A Curricular Innovation, Examined (Part 2)

December 16, 2010

Advising and Tutoring

There are two basic ways that students can seek outside assistance. For administrative or customer service questions, they can contact their course adviser; for questions related to the actual course material, they have the allotted 10 hours of SmarThinking tutoring (minus five minutes per session for "processing").

I found that my course adviser -- who (along with Burck Smith and StraighterLine generally) had no knowledge of this article until after I finished the class -- was available and willing to assist me; I e-mailed him at least a half dozen times as I went through the course, and in each case he wrote back within a day, and often sooner (his replies tended to be very brief but -- more often than not -- helpful).

The tutoring arrangement is less convenient. For those unfamiliar with the service, SmarThinking tutoring takes place in a sort of chat session; the interface is a large white browser window into which students can type questions and their tutors can type responses. My questions showed up in large red letters, while my tutor's replies were in large blue ones. This was helpful for distinguishing between my words and those of my tutor, although the format of the chat session is such that our words often overlapped and became illegible. When one "page" of type is filled up, the chat session opens a new, blank page, and my tutor and I frustrated one another — and wasted time — by inadvertently moving back and forth between pages.

Special Report
Inside Higher Ed's Serena Golden
took StraighterLine's Economics 101
course this year. This article recounts
her experiences and what they reveal
about the much-discussed curricular

Tutors have no access to the course materials or any of the work that students have done, so each question must be explained in the absence of any context — and unlike at a university tutoring center, where this might also be the case, online students cannot simply bring in a few pages of their work by way of example. To ask about a particular graph or illustration, the student must either save the image to his computer and upload it into the chatbox (which, in my experience, sometimes resulted in graphs too small to read), or save it in an online image program and send the tutor a link — all of which requires time and patience.

While the chat interface made the experience more difficult than it might have been, the first tutor with whom I interacted — who introduced himself as Dr. Randy R. — seemed to have a strong understanding of the subjects I asked him to explain, and his responses were patient and clear.

My second tutoring experience was worse. This time, I logged in to a live tutoring session rather than scheduling one in advance; my tutor, Ling C., stressed that I could ask only a single question "to ensure that we can help as many students as possible." Throughout the session, which lasted only a few minutes, he gave brief answers that didn't clear up my confusion; when I said I was still not following, he used highlighting and arrows to point to the answers he'd already given, then logged out before I had a chance to request further clarification.

Exams and Practice Tests

My grade for the course was calculated from my scores on the 19 chapter exams — each with 40 questions worth one point each, for a total of 760 possible points. Students in the latest version of the course would also have to take the 60-question, 120-point midterm and final exams, for a total of 1000 possible points. (According to the StraighterLine FAQ, a "70% or higher average [is] required to be recommended for credit by ACE and most partner colleges"; most partner colleges will record a course grade only as pass/fail, but some give letter grades corresponding to a student's percentage score.)

Taking a course with no cumulative exams was a peculiar experience, as I was free to forget the material from each chapter as soon as I moved on to the next. StraighterLine seems to have remedied this problem; Smith says that to the best of his knowledge, all StraighterLine courses now have cumulative final exams. In his words, I had “fallen through the cracks in a course switch." The midterm and final, he said, were added in April (I started the class in March), as the result of "friendly suggestions" made by the American Council on Education and Fort Hays State University (it was also these suggestions that led to reduction of the test time limit from five hours to two).

Like the other course materials, the practice tests and exams are scattered with typographical errors; more worryingly, they also contain a number of wrong answers (as seen in the slides below). StraighterLine's FAQ contains instructions for students who suspect that their test contains an error:

"After you have completed the exam, you can view the questions, your answer and whether it was correct or incorrect. Your course advisor can help you to get a copy of the entire question (including incorrect answer options) so that you can take the question to a SMARTHINKING tutor to determine if there was an error with the question. If the tutor finds an error with the question, email your Course Advisor the discussion with the tutor. If there is indeed an error, you will not be penalized for missing that question."

(See the slideshow of test errors below; to increase text size, click “Menu” and then “View Fullscreen.” To return to original view, press your keyboard’s Escape key.)


This is exactly what my course adviser told me to do on the multiple occasions when I asked him about errors on my test (though at no point did he provide me with a copy of the entire question, which would have been useful); in one case, however, I included screenshots showing that my answer had obviously been marked in error, and he added two points (rather than just the one I'd lost) to my test score.

"Every time we get something like that," Smith said, "we note it. If we can change it we do; if it's something that we can't change… then we send it off to McGraw-Hill and they can put that in future updates."

