The global pandemic resulted in a dramatic increase in online instruction. This was accompanied by an expansion of the use of online services that, in return for a fee, provide students with solutions to assignments and exams . In this episode, James M. Pitarresi joins us to discuss strategies that faculty can use to preserve academic integrity in their online courses.
James is a Vice Provost for Online and Innovative Education and the Executive Director of the Center for Learning and Teaching at the State University of New York at Binghamton. He is also a Distinguished Teaching Professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at Binghamton.
- Course Hero
- Redden, Elizabeth (2021) “A Spike in Cheating Since the Move to Remote?” Inside Higher Ed. February 5.
- Lancaster, Thoa and Codrin Cotarian (2021). Contract cheating by STEM students through a file sharing service: A Covid-19 pandemic perspective. International Journal for Educational Integrity. Vol. 17, no. 3. February 4.
- Adams, Susan (2021). “This $12 Billion Company is Getting Rich Off Students Cheating Their Way Through Covid. Forbes.” January 28.
John: The global pandemic resulted in a dramatic increase in online instruction. This was accompanied by an expansion of the use
of online services that, in return for a fee, provide students with solutions to assignments and exams. In this episode, we examine strategies that faculty can use to preserve academic integrity in their online courses.
John: Thanks for joining us for Tea for Teaching, an informal discussion of innovative and effective practices in teaching and learning.
Rebecca: This podcast series is hosted by John Kane, an economist…
John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.
Rebecca: Together, we run the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching at the State University of New York at Oswego.
John: Our guest today is James M. Pitarresi. James is a Vice Provost for Online and Innovative Education and the Executive Director of the Center for Learning and Teaching at the State University of New York at Binghamton. He is also a Distinguished Teaching Professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at Binghamton. Welcome, James.
James: It’s a pleasure to be here. Thanks for bringing me on board.
Rebecca: Today’s teas are… James, are you drinking tea?
James: I had my cup of tea. I drink Barry’s Irish tea with a little bit of sugar and milk, and I’ve already had it today.
John: And I am drinking Spring Cherry Green tea.
Rebecca: And I’ve got a near neighbor with my Scottish afternoon breakfast.
James: Oh, nice.
Rebecca: …to James, not to John. [LAUGHTER]
John: Yeah, I’m not sure where this one comes from. It’s a Republic of Tea tea.
James: Well, I have to try the Scottish Breakfast. I’ve had the English Breakfast tea.
Rebecca: This one’s a Scottish afternoon, and there’s a morning as well, but I actually prefer the afternoon. It’s a little smoother or something.
James: Ok, Yeah, I’ll look for it.
John: And for many episodes, English afternoon was the preferred which is a little bit harder to find. Well, it’s probably comparable to the Scottish afternoon in terms of ease of locating,
Rebecca: You got to know where to look, John, you got to know where to look.
John: Well, we actually have six packs of twenty in the office where they’ve been sitting since last February when they came in.
Rebecca: We have to hurry up and drink those up.
John: So the global pandemic, which began last March, caused many faculty to shift from face-to-face instruction to online instruction, many for the first time. And we’ve seen a tremendous shift of students from face-to-face to online instruction. And that seems to have been accompanied by a fairly dramatic expansion in the use of online services that facilitate academic dishonesty. And a few years ago, at least on our campus, much of that seemed to be taking place using Course Hero. In the last couple years, much of the expansion seems to have been from Chegg. I saw a statistic recently that between April and August of 2020, the number of student uploads or questions to Chegg approximately doubled, and I think that expansion has continued since then. Why are the sites so popular?
