Moving courses online isn’t easy – or cheap

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:

  1.  online courses are of lower value than face-to-face ones; and/or
  2.  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.

13 thoughts on “Moving courses online isn’t easy – or cheap

  1. James March

    Hi Stephen, Great post. I am also in the process of trying to prepare for a field invertebrate biology course this fall. Would you be willing to share what you are including in your “lab kits”?

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    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      Hi James – for my Entomology course, the students make a collection and identify their insects. The key bit for us is a USB digital microscope, along the lines of this one: https://amzn.to/3jylAtu. Then there’s the more usual entomological things like forceps, vials, pins, points, glue, cardstock for labels, foam spreading board, and foam-lined boxes to hold specimens. Finally, they’ll need some preservative for their soft-bodied specimens, which will either be lab ethanol spiked with Bitrex, if we’re allowed, or ethanol-based hand sanitizer otherwise. (They’re similar %EtoH, but the former might run into regulatory issues, I’m not sure yet). The whole kit will run around $200/student, and they’ll sign it out for the semester and return it all when they hand in their collection. Hope that helps!

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  2. Marco Mello

    Totally agree. Unfortunately, part of the prejudice against online teaching comes from our colleagues. Many are still strongly attached to 19th-century pedagogy and have not adhered to 20th-century methods, let alone the reality of the iGen and α generations. If lecturers and professors themselves speak publicly against remote classes, how can we expect parents and students to understand what we are doing in this crisis?

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    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      Yes, and I think we inadvertently did ourselves some of this damage a decade or so ago, when MOOCs were new and people were saying they could replace universities. So we argued in-person instruction is key. Which is not the only way that your neighbourhood university differs from a bunch of MOOCs, but it was an easy argument to make.

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      1. Marco Mello

        Sure, you’re right. I’m a great enthusiast of remote teaching, especially MOOCs. I’m preparing a MOOC for Coursera myself. Hopefully, with this crisis, more people will realize that the middle way is the best choice, as usual. In this case, hybrid teaching in Higher Education. Maybe also for High School kids, but with a much smaller percentage of remote activities.

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  3. crowther

    Steve, I appreciate the clarity of you laying out options 1 and 2 for courses being cheaper, and I completely agree with you that, in the short term, we are working hard to avoid #1 and thus are negating #2 as well. But don’t you think that #2 could well be true in the longer term, and perhaps already is true for courses that were moved online years ago (i.e. non-pandemic circumstances)? That is, ONCE you’ve done the work of creating a good online course, maybe it really is cheaper to deliver to students, and maybe they should pay less? I don’t see that argument going away anytime soon.

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    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      Greg – that long-term question is a different one, for sure. (That’s not where the ask for tuition cuts is coming from, though). Online courses might be cheaper in the long run, for instance, if you don’t update them year-to-year, or if you open them up to high enrolment beyond your institution (hello MOOC). However, if they’re to be high quality, both of those are undercut (for instance, if assessment is high quality, it will involve substantial grading effort – likely more than for an in-person conventional exam). How this all balances out is well beyond my expertise!

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    2. Mark

      I would first argue that this conversation of “how to lower tuition” is directed at exactly the wrong people (i.e., the professors doing the class development and teaching). Rather, this is a question that should be directed squarely at university presidents, members of the board of trustees and other admins who have complete purview to how the dollars are moving through the university system. This is the black box that a lot of these admins do not want to discuss since it will expose a lot of issues that the faculty themselves have been asking about. If the tuition can be really broken down to represent X$ going to facilities and overhead that can be reduced, I am all for it, but I think a lot of people would be surprised to find out just how little some faculty are paid relative to the other areas of some university budgets.

      I would also add that we should be careful not to assume that such online classes are static entities that will require little work once complete the first time. My dual listed grad / undergrad courses that rely heavily on the primary scientific literature constantly need updating if I am to really give my students the best content I can.

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  4. John Acorn

    Having worked in commercial television, I couldn’t agree more! Audio-visual production, at anything like acceptable quality, is just simply expensive and time consuming. It is consuming my summer, for sure.

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