It's hard to say whether most students would go through the process of asking their adviser and then consulting with a tutor about whether the test was in error -- for the student in a hurry, that's a lot of effort for a single point in a 1000-point course. (Or no points at all, in the case of the practice tests.) More worrisome is the idea of a student seeing his answer marked wrong on a practice or graded test, failing to realize that the error wasn't his own, and thinking he must somehow have misunderstood the concept being tested.

Not every StraighterLine course is graded solely on multiple-choice exams: "It varies based on the class," Smith said. "So composition courses are written assignments; our business communication [course] is some written assignments and some multiple-choice questions. For some of the future courses that we'll bring out, like psychology, we'll probably have at least one written assignment in there. And I'm not opposed -- and we may add written assignments to econ and accounting."

'The Same No Matter Where You Go’

After taking the course, I spoke with faculty members in economics at a variety of institutions -- some of them StraighterLine partner colleges, others not -- in order to get a better sense of whether the class was really, as Smith put it, "the same experience" that a student would get taking a comparable course (online or otherwise) from a more traditional institution.

Of these faculty members, only Carl Parker, chair and professor of economics, finance and accounting at Fort Hays State University (a StraighterLine partner college), had any firsthand knowledge of StraighterLine's courses, and specifically the introductory macroeconomics course. Along with several other of Fort Hays's doctoral faculty in economics, he said, he had personally reviewed StraighterLine's economics courses. "We didn't take the class," he said, "[but]…we did take a look at the book, the content, and how they set up their exams, that kind of thing."

"I think it would be similar to the course in principles of economics that a student would take at any university in the country," Parker said, adding that the McConnell and Brue textbook is widely used and well-regarded. "So in terms of the content, we didn't have an issue with that."

Parker noted, however, that "all of the people that teach [Fort Hays's] courses online have their Ph.D.," and that this difference between Fort Hays and StraighterLine could "lead to us not being able to continue our relationship with them." Fort Hays, he said, is seeking AACSB accreditation for its economics classes, "and they require that the faculty teaching courses be either academically or professionally qualified."

"We have no idea," Parker continued, "…about the faculty teaching those courses at StraighterLine" — it wasn't clear whether Parker was aware that StraighterLine courses aren't really led by a faculty member at all — "so… it hurts us with our accreditation."

Exams, Assignments, and Academic Integrity

“[StraighterLine] actually covers more chapters in their course than we do,” said Parker. “We cover a few less chapters, maybe emphasize a few of them a little more than they do.” This emphasis, in fact, relates to “the one thing with StraighterLine that we kind of disagreed with” — the practice of giving exams that are equally weighted across all subject areas. At Fort Hays, he said, “we give exams that are weighted toward the more important concepts,” such as “a thorough understanding of the supply and demand model.”

Parker also noted that his own students have only an hour to complete each 40-question multiple-choice exam (of which he gives four: three midterms and one cumulative final), the idea being that students “don’t have time to look it all up.” Students in Parker’s classes also have graded homework assignments in formats besides multiple choice, such as fill-in-the-blank and short answer.

The economics department at Fort Hays is planning a complete overhaul of its introductory macro- and microeconomics courses, Parker said, and “in the revision of the course we’re going to do more writing answers,” in an effort to incorporate a greater degree of critical thinking into the curriculum.

David Shapiro, professor of economics and co-director of undergraduate studies at Pennsylvania State University (which has no affiliation with StraighterLine), noted that the exams in Penn State’s introductory economics courses (online as well as in-person) are never strictly multiple-choice -- about 40 to 50 percent of each test, he said, is composed of multiple-choice questions, and “the balance is short answer, problems to work, graphs, and short essays.”

When he is evaluating economics courses for transfer credit, Shapiro said, “when the exam is all multiple choice, I’m like, ‘Uh, that’s low-quality.’ You want students to be able to generate diagrams on their own.”

John Volpe, until recently assistant dean and college professor in the department of business and professional programs at the University of Maryland University College (no affiliation with StraighterLine), said that the exams for introductory macroeconomics courses (online and in-person) in his department have a mix of question types: “I’d say maybe 30 percent multiple choice, 20 percent short answer, 50 percent essay.” At present, students in both versions of the class must take a proctored final exam. Students in Volpe’s classes are also assigned a term paper of at least ten pages, and online students must participate in graded weekly conferences — in which they discuss various topics in economics — as well.