James: Yeah, John, great summary of the challenges we face right now. I’ve done a lot of interviewing with students. And actually I stumbled into this in, I think it was June of 2019, at the American Society of Engineering Education annual conference, I think it was in Tampa. And I was doing one of the keynote breakfast things that are sponsored, McGraw Hill was sponsoring it. And we were talking about the future of educational materials. And the session was well attended by both faculty and students. We had a great panel and I was emceeing it. And the conversation came up about Chegg. Now this is pre-pandemic, and the question came up about Chegg. Many of the faculty hadn’t heard of it. All the students had heard of it. And it was an incredible conversation and eye opener. And what came out of that hour and a half meeting was, for me anyways, “Well, why were students using these type of websites?” …and there are many out there, I think Chegg is probably the leading one right now. And it was fascinating, having the conversation with the students. Of course, fast forward to the pandemic, and this all exploded. But what I’ve discovered, in having both focus groups and individual conversations with students from across the country, is that there seems to be a sense that students don’t want to leave points on the table. So if homework is worth 20%, or 25%, or 50%, they’re going to get all of those points if they can, and most students work hard to try to figure it out. But if they’re stuck, they’re not going to leave those points on the table, they’re going to go someplace to get help. And in the past, that might have been the person living in the dorm down the hall, or maybe you went to tutoring or some other source to get help. But these online sites are a couple mouse clicks away. And so the barrier to entry is so low, that if you’re struggling with a demanding curriculum and other things going on, the temptation is so great. And so what I found, in talking to students using these websites, is one of two general flavors. One was the student that was, “I’m not going to leave points on the table,” and frankly, blurring the line between academic dishonesty and trying to actually learn, and that’s sad. And we’ll probably get into that in a little bit in this conversation. The other group of students were students that were really trying to use these sites to learn, they were stuck on something, they couldn’t get past it. They’d submit, they’d take a look or search around. And to a large extent, they really want to learn. The pandemic came, everybody shifted online, and they took a look around and said, “Well, wait a minute here, this person’s cheating. That person’s cheating. I’m the one not cheating, I’m going to get the low grade because I’m really trying to do well, I’m not a cheat.” I heard this over and over again, “I’m not a cheat, but I know everyone in the class is cheating, and I’m not going to be the one getting a B, when they’re getting an A.” And so it became this crazy dynamic of a mix of “I’m not going to leave points on the table,” and “I’ll be darned everyone else is cheating.” And the barrier to entry is so incredibly low that the students who would never cheat, it’s a mouse click away. Oh, there’s the answer. Yeah, I knew that, hand it in, Sorry, long answer, John, but that sort of summarizes my exposure to it.
John: I actually had a conversation with a student just a few weeks ago that mirrors that exact discussion. Her response when we talked about this is she should have had more faith in her own ability, but she was using it as a crutch because she wasn’t that confident, so she was using this in every one of her courses. And I was just the person who happened to catch her doing it.
Rebecca: Academic dishonesty has been an issue for a very long time. But the pandemic has definitely put a spotlight on, especially this kind of digital version of academic dishonesty, even though that same mouse click was there a year or two ago, and these platforms definitely had traffic, they seem to have increased during the pandemic. Can you talk a little bit about the role of the pandemic in this particular issue?
James: Rebecca, you’re absolutely right. Unfortunately, cheating has been going on for a long time. And, usually, the way most professors adjust to that is, let’s say the homework or something might only be worth 10,15, 20%. It’s not particularly high stakes. It’s designed to be formative anyways. It’s the exams. And so in the past, they were face to face. And while young people tend to be very innovative and brilliant in solutions to circumventing academic honesty, in general, it was very hard to do. The pandemic rolls in. And now, exams are online. So we’re in a situation where the barrier to entry to cheating on an exam when it was face to face was pretty gosh darn high. Now, it’s extremely low, because you’re at home, you’re sitting in your bedroom or whatever, at the kitchen table, you’re taking an online test. Many faculty, many universities don’t use a proctoring service, we can talk a little bit about those, they’re typically a cost added, usually to the student, if they become very expensive to do institutionally. And quite frankly, I have a lot of experience that those systems don’t work, they don’t deter cheating, it’s pretty easy to cheat while these systems are being used. And I’ve unfortunately been involved with faculty that I’ve talked to, from my institution and other institutions where cheating has occurred during the exam while it was being video monitored. So in the arms race of trying to prevent cheating in the online world, we as instructors have a tendency to be a step behind. But you’re right, Rebecca, the pandemic shifted us online, including the big assessments, the big summative assessments, the exams, and we struggled with how to do it. Frankly, it was a little bit of lack of imagination on our part, and maybe an unwillingness or not recognizing that this change was afoot. The faculty that I’ve talked to that have modified their exam processes, have had some success. And interestingly enough faculty who have had upfront discussions with their students about academic honesty, and integrity, and setting standards, and a North star for yourself in terms of what your behavior is, they’ve had success in deterring cheating and academic dishonesty. But yeah, the pandemic brought it on, and it was the shift to online, plain and simple.
