Online Courses

Thoughts on online courses and the future of undergraduate education in Political Science at a large state university.

I propose that the department consider radically revamping the undergraduate program, shifting to many online lecture courses for first and second year students paired with small (<25) seminars for upper level students.

A couple of points of frustration with the current system of undergraduate instruction in the department:

1. There is often radical duplication of effort in our undergraduate teaching. Introduction to comparative politics, is taught every quarter by at least 5 different faculty members/graduate students in sections of varying size – 30 – 80 or so. I have been told that the reason that there is not simply one large lecture is due to space constraints — there are no lecture halls on campus that are available at the key times MW or TTh that would work to capture enrollments.

2. This duplication of effort is particularly annoying as this size of a class has few if any advantages. The only difference between a lecture class of 60 and 600 is that there perhaps is some ability by the lecturer to determine if the modal student is following along. Actual interactions between the teacher and the students or between students (at least in the classroom) is haphazard at best. Essentially all information flows straight from the lecturer to the students. Engagement and discussion by more than a handful of students is nearly non-existent.

3. Introduction to Comparative Politics is not by any means unique in this regard. Introductory courses in IR or American Politics and other courses are also taught in many different sections every term.

One way that has been suggested to deal with this clear duplication of effort is to offer online versions of these introductory courses. Actually, let me be frank, the online version of these courses are being offered as a way to grab enrollments, not as a method of increasing the efficiency of the teaching program in political science or the university as a whole. That is, the department is attempting to capture credit hours via a first mover advantage.

Nonetheless, I believe that it is naive to assume that online courses do not represent a real threat to the current status quo. As no one is perfectly pleased with the status quo, this threat should not be taken in a purely negative light (or a purely positive one); however, I do believe that it is an opportunity to shake up our undergraduate program and move it in interesting directions. Before I make these suggestions, I feel a need to put out my concerns about what online courses signify and the ways in which they could unravel our successful programs (in undergraduate and graduate teaching as well as research).

Online courses could radically improve the efficiency with which political science courses are taught. The downside here is that graduate students, most of whom are currently employed teaching these courses, would be made redundant (in the eyes of the university). If we believe that the university sees graduate programs as a profit center (grad students as cheap labor producing credit hours taught) rather than as a core part of the research university program, then one might see the following chain of events ensue: online courses leading to the redundancy of graduate students leads to pressures to reduce the size of the graduate program. Continuing down that rabbit hole, faculty positions are justified in large part as trainers of graduate students. Without a significant population of graduate students to train, are faculty lines going to be offered or withdrawn? Online courses then might lead to the unraveling of the current faculty-graduate student-undergraduate system that is currently in place.

Further, would faculty be making themselves obsolete directly by teaching online courses? After Large State University has an online version of my introduction to comparative politics course in say the fall of 2012, does the university need to continue to pay me to teach that course? If I were to leave for any reason, is the university going to feel a need to hire someone else to teach this course or simply offer my previous online version into the future? Is Large State U able to sell this course to other universities looking for intro to comparative courses? Would they be able to undercut the “market price” of comparative politics courses taught by me in ways that make my actual employment by a university an inferior option to buying the rights to my online course?

Now that I have laid out this dystopian take on what I see as a likely possible future, let me make a case that online courses could be taken as an opportunity to improve our undergraduate program.

I propose that we move to a large (online) lecture model for introductory courses, including for majors, paired with smaller seminars for upper year students on specialized topics taught by faculty/graduate students.

The efficiencies to be gained by having only one or two versions of a given introductory course being prepared by faculty/graduate students are immense. If LSU had sufficient large lecture halls, isn’t this what we would be doing already? An online lecture paired with small discussion sections would entail a significant increase in the actual interpersonal engagement involved in intro to comparative compared with the current system. Further, the mass of credit hours coming from the large courses would free up faculty/graduate students to offer a range of smaller seminars (<25) where the value of university education would hopefully manifest itself.

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