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An Idea Whose Time Hasn’t Quite Come

September 2, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

It’s occurred to me over the last few days that I’m really doing this at the wrong point in history.

Let me explain.  The first time I tried college, in the early ’90s, there was no such thing as “online homework”.  Instructors didn’t put things on the Web (they couldn’t – if it existed at all in those days, it was only in its most primitive bang-the-rocks-together form), textbook publishers didn’t have websites (ditto), and nobody had anything other than the vaguest pie-in-the-sky thoughts about “hypermedia content delivery”.  You went to class, you did your homework, you took it to the next class, and the world kept turning.  Simple.

Today, everyone’s doing that kind of stuff.  The concept of offering things like coursework and class information online (even for regular old-fashioned sitting-in-a-room lecture courses) has reached a stage I like to think of as “immature proliferation” – everybody’s doing it, but no two implementations are the same.  There are no standards.  Every textbook publisher has its own system for offering and delivering such content.  Every instructor has his own preferences.  Quite a few of them have homebrewed systems of their own to add to the mix.  And the university itself has multiple different mutually exclusive online information systems, some of which are preferred by some instructors, some by others.

If, like me, you’re taking four courses at once, it’s maddening.  Some professors use FirstClass conferences to convey vital information about their classes, and wish to be reached through FC’s built-in email functionality.  Others eschew FC and insist on using the older Blackboard system.  One of mine this semester is doing both, and one (my ECE professor) is a Linux snob and so builds all of his own stuff rather than stoop to using any of the packaged systems already on offer.

And that’s before we even get to the access-keyed websites for the coursework itself.  The math section I’m in is technically an online course (it’s mostly populated by “distance learning” students in far-flung places who’ve presumably never even seen the Orono campus), so it has a FirstClass conference and an online homework/testing tool devised by the textbook publisher.  My chemistry course uses a completely different publisher-created online homework system which operates differently from the one used in MAT 122, and there’s a totally separate one for the laboratory section material. I noticed that my Public Speaking book also has a code in it for such a system, but that instructor isn’t using it, thank God.  I’m guessing that’s why the campus bookstore only offers used copies of that book, so that people don’t have to pay extra for the access code – an unexpectedly thoughtful gesture on their part.

Oh yes, they cost extra.  In CHY 121’s case, I paid an extra $70 on top of the already extortionate price of the (massive and unwieldy) textbook itself for the privilege of receiving a small fiberboard card with one of those codes like you get when you buy an EA game (you know the kind, with a string of five-letter nonsense words delimited by hyphens: FLINX-DIVPT-ALEFS-CZART-BLARG-LOLWT).  Between that, the separate laboratory pack (previously described), and a necessary tool for ECE 101 I haven’t actually tracked down yet, my “books and miscellaneous equipment” budget for this semester has overrun the blithe little estimate on the university’s financial aid page by about 120%.

But the cost is nothing compared to the sheer confusion and annoyance of having to keep track of all these separate, differently operated, individually usernamed and passworded, universally mission-critical web widgets.  Understand, I have nothing against the principle at work.  I can understand the attraction of the online homework systems for the instructors: the web engine grades the student’s work as it’s done and provides the instructor with a calm, impartial completed grade at the end.  No more spending all night grading homework papers!  And the homework system my math class is using, in particular, is absurdly helpful – so much so it makes me feel a bit like I’m cheating off the kid next to me whenever I click the “See an Example” button to get some illumination on what I’m working on.

No, what gets to me is the insane proliferation of the things.  I’m taking four classes right now and have to keep track of no fewer than nine different online data streams: FC conferences for MAT 122, CHY 121, and CMJ 103; the CMJ 103 Blackboard page; the publisher-provided online homework system for Precalculus; two online systems (one homework, one lab) for Chemistry; my ECE 101 instructor’s homebuilt course website; and my regular student inbox, where administrative stuff frequently arrives from other sources.  No wonder the university expects every student to own a powerful laptop computer.  You need one just to store the bookmark file for that lot.

This is why I said at the beginning that I’m doing this at the wrong point in history.  Eighteen years ago, none of this stuff existed, except for the occasional hardcore early-adopter CS prof who thought it was cool to make students get handouts from an FTP site.  And in another 10-20 years, I expect the mad bandwagon rush will have died down and some standards will have arrived to make better sense of the matter.  (Or civilization will have fallen and it won’t matter.)  Right now, though, it’s just a mess.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have homework to do… if the website’s up.

  1. FrozenCapybara
    September 2, 2010 at 15:36

    Oh good lord you have to use FirstClass? My sympathies.

    As a former instructional technologist, this sort of thing drives me absolutely up the wall. Not because it exists, mind you, but because nobody seems to think anything of it – the prevailing attitude seems to be “eh, they’re kids! They’re all online all the time anyway, they can do it!” Well, yes, they CAN do it. That doesn’t mean they WILL, and given all that annoyance, they frequently won’t. Or that it isn’t annoying as hell to the few students who actually do bother to sort through the nine different information streams for their four classes. And profs wonder why the students aren’t doing all their readings…

    I eagerly await the day when the average age of a professor is not such that they regard the internet as “that crazy thing with those kids these days”. …or not, since professors tend to be clueless and uncaring about anything that isn’t their research no matter how old they are. :P

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