Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Dr. Schadenfrau Returns To Smack Down Some Online Learners.

Dr. Schadenfrau here again — you may remember me as maladapted, and with too many cats.

In all the rantings on RYS, there’s one I haven’t seen: online students, especially adult learners in advanced programs. We’ve battered the folks in the undergrad face-to-face venue, slammed international students and their understanding of intellectual property rights, and railed at idiot parents but no one’s had a good kick at the online cohort. So, like David Beckham, here I go.
My good pal at another institution, Dr. Dick Tator, and I teach face-to-face classes but a good portion of our load is delivered fully online. In particular, our online students are usually adults undertaking advanced-level work. Now, I’m not even considering whether or not advanced studies are truly possible or desirable as fully online entities. I don’t make university policies; I only heed to the whims of administrators and deliver the goods. I don’t, after all, have tenure.

Both Dr. Tator and I deliver structured courses with weekly requirements including readings, presentations, collaboration and all the other muck that’s supposed to invigorate the experience. Propelling us forward in the endeavor is the Learning Management System (LMS) for online delivery. If you’re unfamiliar, just remember that the average LMS is designed by Torquemada and members of Byzantium Engineering Inc. to ensure maximum pain and complexity, especially for new students. As the instructor, you’re not escaping this techno-dungeon without some shrieks of agony either.

Over time and drinks, Dr. Tator and I have found that online learning attracts a fairly small but consistent set of students to its techno-cloisters. Generally, most students are at least 2 or more of the archetypes listed below. See if you can identify any combinations in your online courses from the list:

Barbie Bandwidth. Barbie can’t do her work on time because she doesn’t have an internet connection at home and isn’t smart enough to poach from her neighbor’s unsecured wireless network. She roams coffee shops and other places touting “free internet” and can never seem to find a stable connection for viewing the weekly content, meeting online group members or submitting assignments. The connectivity requirements, as defined by the school, remain like gossamer fantasies of pixies at dusk for Barbie. Litanies of emails await you, the instructor of record, about technical problems with the university’s system.

Frankie Foreigner. OK, so Frankie got past the various language batteries, admissions essays and what not but now he’s asking questions about what he’s supposed to do every week. Frankie will email to ask if he should read Chapter 5, do the quiz and write an analysis; of course, the instructions on the LMS will say, “read Chapter 5, complete the quiz and write an analysis”. Instructor responses that say, “Please follow the instructions” generate more emails from Frankie asking again if he should read Chapter 5, complete the quiz and write an analysis. Frankie will then read Chapter 6, ignore the quiz and write a first-person narrative on puppies, replete with a non-sequitur Haiku.

Ida Impenetrable. No matter what, reading and following instructions do not seem to meld with Ida’s way of doing things. Ida never took the required tutorial for the LMS so she can’t follow any instructor’s directions because she doesn’t understand the system’s vocabulary. Every assignment she submits reflects her inability to carry out what’s asked of her. Her poor grades do not clue her in to her own shortcomings; rather, they make her pounce jackal-like on the instructor—that’d be you—with email litanies comparing her grade to Mary’s and demanding an explanation.

Ken Know-it-all. Yeah, Ken is that special guy; as an instructor, you wonder why he even deigned to apply to your institution’s Podunk Program when clearly, he aligns himself as Harvard or MIT material. On his profile, he is an “expert” in 27 activities. No matter what the situation, Ken’s emails begin with “In my 20 years working for [insert list of global-mega companies here]” and manage to mention his certification as a saturation diver, black belt in tae kwon do, and philharmonic sousaphone player. All emails from Ken cite how he cannot understand what’s asked of him in the assignments, as they don’t relate to any of the 27 areas in which he’s already an expert.

Marvin Midlife. The kids are in college and he’s thinking about doing something different—undefined and nebulous, but different. More than likely, Marvin just received a buy-out package and an empty box from his last employer. It matters not. Rather than getting a sports car and dating an idiot, Marvin’s decided an advanced online program is the way to go. Each week, Marvin obtusely asks how what we’re doing could possibly relate to his non-existent career goals or the real world. No words will appease him; Marvin’s indignant 24/7. The indignation generally ramps up each week via email and vacillates, it seems, depending on his meds, bipolarity and all of his friends with the first name of “Jack” or "Jim".

Mary Menopause. As ovulation ceased, Mary felt the need to fulfill herself in other ways. She can read and write but she’s totally computer illiterate. She produced her senior thesis on a typewriter and chose to stop the personal evolution then and there. She sees no need to buy a new computer as she’s got a perfectly fine Pentium (1992) system at home. She is utterly perplexed at why the LMS doesn’t seem to run on her computer. She also doesn’t understand that the underlined blue text in the course content is a hyperlink to other material. Thus, she misses half of each week’s content. Litanies of instructor-directed email, sobbing phone conversations and countless calls to tech support for HRT are her standard operating procedures.

Owen Opensource. Owen is an Open Orifice software guy, vehemently disparages the LMS to other students, and will not download the free-to-students Microcerf Orifice and use it. Never mind that his files don’t open properly, if at all; he insists all semester that Open Orifice is identical to Microcerf’s version and that the problem lies either with the LMS or with you, the instructor. Using that logic, it can then be said that I, Dr. Schadenfrau, am identical to Heidi Klum in every way. And, providing you truss me in lingerie, put me in a pitch dark room and get very, very drunk, that statement is true.

Sarah Singleton. Sarah is in her late 20’s or mid-30’s. Against, the grad advisor’s advice, she’s taking 3 online classes in addition to working a fulltime office job and holding down a part-time job in highway construction. She also cares for an elderly aunt, fosters an immigrant family, and runs an orphanage in her living room. To make up for the fact that she hasn’t had a personal life since G.H.W. Bush was in office, Sarah fills her days with a series of rotating crises and high-pressure demands. She vaporizes from the course for weeks at a time and wonders why you, the instructor, will not cut her any slack. Don’t even think about emailing this one regarding priorities. The elderly can’t be forgotten as roads need to be paved so degree wielding orphans can foster immigrant office workers [insert social outrage here for even suggesting otherwise].

Steve Sloth. Steve lists an impressive roster of activities on his profile including saving gnarly rump-breasted hoot owls, ending global warming with composting toilets, and other whacked-out shit. By mid-semester, you learn Steve has really been puttering inertly at his low-end accounting job now for 15 years and hitting the World of Warcraft (WoW) scene. His real impetus for the master’s? He’s met some online WoW hottie doing a post-doc in quantum physics and he’s feeling a bit inadequate as per his endless stream of whining, limp-dick emails to you, the instructor. No doubt being touched by human hands, other than his own, has never happened.