John: One of the things I think many teaching centers have been advocating for years is to use more online quizzing that’s automated to take some of the pressure off professors, and also to give students lots of formative assessment, as you’ve suggested, much of which is often done as a low-stakes summative assessment too, where students have multiple attempts. And so many faculty have been routinely creating these large test banks and updating them, but they pretty much all appear online pretty quickly. And the benefits of that, in many classes, have effectively disappeared. What can faculty do, without creating thousands of questions every semester, to get around this issue, to give students the benefits of that low-stakes or no-stakes formative assessment, while still making sure that students are actually learning from and ar not just looking things up on one of the services?
Rebecca: John, are you just looking for personal advice?
James: Chances are, it’s out there, John, I’m sorry to say, but hopefully…
John: I actually have been checking and I have done a few things that make it more difficult. But I’ve also been writing hundreds of new questions every week this semester.
James: Yeah, John, that’s part of the challenge is not only is it a shift in thinking for instructors, but it’s a shift in workload. So one approach is you did the work upfront, you’re writing hundreds of new questions with subtle changes, perhaps. And so it makes it very difficult to keep up with all those. The backside is to have more open-ended problems, but then your grading, so your extra work is on the backend. Part of this is having the conversation with the students, an honest conversation about their learning, connecting what you’re doing in the class, what you’re doing with the subject material to the issues that they’re going to face, perhaps in other courses, perhaps in their life and their career choice… so just an adult conversation, this is why it’s important for you to learn that, and I’ve come up with these low-stakes tests, so you can see where you’re at. And yeah, you can cheat on it. If that’s going to be your approach, then I don’t agree with that, and I think it’s eventually going to get you in trouble. So one approach, John is, yeah, you just do it, you have that conversation, and you say, “Look, it’s like taking your temperature to see if you have a fever. Just go and check. You want to know, if you have a fever, you want to know if you really have this material. I think you got to combine that when you get away from the frequent formative testing… the mantra, frequent formative assessment… when you get away from that, and you’re kind of saying, “Okay, here’s the next level test. This is a summative assessment, I need to know where you’re at with it.” That’s where the challenge is at right now, because the test banks have all been widely distributed. And unless you’re a glutton for punishment, and can write hundreds of questions, it’s going to be a real challenge. We’ve had some luck with using Gradescope. John, Rebecca, have you guys used Gradescope?
John: I have not. I know some colleagues who have, although not on our campus that I’m aware of.
James: We’ve had some, I would say modest success with it. It’s a tool that I think works best in a face-to-face type of exam, but you can do it in an online format. It helps speed up the grading process, it leverages artificial intelligence. There are some technical issues and glitches and so forth. But folks in chemistry and math have been experimenting with it with very good results. And one of the things it does is it can reduce the grading time. And that’s been the big pushback from my colleagues is “I’ll make open-ended problems, but then their grading is so hard.” One thing I did, and again, mechanical engineering, so I’ve got an advantage in that I can ask design-type questions. And what I have done in the past… this is pre-pandemic… is I would assign each student in the class slightly different parameters for a design problem. And then I was able, using some software (I think I used Mathematica or MATLAB, I don’t remember), I was able to run all the different variables and come up with approximately what their solution should look like. And so I split the difference, there was a little bit of upfront work in setting it up and a little bit of extra grading. But here’s the thing, the students loved it. And not because it was a design problem… I would say they like design problems. Here’s the insight. They loved it because they could work together, but they all had their own set of parameters that they had to do on their own. So they were like, “Oh, this is great. We got together, four or five of us got together and talked through it and explained it to each other.” But then everyone had to sit down, and kind of run the numbers for themselves. And they all diverged to slightly different solutions. That was a big insight for me. It would be interesting. I mean, I don’t know how you’d expand that to other disciplines. It would be interesting to go back and try that some more and see if that sort of assessment would get around all this. Now that said, could someone post their specific parameters on Chegg and get the answer? Yeah, unfortunately, the answer might be yes, John.
John: And in fact, I did that with my first econometrics exam when we moved online. I created seven variants of each of seven questions for a class of about 30 students, and nearly all the questions ended up online within about an hour of the test. And the first appearance was within 15 minutes of the test opening. So yeah, they can and they get a custom solution that can then be used by others. And for most of them five or six of the variants ended up appearing online very quickly.
