t necessarily know what goes on under the hood. And that explains the calls you’ve seen for discounted tuition now that it’s clear that many (at least) fall semesters are going to be online. Those calls are on shaky foundations at best.
The suggestion that we should drop tuition presumes that either (1) the value to the student, or (2) the cost to the university of each course is lower because we’re online. Let’s think about those.
Now, the value of a course is controlled as much by the student as it is by the instructor.** But lest that sound like “oh, stop complaining and just buckle down” – of course the instructor can influence the value. And just like most of my colleagues, I’m working on that: working to create quality online courses, at least as best I can in the couple of months that are available. And that’s much more work than just offering another go-around of the face-to-face version. This is especially true for labs, which need wholesale reinvention; but it’s true of lectures too, presuming we don’t think it’s a good idea to just record our regular lectures and throw them up on the web. Which, I will say categorically, we don’t.
If offering (quality) online courses means extra work and new ways of doing things, there only two ways it can happen: either the university spends more money, or individual instructors do substantially more work without increased compensation. At my university, it’s both. All of us are working hard – I’ve already put many days of labour into a course that otherwise needed only minor tinkering, and I’ve barely scratched my to-do list. In support of that, I’ve taken training courses mounted, on short notice and at non-trivial cost, by my university; and I’ve pushed us to order new equipment and supplies to make “lab kits” so students can build and identify an insect collection at home.
So back to those calls for lower tuition. They depend on at least one of two things being true:
- online courses are of lower value than face-to-face ones; and/or
- online courses are cheaper to produce than face-to-face ones.
Because we don’t want #1 to be true, we’re making darn sure that #2 isn’t.
I know I’m far from alone in this – most (I hope all) of my colleagues, and of my university’s sister institutions, are in this right alongside me.*** But “people who work hard are working even harder” doesn’t make as good a news story as “heartless universities try to rip off their students”. So I doubt we’ve heard the last of this one.
Now excuse me while I go learn to edit the swearwords out of my course videos. This may take a while.
© Stephen Heard July 23, 2020
P.S. There are, of course, more cogent arguments for waiving fees associated with campus amenities like gyms and parking, although sometimes those subsidize the overall operation. And one can certainly argue that with courses online, the social value of attending university is reduced – but that doesn’t seem to have much directly to do with tuition rates, and it isn’t the justification I’m seeing offered for lower tuition.
Images: E-learning GUI © Sandra Schoen, released to public domain, via Pixabay.com; and me in the stream, mid-filming © Stephen Heard and his trusty cell-phone tripod.
*^This is an expanded version of a short Twitter thread I posted the morning after. If it seems familiar to you, that’s probably why. But not everyone’s on Twitter, Twitter threads are ephemeral, and the form’s a bit constraining. So here we are.
**^A student who has figured out how to be a professional learner can extract value from a face-to-face course, and can extract value from an online course. (There are good arguments to suggest that such a student can extract more value from the online course.) A student who has not yet become a professional learner can miss most of the value in a course in either format. Converting the latter kind of student into the former is one of the most important, and most difficult, challenges we have.
***^In fact, I’m quite lucky that the courses I’m doing are among the easier ones to move online. In 2020-21, I have my Entomology course; part of a new “Plants and People” course; a small part of a graduate Biostatistics course, and my Scientific Writing course. Three of the four went at least partly online last year, none is first-year, and none has the kind of equipment- or reagent-heavy lab that most resists an online version. So I hope this post doesn’t come off as bragging. I know that others are doing far more work than I am.