Outlines Online

The ethic’s teacher who liked to mix it up with his students used overheads too.  He was pretty contentious, and the second year I attended his class, he announced he would be putting the overheads online.  I want you to listen, he said, to what I am saying and not writing down what’s on greymassthe overhead.  Also, he was a quick talker, and I think he was tired of having to stand there and wait while the students copied what he had just been saying before he could move to a new overhead (he didn’t have two overhead projectors like the biology guys did).

He went a step further and had one of the teaching assistants take notes for the class.  These were then taken to the note taking service where students could buy the notes if they wanted.  These notes—I bought some of them—were interesting because they could serve as examples of how notes should be taken and perhaps because the note taker was himself a philosophy major a tiny bit of interpretation of the lectures crept into the notes.

So the students had three sources to use to memorize and regurgitate: the lectures, the online outlines, and the note taking service.  Actually they had four sources since the course also had a reader featuring selections from Kant, Benthan, Mill, and up to date articles on abortion, euthanasia and capital punishment. But they didn’t do any of the reading.

One immediate result of the teacher’s conscientiousness was a drop in attendance. Students came to the lecture to copy the outlines, but they didn’t need to do that anymore since the outlines were online.  To the teacher’s credit and a testimony to the sturdiness of his ego, this drop didn’t bother him. Possibly, he felt that the students who came to lecture were really interested.

I did wonder what those biology teachers felt.  The first day of that class every one of the 800 seats would have a body in it and the aisles too would be full.  But by the end of the second week, a drop off had already distinctly occurred, and towards the end of the quarter, attendance had dropped to about a third of its original total.  At one point, possibly in my second year of attending the course, they must have just given up on attendance because they started videotaping the lectures, and if you were biology major you could go online and view the lectures.  The technology was relatively new so all you could see was this little, tiny stick figure in the middle of space in the middle of the screen, but the sound was good.

Another result, though, of the teacher’s contentiousness was not as immediate but more troubling in its way.  The TA’s for the course read the first paper and the midterm and said, perhaps because the teacher had so effectively communicated his outlines, that all the papers were alike.  One after the other.  True, a very few papers that were exceptionally well written registered as A’s; and true a few were very poorly written (usually by students whose first language was not English) and stood out as C’s.  But in between, they could find nothing but a grey and indistinguishable mass.

So when students came to question their grades, the TA’s didn’t know what to do sometimes because, upon rereading the paper or parts of it, they really couldn’t remember why they had given that section four points rather than five.  One TA just threw in the towel and gave every student a B+ on the second paper.  This took the students a while to figure out but when they did they were pretty annoyed.

I guess the lessons derived from the online outline experiment became known.  The last time I sat through the course, the teacher had moved to laptop and data projector.  She didn’t however put the outlines on the web.  Indeed, on more than one occasion, she stopped the class and told a student to put away his or her camera because students were not to take pictures of her outlines and distribute them on the web.  Now with the cell phone camera I doubt she would be able to stop outline pirating.

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