The Academic Story of 2010?

By now, you’ve undoubtedly had the pleasure of enjoying Prof. Richard Quinn’s smackdown of the students in his “Strategic  Management” class at the University of Central Florida.  (I say ‘undoubtedly’ because  I’m late chiming in on this story, and that YouTube link appears to have been e-mailed amongst professors only slightly less than “One Professor’s Fantasy” and “So You Want to Get a PhD in the Humanities”.)

Just the facts: The integrity of Quinn’s midterm was violated when, as reported by ABC,

Two hundred students, approximately one-third of the class of seniors, were believed to have received advanced copies of the exam. It was the largest cheating scandal in the university’s history.

Quinn, who called the scandal “a knife to my heart, calculated exactly who’d cheated, and then gave the entire class a dressing down.

And, of course, for mandatory knee-jerk, Canadian coverage, Maclean’s reports that:

Richard Quinn discovered that 200 students–one third of his business course–cheated on a midterm, managing to secure the answers ahead of time.

Of course, as we now know, “cheating” was probably a strong word to use — apparently the students had ordered the bank of test questions from the publisher’s website, perhaps in an Instructor’s copy of their textbook. [No news on whether Maclean’s will bravely go on to crack the latest “cheating scandal” surrounding the sample questions in SAT study guides]

In its defense, Pearson Higher Education (the publisher in question), replied that:

The company . . .offers test banks to instructors only, said spokeswoman Wendy Spiegel. It is never made available to students, either for sale or for free, she said. “We do everything we can to protect the integrity of this material . . .”

And just in case the website had difficulty differentiating actual instructors from students who tried to create instructor accounts, Spokesperson Spiegel directs us to the sure-fire alert posted on the Pearson site, which should settle the matter nicely.

In the aftermath, of course, there’s been no end of willingness of equally brave souls attacking Quinn for perceived laziness and incompetence.  (Maclean’s must have been otherwise distracted.)

But here’s the point that I want to make.  The lesson of this incident — more than absolutely any other lesson that concerns ethics or yout’ today — is the fact that workload is directly connected to academic quality and integrity.

Where do I begin?

Should professors write their own tests?  Absolutely, which means that they should be given the time to do so.

Should professors grade their students’ assignments?  Absolutely, which means that they need to be given the time to do so properly.

Should professors be creating their own overheads?  Study Guides?  Reading Questions?  See above.

In the last years, instructors in all levels at all institutions have been given more classes with more students.  They’ve had less time to do that actual necessary work of preparation, teaching, and grading.  And publishing companies, sensing a competitive edge, have helpfully stepped in to fill that need.

As a consequence, we could envision a future where increased demands on professors would effectively result in publishing companies determining what students learn, how they learn it at home and in the classroom, and how they’re tested on that material.

And that future is, erm, now, or — for most of us — is probably only one unexpected, time-consuming emergency away.  And that future means that corporations, not professors, will effectively be teaching our students.  (And that’s fine, if Ontario is ready to see Pearson offering its own unaccredited degrees, marketed with the slogan: “It’s precisely the same education that you get in Ontario’s Colleges and Universities, at half the price”.)

And if we don’t want to see that, then we need to make sure the professors have the needed time to actually do the  work of teaching, which extends far beyond the classroom, and yes, does include creating assignments and giving students useful feedback on them.

So far, Ontario’s Universities and Colleges have been doing the opposite, trying to maximize student numbers and professors’ workloads.  This phenomenon and its effects were noted in the 2010 online survey of faculty and librarians at Ontario universities, conducted by the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations (and discussed here).

That survey reported that:

  • 69.6% of respondents claim that, in their own departments, budgetary pressures had specifically led to increased class sizes
  • 31.5% report an increased reliance on multiple-choice tests
  • 38.4% of respondents report reduced out-of-class contact with students
  • 42.2% of respondents “stated that they perceive a decline in quality between 2005 and 2008”

Increased class sizes, leading to more multiple-choice tests and less time assisting students out-of-class.  I can’t think of a recipe more likely to compel professors to rely on the short-cuts provided by publishing companies; I can’t think of a recipe more likely to compel students to seek out the service of publishing companies to assist them in preparing for exams.

This is the situation in Ontario’s Colleges and Universities.  In Colleges, it’s a consequence of managerial fiat (increased class sizes; static hours for out-of-class assistance; altered evaluation factors to increase the student-faculty ratio).  In Universities, it’s a consequence of budget cuts and the offloading of work onto grad student teaching assistants.

In both cases, it’s a side effect of the forces that are justified with reference to “expanding educational opportunities in Ontario”.  In both cases, it has the effect of undermining and circumventing education from actually taking place.

If you’ve come under pressure to change your evaluation techniques, in order to accommodate increased students.  Feel free to share your experiences at ontariocollegeprof@yahoo.com, to let me know “how that’s working for ya“.  (Anonymity will be preserved.)

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