Okay, so all my courses are now online. That’s good, because it saves me the unpaid time entailed in driving back and forth to campus, delivers a hefty saving on gasoline, and obviates my having to put up with the ubiquitous rudeness and bad manners in the classroom.
It adds a challenge, because it means I can’t explain things face to face when it becomes obvious that one or more students can’t understand something. Nor can I try to transmit the information in the textbook, which they refuse to read and which some decline to buy or rent at all, by regurgitating the chapters in so-called “lectures.” And that means they’re flying blind when they go to write the essays required by the District for the course.
A couple of semesters ago, I decided to try remedying the problem by asking them to write “Reading Reviews.” For each chapter, they were asked to synopsize the contents and then to apply the principles in the chapter to one of the readings tacked on to the chapter. Thus, for example, if they were studying Aristotelian rhetoric, they were to show where the various elements described by Aristotle appear in the given reading.
This worked to force some — not all — of them to go so far as to read the book.
However, it has several drawbacks:
• Some students will not read the book at all. They look at the chapter title, guess at its contents, and present that guess as their synopsis. For the application, they either have nothing to say or it’s all hot air and bullshit.
• Some cannot read it. They evidently do the best they can, but their best is extremely weak. It’s clear they made an effort, but they don’t recognize what part of the content represents the significant points. What they produce as a summary is incoherent, jumbled, and utterly confused.
• Some can and do read it well. For those classmates, the whole exercise is a waste of time, because they would have read the assignment without having it force-fed to them.
It is a gigantic time-suck for me. A gigantic, tedious time-suck. Even after cutting the number of chapter readings from 13 to 11, reading all that garbage is a time-suck that won’t quit.
Exacerbating said basic fact is that I have to front-load the course with a passel of the things, because the students need to have read a fair amount of the book’s content before they begin to write their first assignment. To do that while also giving them enough time between writing assignments to do the required research, in some weeks I have to assign two or three annoying busywork projects, which means I have to read two or three of them.
At one point this semester, three sets of them hit the server at the same time. Each section has 22 classmates. Well.
22 x 2 x 3 = 132 mind-numbing pieces of drivel to read!
Even though I don’t assess them on the basis of writing skills — all I’m doing is looking at them to see if they seem to have actually read the assigned chapter — that alone takes time. Clickety-clickety-clickety-clicking to get into their assignment takes time. Reading it takes time. Entering a score and a brief comment takes time. If the work appears to be wanting, entering a reason for the low score takes even more time.
Consider: if each upload takes only two minutes to read, on average, those 132 papers consumed 4.40 hours of my weekend — more than half a day that I could have been doing higher-paid work for my clients, or, far more important in my book, simply enjoying life.
In reality, enough of them score less than the possible 15 points to push the average download/read/comment/upload time to as much as five minutes apiece. In that case…
132 papers x 5 minutes reading time / 60 min. per hour = 11 hours!
Think of that: ELEVEN HOURS diddled away on an exercise whose purpose is to make lazy or weak students do the most basic work in a mickey-mouse freshman course, a job that ought to be a given for college-level students.
As I was plodding through this pile of crap, I decided I am never gonna do this again!
Well, I can’t very well have them just turn in three papers and be done with it. That would, alas, not be pedagogically sound, and if the department found me pulling a stunt like that, I would forthwith be canned. Much as I could do without the crass exploitation of adjunct teaching, as a practical matter the piddling pay is just enough to keep the proverbial wolf from the door. And speaking of doors, I’d just as soon not spend my time greeting Walmart shoppers.
Enter Canvas, with its easy-to-use true/false-multiple-guess quiz function, much easier and faster and saner than Blackboard’s.
On reflection, I took it into my hot little brain to convert all eleven reading reviews to T/F-MG’s.
Four chapters remain for the present herd to read this semester, so I sent out an announcement deep-sixing the RRs, and then as fast as I could, wrote and posted four quizzes to replace the defunct synopsis/application scribbles.
The problem is, this also is a painfully time-consuming task. About two-thirds of the chapters require fifteen questions to cover the content in anything resembling a thorough, vaguely meaningful way. For three of them, which cover craft and are short, I can get away with asking five questions.
Sifting through one of the more complex, longer chapters and coming up with machine-gradable questions that require the student to do more than rest her eyes on a line of the text’s type and yet are free of ambiguity is no easy trick. It takes upwards of two hours to cook up each of these quizzes, and then getting it into Canvas takes another 40 minutes.
As far as I can tell, Canvas creates an answer bank based on unpublished quizzes, but so far I haven’t managed to find a question bank. The answers in the answer bank don’t seem to appear in any organized way — or if there’s a pattern, as yet it has escaped me. So rather than scrolling through hundreds of random answers, it’s easier and faster to copy and paste both the questions and the answers out of Word. FOR EACH SECTION!
This activity, as you can imagine, is brain-bangingly tedious: copying four to six answers, line by line by line by line by line by line by line…holy God!
Whereas you can copy a whole course from one Canvas shell into the other, you apparently can’t copy one feature from course A to course B, at least not if course B is actively online. I thought there was such a function, but no amount of searching the manual and Google revealed it.
The only thing that keeps me going is the hope that once it’s over, it will bring a permanent end to having to ride herd on anything so stupid as forcing them to read the damn textbook.
To ameliorate the effects of the publisher’s infuriating habit of issuing new, scrambled editions every couple of years by way of maximizing opportunities to fleece the students with new textbooks, I have not tied the titles of the quizzes to chapters. Instead, they cover subject areas. Since the Seyler text, which is the one we’re required to use, is anything but original in its organization, approach, or content, there’s a good chance that, say, a discussion of Aristotelian rhetorical terms will be the same whether they appear in this year’s chapter 4 or next year’s chapter 6. This, I hope, will minimize the need to shuffle questions around every time the greedy bastards come out with a new edition.
Once all eleven quizzes are online, I’ll never have to read another piece of busywork again, and with any luck I’ll never have to write any new quizzes.
Canvas will give classmates three chances and keep their highest score, and it will let them peek at the answers as they go. So the thing will work like one of those aggravating “tests” you have to take for driver re-education after you get caught on a traffic camera, by making you go over and over a question until you get it right. To the extent that such an annoying strategy has a teaching function, then, we could possibly argue that these quizzes actually serve a pedagogical purpose: students will have to at least look at the text’s contents to get anywhere on the quiz, and they’ll at least have a shot at directing their attention to the points in the text that matter.
So I’m putting myself through a great deal of suffering and tedium to avoid even more suffering and tedium in future semesters.
Hope it works!