Monday, September 19, 2005

"One-to-one" help

You can find plenty of criticism of the Math Emporium, mostly from students who have to use it. (You can also find plenty of fluffing of the Math Emporium. Tech puts on a great PR face and gives it big wet sloppy kisses constantly.)

Some of the criticism doesn't come across so well. Sometimes it just sounds like "it's hard," and the fluffers like to chuckle about how the students would just like to "sit back and let it come to them," or about "sitting in the back of a class of 500 and doing your e-mail." (Comments taken from the first two pages of Google hits for "Math Emporium.")

Yeah, we get it. Students are lazy, and if we weren't, we'd just love, love, love the Emporium. (This is for your own good, don't you know...) In fact, we're assured that, gosh, at the Math Emporium, students get lots of individualized attention. It's not like sitting in a classroom with 40 students and one teacher. Why, this is all one-on-one, personalized and individualized instruction.

Like in this article, linked off the Math Emporium's homepage. (Check out the visitors links for some real fluffing.) We hear the following:

"What is (traditional) teaching?" asked Mike Williams. "It's 40 to 80 students in a room. A broadcast, not unlike watching TV. A very passive act. The majority are zoned within 20 minutes. My view is that the lecture is not worthwhile. But there are those who are very prideful about their material, being the 'sage on the stage.'"

One instructor with many students is highly inefficient, Williams added. "What we have now is one-to-one. We train our helpers to be good listeners, not to solve the problem for the student but to figure out the right question to make the light go on. The work of discovery changes a person's brain. We try to understand exactly what it is the student doesn't understand."

How fantastic! Students aren't getting that nasty, passive, classroom teaching, but careful one-on-one attention from people specially trained to piece together just exactly what isn't understood. Bravo, bravo... And isn't it amazing that this brilliant work can be done in under five minutes per case from somebody who's only a junior in college and getting paid by the hour to work at the Math Emporium?

Of course, there's a real professional teacher (one), who is in charge of each of these courses of thousands. So at least there's someplace students can get that carefully crafted, one-to-one teaching. Let's hear from the students, from, about how a 1015/1016 teacher handles student questions. (I've deleted references the teacher's name, because this isn't about a teacher. This is about what I think are problems with the Empo itself.)

  • She did not help much, usually said to just look at the Lesson Pages. The help at the emporium is a joke.
  • This lady does not like giving help much.
  • if you ask her for help she asks if you read the lesson and then pretty much asks you to figure it out yourself. there is no real help for this class.
  • she gives you no help grade-wise or with problems.
  • This is an online course and she is completely worthless when you ask for help....all she does is ask if you've read the lesson(which doesnt help) and then gives a smart remark. You are on your own in this class.

There is a positive review of this person teaching this class, but no comments with it to say what they liked.

Hmm... how about (This one includes courses other than 1015 and 1016, so I'll restrict to comments about these two.) This one is a little more mixed, but do we begin to see a pattern in some of the responses?

  • Dont ask HER for help. She will just refer you to her lessons. She thinks everyone should be able to learn off the computer.
  • She can either be really nice or really cruel when you don't understand something. And she never really explains anything either.
  • [She] does not help her "students" at all. If you put your cup up and get her and you tell her you don't understand the material, she will say "well did you read the lesson pages." Even if you did read the lesson pages she will say "did you work out every example, you need to go back and work out every example." She does not help to explain the material. And IF she does help, she seems to have an attitude.
  • If you ever manage to track down [the teacher] at the emporium, be prepared to not be helped. Try and get someone else over there to help you with any problems. I found that her knowledge does not extend beyond the lesson pages on the computer screen (which are not helpful for the quizzes and tests). I finally was able to get her for help once and all she did was read me the computer screen, and I can read too so that did nothing for me.
  • she seemed nice enough, and when you could get her specific attention, then she could explanin material to you.
  • she was helpful if you asked questions and she responded to emails promptly.
  • She was very helpful and considerate of students, and does a good job explaining something to you if you donĀ“t understand.

Now the last three (and oldest) reviews speak fairly positively to the help that this teacher can provide, so credit where credit is due. There are lots of both positive and negative reviews, but these are everything I could find that relates to how this teacher deals with questions at the Empo.

Personally, I've seen the same thing out there ("just read the web pages again!"), so a lot of people are just putting up a cup and hoping to find somebody else who will explain it to them. (And if the first one doesn't work, try, try again...) And who else do we have? Student workers paid hourly, or professors from completely different classes who have probably never taught 1015 or 1016. I can't imagine why the help varies so much from person to person.

So we've outsourced jobs for professors to a bunch of students on hourly wage, and the one remaining professor that essentially just runs from pod to pod saying the equivalent of "read the textbook and figure it out on your own." Of course, I'm not surprised she doesn't have time to individually tutor each student. I'm also not surprised if trying to individually tutor each student gets frustrating for her (maybe why some people above had some harsh experiences), but then maybe having one professor for a couple thousand students wasn't such a hot idea in the first place.

Here's a thought: let's take it one step further and really outsource this. Hire tutors in Bangladesh or somewhere who will work for twenty cents an hour. We can set up video conferences on the computer to handle the student questions. Heck, at that price, maybe we can afford to have a tutor available 24/7 for every 1015 student, and finally get that "one-to-one" tutoring we've been hearing so much about. And best of all, nobody would have to every have human contact with anybody ever again. (On second, thought, don't mention this. They'll try it.)

So I don't think this is a problem with somebody teaching a course. I don't think it's a problem with the students taking the course. I don't think it's the fault of students working for hourly wages at the Empo. (Hey, I've known some, and they actually work their butts off out there.) I think it's the result of having one professor for a couple thousand students, plus a bunch of other people (including other students working hourly) who don't really know what's going on in the course and have to try to answer each question as fast as possible so they can move on to the next cup. That's systemic. It's the result of decisions made at the top, and anything to fix it would be a pretty radical change.

And that's what this blog's mostly for, to talk about some real, legitimate criticism of the Empo that I don't see get talked about much. I'm sure plenty of other people have lots to say too, and maybe we can get some good discussions going. Maybe even some "self-help" among other students still taking these courses.

Some suggestions about how to really improve the Empo would be great too. (Even better if any of these find their way into happening! I think we're stuck with the place for a long time anyway.) And if we actually run across anything good about the Empo, well that's fine too.


At 8:12 AM, Blogger LJP said...

"What is (traditional) teaching?" asked Mike Williams. "It's 40 to 80 students in a room. A broadcast, not unlike watching TV. A very passive act. The majority are zoned within 20 minutes. My view is that the lecture is not worthwhile. But there are those who are very prideful about their material, being the 'sage on the stage.'"

40, or 80, or nearly 300 students these days. I almost agree with Mike Williams that "the lecture is not worthwhile", but it's very narrow-minded of him to imply that's the only way to make use of a classroom setting.

And as for "not unlike watching TV", I know people who can quote entire Simpsons episodes from memory. I've never known anyone who can quote from the 1015-1016 lesson pages. Bad instructional design is not superior to good television.


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