For his part, StraighterLine’s Smith argued that it isn’t necessary to use a form of assessment beyond multiple-choice tests, which he called “a tried and true method, particularly in high-enrollment courses.” Asked if having written assignments might help an instructor determine whether a student was cheating, Smith said, “That is one of the things people say, is ‘I know my students and I know their writing and I know if things change.’ And that just doesn’t hold up. I mean, if a student is going to have someone else take their course for them, there’s no way of knowing if that writing has changed.”

"I’m not a big fan of unproctored [multiple-choice] exams as an assessment," said Twigg, of NCAT. "That’s the weaker side… I’m not crazy about [multiple-choice] exams in general.” But, she said, to organize an entire course around such tests is “within the universe of acceptable practice, it seems to me.”

Instruction, Assistance, and Interpersonal Interaction

“The idea of online learning is not only learning from me but also learning from their peers,” said Volpe, explaining why his online students must participate in conferences. And Smith did agree that some students might prefer “more of a discussion environment” than StraighterLine provides.

“At some point,” he said, “we will add a more social element into the course… the only barrier is really scale. If students move at their own pace, to do a course with social elements, students have to be in the same place at the same time.”

Even more central to StraighterLine’s model than its present lone-wolf structure is the idea that students can do just as well in a course not led by an instructor. This notion is also less widely accepted — many institutions offer online courses that are to some degree self-paced or “rolling enrollment,” thereby limiting or eliminating interactions among students, but these courses are typically still led by a faculty member.

“I think it depends a lot on the students,” said Carey, of Education Sector, in an interview. “Some students benefit a lot from being led by an instructor, and some students don’t need it.”

Penn State's Shapiro noted that when he was teaching an online introductory microeconomics course, “some students were able to do the course with very little questions for me or feedback from me.”

Of course, such students exist in face-to-face courses, too; Paul Watro, professor of economics at the downtown campus of Jefferson Community and Technical College (a StraighterLine partner college), observed that while he holds office hours for students who might need assistance, “I don’t get too many people who come to my office for help, and I think that’s probably because they don’t have the time. A large percentage of students are working, and they’re working a lot.”

Watro, whose classes are capped at 30 students, is available for those who do seek assistance — but, as Smith pointed out, professors whose classes are much larger may interact with their students far less. He cited a recent story in The New York Times describing the large — and largely online — courses offered to on-campus students at the University of Florida: “The… 1650-student online statistics course, I mean, to what extent is that instructor-led?”

“There are certainly some online courses where the faculty member is involved and very proactive,” said NCAT’s Twigg, “but I think the majority of online courses follow the StraighterLine model.... That’s really the way a lot of online courses are offered."

John Bourne, executive director of the Sloan Consortium, offered a contrasting view of online teaching. “Our mantra is that courses should be instructor-led, and adapt the materials for what people need, and work with people. …The interaction between people, an instructor interacting with the group, is fundamental to online education.”

Without that dynamic, Bourne said, “it’s simply… like correspondence courses. …It would be incorrect to include under the rubric of ‘online’ these correspondence courses that StraighterLine is offering, because they’re not online courses as portrayed by Penn State or UMUC or any of the schools that are offering real online courses.”

“Consider the University of Phoenix,” Bourne added. “Phoenix keeps the classes really small, they train the faculty really well… . They really prepare the faculty to make sure the students are getting the information and understanding it.”

One of the important functions of a faculty member in economics, those interviewed for this article generally agreed, is to help students relate the information they’re learning to the events taking place in the world they live in. “When you want to interest a person in economics, you want to talk about current happenings,” Parker said.

Volpe offered an even stronger view of an economics instructor’s responsibility to relate course material to current events. When told that StraighterLine’s course materials in macroeconomics had not been updated since before the global economic crisis of the past several years, and thus made no mention thereof, he replied, “If we were doing that here, I should be fired. That would be pathetic. That would be a disservice to the students.”

Smith didn’t dispute the idea that it matters for students whether the material in their economics courses is tied in with current events — at least, “to a certain extent.”

"It does make sense to update the courses,” Smith said. “And we do so periodically.” He noted, however, that “the various reviews and… validation processes we’ve been through have occurred since the writing of the courseware”; for example, StraighterLine’s courses “were reviewed by the American Council on Education in November 2009.” The introductory macroeconomics course, he added, had just been approved for AP credit. None of these outside reviewers objected to the somewhat dated course material, Smith said.

Carey took a similar tack, if perhaps a more direct one. "I think what it illustrates, in a way, is that StraighterLine’s value proposition is not that they offer the world’s best economics classes," he said; "it’s that they offer good-enough economics classes at the world’s cheapest prices. And that’s fine. I mean, it should be fine.”

Keep Reading: Part 3: "Just As Good" vs. "Good Enough": Does StraighterLine measure up?

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