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Colleges are Still in Uncharted Territority

Originally published at http://www.commondreams.org/views/2020/08/23/colleges-are-still-uncharted-territority

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Even campuses that begin the semester open may not remain so for long. Already, the University of North Carolina and Notre Dame have had to shut down almost immediately after opening in person due to COVID-19 outbreaks.

That’s how it’s going to go in USA while our pet microbe is allowed to run free. Anything nonelectronically interpersonal is in an almost impossible situation for USA, at the global extreme of established endemic COVID infection in the academic universe.

A brief history of USA COVID-19 cases (latest CDC numbers):

> WEEK    35 DAYS             CASES
>         ENDING          NEW       TOTAL
> 
>   5.  01/25/2020           2           2
>  10.  02/29/2020          22          24
>  15.  04/04/2020     304,802     304,826
>  20.  05/09/2020     995,870   1,300,696
>  25.  06/13/2020     763,116   2,063,812
>  30.  07/18/2020   1,634,349   3,698,161
>  35.  08/22/2020   1,945,651   5,643,812

In this statistical sounding, USA’s worst day occured just before the close the penultimate segment (nearly 75K new cases on 7/17). The current segment averages over 55K per day, with the last week steady at around 45K. As the last two segments approach each other in value, a second plateau is established in USA’s outbreak, approximately twice as high as the previous plateau.

This is not what under control looks like.

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Perhaps if colleges hadn’t become such scams…

  1. The notion that students have to pay full tuition (including all “activities fees”) when they’re being taught virtually.

  2. The fact that college tuition has increased at more than 2x the rate of inflation for more than 40 years.

Sorry, no sympathy for colleges these days.

I have been teaching online for a bit over 8 years, and incorporated LANs and Net connections in brick-and-mortar classes before that.

There is a lot still to work out, but actually, we never really got classroom education right either. Still, a few elementary points:

  • Your students are not all in the same time zone; they were never on the same schedule anyway. Asynchronous is fine.
  • Awarding more time when needed is usually easy.
  • A real-time meeting can be made optional and recorded. If 25% attend, that’s wonderful.
  • Be very polite and kind in communication, past what you might do in person: they cannot see you or hear the tone of your voice, nor you theirs.
  • Schools will try to charge students more and pay teachers less
  • Schools will try to supervise teachers more extensively

Probably a good compromise around quality control is to allow school-wide writing and development of course materials, then allow teachers a good deal of leeway in discussion and response to students–and in grading.

There are naturally movements to make grading of essays particularly less subjective. Sadly, these mostly fail. Particularly, the typical table-based rubric is to be avoided because it is grossly misleading and usually of a less than coherent logic. The various qualities of an essay do not accrete to make a score, but every such rubric that I have seen does this. An instructor can easily assign a grade and reverse-engineer the comments so that these match the rubric to the grade, but to do so is useless, misleading, and demoralizing to teachers.

It also decreases questions by students about grading, which is probably a bad thing, as comfortable as it is to instructors.