What a thoroughly disagreeable Re-Entry Point To Reality.
If you haven’t been a college student in the last 10 years or so, you should know that Higher Ed is now making a lot of use of “learning technology” – a term that has a powerful lot of meanings. For me, it means that there’s a specialized website that is only available to people who are officially enrolled in my class. I use it as a distribution and communication point – student e-mails go directly into this website, and I get a big fat red exclamation point anytime I log in that tells me a message is waiting – no chance for stuff to get nabbed by the spam filters, no chance for students to mistype e-mail addresses, no chance to inadvertently batch-delete e-mails, and no chance to somehow not notice that an e-mail is waiting. This is cool from my standpoint because I don’t have to worry about missing anything, or having items go astray. I also get a full back-and-forth e-mail trail that I can refer to in the future if I need to.
It’s also saving a lot of trees – I still hand out copies of the syllabus and stuff on the first day, because I need to make sure that no one can possibly have missed that information – but otherwise, it lets me electronically distribute everything I need to give the students. And if (when) they lose one of those Valuable Treasures, they can just download it again instead of having to ask me for a new copy (thus letting me know they lost it) and/or having to wait to see me in order to get a new copy. Very convenient, this is!
As an extra benefit, it also lets me post grades, privately, and really really fast. Back In The Dark Ages when I went off to college myself, you’d take an exam and 1) it would take freaking forever to have it graded, and 2) you had to wait until the class after the professor was done in order to see how you’d fared. Or, sometimes, if you got lucky, and back when we weren’t nearly as concerned about Privacy as we are today, you might have a professor that would put a sheet of paper outside of their office with strings of Social Security Numbers and a grade next to it – and you’d spend quite a lot of time dropping by the professor’s office just to see if the paper was up yet, etc. Now, it may still take freaking forever to get something graded (although I try really really hard to get stuff back super-fast, because I always hated waiting…and I’d always somehow talk myself into being certain that I’d done a whole lot worse on the test than I actually did). But at least, once the grading is done, the grade is available almost immediately, and it’s available without any nonsense of disclosing SSNs, and no one has to make repeat visits to an office in the sticks on the off-chance that things are posted. No, these days, it’s no more complicated than checking for e-mail. Granted, for some students, it’s like checking e-mail to see if there’s anything new from the Collection Agency or the Parole Officer, but at least you know when it’s there.
Lately, we’ve done it even one better: homework management systems. Most accounting homework – aside from Auditing classes – involves a lot of number crunching (and application of judgment and problem-solving skills, but always some degree of number crunching). Back In The Dark Ages, you’d have to buy a special workbook with homework templates to tear out, fill in with your Trusty Little Pencil, and deliver to the professor for grading.
Now, the Dirty Little Secret is that when you’ve got anywhere between 30 and 300 students turning in assignments, each of which contains multiple problems, some of which are very complex and have multiple steps, and this is happening once or twice a week, it is literally impossible to do a good job of grading these things. Well, if you had a Time-Turner it would be possible, and it might be possible if you didn’t need to do stuff like, well, eat or sleep, but for the most part, we don’t have one and we do need to. So, back in the day, “homework grading” consisted either of getting something like a check-plus, a check, or a check-minus depending on how many errors it looked like you might have made. Or possibly just a “+” (turned it in) or a “-” (didn’t). Or sometimes you might get a number grade, but unless your professor had an absolute army of teaching assistants (and sometimes even if they did) the grade would be riddled with errors where mistakes got made or things got missed. Sometimes those errors would be in your favor, and you’d keep silent, and sometimes they wouldn’t, and you’d be on your professor’s doorstep to dicker over the grade.
And the kicker is that even if the error was in your favor, it would mean that you thought you had done something correctly when you really had done it wrong. And those kinds of things always rose up to bite you on the butt, come test-time.
None of this was fun for anyone.
Homework, well, still isn’t fun – I’ll be honest, I know it’s a huge PITA, but it’s a necessary PITA – but it is a whole lot faster and less prone to grading errors, thanks to these homework management systems. The computer grades the assignments, and it generally does so with a much higher degree of accuracy and detail. As soon as you put your answer in, the system tells you exactly which bits were right and which bits were wrong…AND it usually gives you links to relevant book material so you can trouble-shoot your work efficiently. And when the student is done, the system lets me go in and look at all of this to see if people are missing the same kinds of stuff – which means that is something I need to cover in class. So the availability of this kind of software has really sped things up and made the PITA homework exercise more useful to the students, and frees me up to focus on more important things, like personalizing the instruction way more than was possible before all of this technology. Back In The Day, the class got taught in exactly one way, and you only got to see your professor in class or at designated office hours, and if you had a question but forgot it, TOUGH.
So it’s all different, now, which is great on one hand…but we have certain…issues…that can arise, on the other.
Like this one. I sent the class website “live” last night after I got back from my trip. And first thing this morning, one of my students – who impressed the heck out of me both by taking the proactive approach and logging in before school starts next week and by actually comparing the Syllabus that he downloaded to what the bookstore said – let me know that the bookstore had ordered the wrong book.
The book they’d ordered didn’t give access to the homework management system, and it was a wrong edition to boot, which meant that all the homework problems and page references were going to get screwed up. This kind of thing can sow chaos in a classroom, and it makes students (reasonably) angry, for which they frequently (unreasonably) blame the professor. So I was Mondo Beyondo Extra Special Very Not Happy about this, especially since I’d made a big bloody deal over the edition number and the homework management system with the bookstore and the publisher late last spring when I put the order in.
Any day when I have to call a textbook publisher with a heated complaint before 9am is a day that is not getting off to a nice start. fortunately (although not Fortunately) the bookstore ID’ed the problem as originating with them, and has wangled a deal out of the publisher, so anyone who bought the book from the store will get an exchange next week…assuming that the hurricane doesn’t blast us all to bits.
At least I was able to get the word out quickly with the learning technology, I suppose we should be counting our blessings…
Here’s a picture that reflects my day so far: