Image credit: https://pixabay.com/p-366446/?no_redirect
Last week on 1 November, Jesse Stommel hosted a panel discussion on Ethical online learning – which stayed with me and haunted me since I’ve watched it. Somehow this morning as I was writing this blog, some of the things that were said during the panel discussion came back to demand an audience. So while this post is not about the panel discussion (a reflection on the panel discussion is – hopefully – forthcoming), I want to acknowledge the impact that the panel discussion had and still have on my thinking – but more about this later.
This is not the blog that I wanted to write this week.
The blog I wanted to publish this week is half-way and as I was finalising the blog – I suddenly remembered that I fell behind with sending a mid-term assessment of my students’ participation grades. The purpose of this mid-term assessment in the context of the online course I am co-teaching, is to assess students’ general participation but more importantly, to warn those students who are at risk of failing the course.
As I was working through my students’ participation logs, the overview of what they submitted, their grades, the number of logins, their number of posts in the course’s discussion forum, etc.,– I realised that, somehow, I did not notice that one student (the gender and name of the student, in this account, is not important) was not as active as s/he should have been. This is an understatement. S/he was at serious risk of failing and only this morning did I pick it up. Damn it. Why did I not see it earlier?!
During the panel discussion Kate Bowles said that ethics in an online learning environment means noticing the footprints and/or the artefacts that someone has left online for me to notice. And we have to treat these footprints, these details, with reverence; almost in awe that someone left me something to discover, to engage with, to make sense of, and to respond to. And somehow I missed the evidence that s/he left me. I did not notice. And because I did not notice, I did not respond.
I do not share this reflection looking for sympathy.
I share this reflection/confession/despair in hoping that it will prompt deeper, more critical reflections on the ethics of teaching online, of having access to students’ data and the things they leave for us to find and the responsibility that comes with knowing when last they logged on, how many times they accessed the course site, when they last logged on and not really knowing what all of this means.
Let me provide context: The course I am teaching on is a 14-week, fully online graduate course with over 30 students and three instructors. While the instructors share the responsibility of responding to students queries and posts in this highly interactive and well-structured course, I am specifically responsible for the pastoral care of 10 students and to mark their various assignments and activities. Yes, only ten.
Over the course of the 14 weeks, students submit 3 essays, compile an e-portfolio and submit their progress in building this portfolio on four occasions. There are also eight ‘skill builder’ exercises such as using Diigo, creating a Twitter profile, annotating an article, etc. Over the period of 14 weeks, students submit 16 various forms of activity/assessments that provides us opportunities to engage with students’ learning, to acknowledge their thoughts, to provide feedback and of course, allocate a mark. Over and above these activities, every week has assigned readings and students are required to post a comment (fully referenced) with regard to the readings per week, and respond to other students’ posts. As instructor I log on at least once a day to read through these posts, respond to a post or query. Between the three instructors we share this responsibility and this really helps. The three instructors are based in three different time zones which almost allow us a 24/7 opportunity of responding to students.
I also have access to an overview of each of my students’ progress. I am provided with a dashboard that provides me details of how many times they clicked on the separate pieces of content or topics, their number of logins, and an overview of their submission of the different assessments and skill builder exercises. For example, this morning I can see that one of the students has visited 81 of 213 content links (38% with 4 weeks to go), has logged in 43 times since the start of the course 8 weeks ago, and submitted (so far) 11 pieces of assessment and attained average scores. Another student, in contrast, has visited only 23 of 213 content links (12% with 4 weeks to go), has logged in 38 times since the start of the course 8 weeks ago (not much less than the first student in this narrative), and has submitted (so far) only 4 pieces of assessment which s/he passed. S/he has not submitted a second compulsory assignment and various other pieces of the learning journey.
There is a serious risk, for three weeks to go, that s/he will fail.
Why have I not noticed this earlier?
My guilt is even more when I drill down on his/her profile and look at the following information:
The student visited the topics/content in the course 64 times (but of the total of content links, only accessed 23 links – so s/he visited some topics repeatedly). Since the start of the course, s/he spent 2h 7 minutes and 33 seconds on the course site. S/he read 53 posts in the discussion forum, s/he responded to 7 and s/he posted 8 first-level posts (starting a thread). S/he logged in 112 times since the beginning of the course 8 weeks ago. The last time s/he logged in was yesterday. So it is not a question that s/he was not engaged.
