Home > social computing, teaching > Wiping Up After Online Universities

Wiping Up After Online Universities

Newly potty trained children need help wiping. As they get older and more coordinated, they can do this for themselves. But they’ll let Mom and Dad do it for them for a shocking length of time. Until one day you take a deep breath and say, “You’re perfectly capable of doing this yourself. Call me if you have problems, but please try yourself first.”

Lately I feel like I’ve been cleaning up after not only my children, but also other people’s children. Or rather, students. They’re students at online universities, and they seem to think I’m here to spend my time taking care of them.

Case one: a student at the for-profit school University of Phoenix emails me that she’d like to interview me about an article I wrote. I tell her I can’t chat on the phone, but can answer a couple questions by email. She emails me questions like “how do you evaluate an online reference?” I politely send her back the name of a book that discusses this in detail. She replies:

“This will help for future projects and I will pass it on but our presentation is due 8 June, we were only given a few days to prepare. I will attempt to find it, if not we will go with what we have from your article. Thanks again.”

No time to go to the library and actually read a book–I want you to answer my questions!

Case two, same day: PhD student at not-for-profit online university asks to meet with me to discuss her dissertation research. She comes to my office, and tells me that she has a little over a year to finish her dissertation.  She doesn’t have a topic yet, but wants to do something about human-computer interaction. Maybe for the elderly? She really doesn’t know. She knows little about my research, and her areas of interest don’t relate to what I do. I ask if maybe she could discuss this with her, um, advisor in her program? She says, “Oh, well that’s not how it works. I have to come up with a topic and write it up. Then they send it to faculty in the area, and they decide whether they’re willing to supervise the thesis.”

I try to be nice to random requests. I answer almost every email I receive, if only with a form letter. And sometimes I’ll meet someone at a conference and they’ll greet me warmly. I’ll politely say, “Hi!  Nice to meet you. Do I know you?” They reply, “Oh, sorry, I’m sure you don’t remember me… six years ago I was working on a project, and you were really helpful and sent me some references. I really appreciated it. It’s great to finally meet you in person!” All that for a form letter. Well, if I can spend 30 seconds and make some random student that happy, I’m happy to do it. But lately, these requests are getting out of hand.

What frustrated me about the two encounters I had yesterday was that both students seemed to leave the experience with a sense that I had let them down–had not really helped them the way they were hoping for. So now I invested time in helping a random student from a third or fourth-tier university I have no affiliation with, and am left feeling guilty that I didn’t do more for them?  Good grief.

I don’t blame the students at all. They are clearly not getting the kind of support they need from their online degree programs. Do I blame their instructors? Partially. They need to better support their own students, and also educate them on what kind of ‘research methods’ are appropriate and expected. But the real problem lies with their universities.  PBS Frontline did a wonderful documentary “College, Inc.” on the abusive practices of  for-profit universities. They charge twice the amount as a not-for-profit school, and leave students drowning in debt. And often give them useless degrees that can’t get them the jobs they need to pay off that debt (like a nursing degree with no clinical experience, for example). For-profit schools typically spend 25% of their revenue on advertising, and 10% on paying faculty. Those under-paid faculty are not too eager to provide lots of one-on-one time with students, and I honestly can’t blame them.

I’m going to do my darndest to keep being nice–keep replying to mail I receive from random students in at least some minimal way. Being a professor puts constant pressure on you to be less nice, and I don’t want to give in. But at some point I may  need to start writing back to students from online schools (and their instructors), “You’re perfectly capable of doing this yourself. Call me if you have problems, but please try yourself first.”

Categories: social computing, teaching
  1. July 8, 2010 at 11:54 am

    This article was extremely interesting, especially since I was searching for thoughts on this subject last week.
    I have been coming to this blog for a couple of days now and i’m very impressed with the content!

    thanks & regards
    avid – online university

    • July 8, 2010 at 10:06 pm

      Thanks for the kind words!
      Glad you like it!

  2. July 26, 2010 at 2:27 am

    I don’t think it’s online or offline, for- or not-for-profit. I get a ton of these “interview” requests that seem to me just to be excuses not to do research or even basic thinking. Sometimes they are questions that I’ve answered in detail in published work, but the questions are not for clarification or debate but just repetition. Other times it seems as if I’m being asked to take a position on the inquirer’s behalf, which seems just weird.

    So, yeah, I dunno where this trendcame from. Is it new?

    • July 26, 2010 at 7:06 am

      Great points. I think the ease of pestering people by email is the biggest culprit. Can you really see these folks writing a formal paper letter with such requests?

      Some of it I really do think is not caused but exacerbated by the under-staffing of for-profit universities (10% of funds spent on teaching, 25% on advertising). And some of it I really do think is people’s tendency to underestimate the workload of online teaching, which leads online teachers to under-support their students. Most of these questions should really be asked at high bandwidth of communication of the instructor being paid to teach the class. But if that person is overworked and as a result becomes unresponsive, it’s just as easy to mail someone else’s teacher as your own, right?

      • July 26, 2010 at 10:06 am

        Ah, good point. Now that I think about it, a number of these requests (not all though) are explicit assignments in courses. I find myself feeling both flattered and annoyed by such requests.

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