James: Yeah, I wish we had a solution. Because if the three of us had the solution to it, we’d be going up for the initial public offering and starting up our company. But yeah, part of it is student behavior, and helping them understand what’s at stake about their learning. Part of it is changing our behavior as instructors. And while I understand sites like Chegg have introduced, I think it;s called honor shields, and so forth, the colleagues that I’ve talked to said it’s not very effective, they haven’t been happy with it. So yeah, this is a very vexing problem. And one that I don’t see a clear solution to in the future, I will say there was a math professor with a small seminar type class, and he just had oral Zoom exams with each student. He just set up a time and asked them. And the same professor, in his larger class, told students, “I might randomly contact you to explain how you solve a problem on a test.” And I think the fear of that alone probably drove students to study. [LAUGHTER] But yeah, you hate to resort to techniques like that. But there it is.
Rebecca: Especially when the platform’s themselves, like Chegg, they’re well designed for the behavior they want to occur. They’re designed in a way that rewards people uploading content, and so it’s designed in a way to be kind of effective at getting students to upload content because they want content.
James: Yep, exactly.
John: That’s actually the Course Hero model where you get free subscriptions if you upload a certain amount of graded material. And then you get access to materials that other students post. With Chegg, there’s a monthly fee, which I know, because I have to pay it just to keep track of all the cheating that’s taking place in my classes, which is really troubling. But it does have a nice interface, which is fairly similar to the interface that Netflix and similar services use. “If you like this problem, you will also like this problem.” And, in general, you can trace your way through and find many other questions from any given assessment that you posted
Rebecca: …referrals and recommendations. It’s amazing.
James: This is the Amazon model. John, one of the things that I found was interesting in talking to students who use Chegg is it recommends another problem. A number of students said that they enjoyed that, because while they saw the solution and everything, they felt that they were getting more experience with different types of problems, and they like that. But what was really interesting is when I would interview students and talk about their use of Chegg, one of the things that kept coming up, over and over again, is they liked the way, with certain types of problems in Chegg, that there could be hints. There are a whole spectrum of solutions available there. But the ones that are sort of curated, they thought were done very well, every step was explained, there was no “Oh, and it can be shown” and “then completing the algebra you get”… they showed all the steps. And some problems have hints, and you can choose to uncover the hints. And many of the students said they loved that. It was in plain language, and it showed all the steps. And maybe we should take a lesson from that when we put together course materials and study guides for our students, maybe that would be more beneficial for the students, would help them work their way through it. But I thought that was an interesting insight, that those were key aspects. Here’s another aspect, there’s not a lot of video content on Chegg. Now part of it is because “I just need to copy the answer and hand this homework in,” [LAUGHTER] but the students said, “Yeah, they didn’t really care about the video content, they were happy to read through the sort of solution walkthroughs.” And that’s interesting, because that’s sort of the opposite of YouTube, where it’s all video. And so the different learning methods and styles and approaches I thought was interesting. I just wish they didn’t cheat. [LAUGHTER]]
Rebecca: I think taking a lesson from some of those design aspects is important too. A lot of the things that students complain about is the learning management system and what that looks like and feels like or, for example, the problem sets that you’re talking about and wanting it to be in plain language rather than in language that maybe seems too difficult, or it’s not the right level of challenge. All of those things are things that could help the student maybe not want to leave your course and go somewhere else if it was built in. But it all requires a lot of time and resources and materials. And many of us don’t have that available to us with workloads expanding and especially during the pandemic having to turn around things quickly to shift gears,
James: Rebecca, you’re right, the massive shift from face to face to online, the anxiety, especially in the early days over this pandemic, and I don’t think the anxiety has gone down at all. But all that and the extra workload of learning to transition online, and figuring all this out. That’s been a consistent challenge during this whole period, that crazy shift in workload. And it’s been a challenge for all of us. It’s been a challenge for the students, certainly the types of students we’re talking about, in general, are students who went to college, they went to a residential experience. And all of a sudden we told them, [LAUGHTER] “Well, no, you’re actually attending an online institution at this point.” And Rebecca and John, I did want to point out, there was another interesting insight. I was interviewing some students on our campus, and then when I interviewed students from other universities, I was able to find similar things. And here’s what a student said to me, and I won’t use names, but they said, “Oh, in Professor X’s class, we never use Chegg.” Well, why not? “We didn’t have to. Her lectures were great. She explained everything. The homework was tied in, it made sense. And she gave us all her old exams. And she said, ‘Oh, you’re gonna know this for the exam.’” We had her old exams, and we’re like, “Oh my gosh, she’s right. We need to know this for the exam.