I don’t have access to his/her prior education experiences. From the student’s profile picture s/he looks as if s/he may be in her/his late twenties or early thirties. S/he wears dark sun glasses on his/her profile picture. S/he is allocated to me as instructor. I failed her/him.
For the last 8 weeks I logged in almost every day. I am not behind with marking the assignments and skill builders. I provided and provide detailed feedback to my allocated students. It takes me an average of 90 minutes to read through each student’s essay assignment and provide detailed feedback. I think I am fair in my assessments and provide detailed evidence of what I appreciate in each essay and how I think they can improve their writing. In my responses to their posts in the discussion forums I try to stimulate them to think differently, more critically.
I thought I cared.
But I did not notice her/him falling behind. I had access to data about her/his engagement. And somehow did not notice.
Don’t get me wrong. I don’t propose that the data I have of her/him give me a holistic picture of her/his learning, her/his aspirations, and her/his life-worlds. Not at all. The data I have access to provide me partial data of a student in her/his late twenties or early thirties. A student who wears dark sun glasses on her/her profile picture. I also acknowledge (and I am on record) that we don’t yet understand what the number of logins means. What does it mean that s/he logged onto the course website 112 times over an eight week period? What does it mean that s/he spent (so far) 2h 7 minutes and 33 seconds on the course platform? Should I have noticed earlier that s/he does not post often? Is there a way that an algorithm could have picked up that s/he did not submit his assignment on time and could have warned me so that I could have written an email? Or was I so busy with grading the assignments of those who did submit on time in order to be ready for the next submission or responding to the next post or quickly logging on while I am responding to an article that just came back from the reviewers or whatever – that I did not notice that a student who is in her/his late twenties or early thirties wearing dark sun glasses has fallen behind?
This morning when I revisited her/his posts I noticed that in the first week when students were required to post a short bibliography of themselves, s/he sounded eager, enthusiastic, a go-getter (like most of the class). Did I miss something? Would it have helped if I had more data on her/him? Would it have helped if I knew her/his race or the gender with which s/he identifies? Would I have been more careful to notice her/his absence if I knew her/his socio-economic income or her/his familial responsibilities?
In this case, I think, it would not have helped if I knew more. I already had access to a lot of data s/he had left behind for me to find and make sense of. And somehow I did not notice.
It is easy to look for factors that would somehow, if not absolve, but would mitigate my guilt. But this blog is not about absolution or a lesser sentence due to mitigating factors. I should have noticed and I did not. Full stop.
So where to now? I sent her/him an email to voice my concerns and to offer my assistance if s/he would need any. I just hope I am not too late. And while I wait for her/him to respond (or not) let me conclude with some remarks/pointers:
If education (including online learning) is in its essence, relational, with different roles and responsibilities, we cannot negate the fact that in the asymmetries of power between us as teachers and students, that we have a fiduciary duty of care. If we decide to teach online, this is what we commit ourselves for – to care, to enable, to find whatever our students leave behind for us to find and treat those finds with respect, with reverence, and care. It is so easy (and tempting) to think about students’ login details, their time spent on task, and their patterns of engagement as interesting data points that we can interpret, that we can use to determine their risk and allocate a number on a spreadsheet uploaded to a grading system.
It is so easy to forget that the data points, the patterns, the number of logins are things our students leave behind, for us to find, engage with, make sense of, and treat with respect.
Does this have implications for student: teacher ratio? Yes. Do we need to consider the number and detail of responsibilities we expect of our online teachers and facilitators? Yes. Do we need to reconsider the way we design these online experiences and the number of people who take co-responsibility for different aspects of students’ learning journeys? Absolutely. And can we, carefully and considering all the challenges in algorithmic decision-making consider how to use algorithms as first warnings for me to notice, evaluate and consider and then act? I think so.
I am responsible for ten students in a small cohort of students in a highly structured and activity-intensive graduate online course. Over the course of eight weeks they leave me traces to make sense of, to engage with and to respect.
One student, in her/his late twenties or early thirties wearing dark sun glasses left me traces that s/he was in trouble.