“ And there was good support and tutorial services. There was great support. This is a quote, one student said “Chegg, Chegg who?” …obviously being a joker about it. But I thought that was fascinating, that when the course is well designed, when the material is presented in a clear way that’s student centered, when the students clearly understand how they’re going to be assessed, they know there isn’t going to be the trick problem to separate the stratospheric A from everybody else, they were like, “Yeah, we don’t need Chegg. We have everything we need from the professor and the student support services.” And when I asked students from other universities, I said, “Well, tell me about a course that you didn’t use Chegg.” And pretty much, I’d say well over half of them had “Oh, yeah, in organic chemistry, in thermodynamics, yeah, I had a great professor.” So there’s something in there that we need to learn as instructors. But that said, another quote from the same students who did use Chegg in another class, when I said “It’s academic dishonesty, you can be expelled.” And he said, “80% of the class is using it, they gonna expel all of us?” That’s an interesting perspective from a student. So yeah, but talking to students and getting their views on this has been tremendously fascinating. And it’s really helped inform a lot of the advice I give my colleagues about how to make the best of this situation. But it’s a challenge.
John: And I suspect the number of classes where it’s not being used has probably declined quite a bit, because once they’re paying that monthly fee, and now Chegg has a really nice mobile app, where you just take a picture of a problem on the screen, it uploads it, and the response comes back generally in 15 to 20 minutes, the marginal cost of engaging it in additional classes has become a lot lower for those students who might have considered it but didn’t think it was worthwhile before.
James: Yeah, the barrier to entry is now at ground level, other than the fee of $15, or whatever it is. It would be nice to engage with Chegg and other platforms. We need the students to learn this material. This is important. Let’s work together. I mean, the honor shield, okay, if it’s not working, why isn’t it working? Let’s figure out why it isn’t working on our end, working with students on academic honesty, and having a North star and having their own internal what’s right and what’s wrong, and helping young people build that set of skills and beliefs about themselves. You mentioned earlier that the young woman, she didn’t have the confidence in herself to be able to just do it. And part of it might be down the road, do departments and schools and universities and so forth, make a big fuss out of this? Is there legal action in the future? This is interesting. Where is this gonna go? I think the article in Forbes, which was very enlightening, they talked about the valuation of the company in the billions. And so if you take a very crass look at this, you got a multi billion dollar company based on cheating. That’s a hard swipe, and so forth. But let’s have a conversation.
John: And it’s basically all copyright infringement of textbook publishers’ content and faculty members’ content. So basically, they’re making millions, essentially from encouraging academic dishonesty and from infringing on everybody’s copyright. So it wouldn’t really be all that difficult, I would think, although copyright law with digital materials is a little bit tricky, because we do have the DMCA out there. And I know Chegg in particular, and I think Course Hero as well, is pretty good at responding to DMCA takedown requests, because I’ve sent dozens of them there just in the past semester, and quite a few over the last couple of years. And Chegg is actually also very good in providing faculty with information on the login ID that students use. Up until last year, in my experience at least, students were mostly using their actual college email address. Now they’ve tended to switch it a bit where they’ve created fake Gmail accounts, but they’re still logging in from the same IP address that they’re using when they submit their exams, which makes it really easy to do a look up between the exam and the person contributing the material. So there are ways of enforcing this. And if more faculty crack down on it, perhaps, it might deter a bit more of this activity. But there’s millions being made, as you said, and it might be nice if some of the publishers would work together to try to take back their ownership of the material they’ve paid to create.
James: I don’t know copyright law. But some of the problems I’ve looked at, where they were explained in more detail, whoever wrote that up, sort of wrote it up independent, they did not photocopy the instructors manual, the solution manual, they worked it out themselves. And truly I do not know what the copyright law is there.
John: The solutions, I think, would not be violations to copyright. But the photocopies of the problems and the test questions and so forth would be a violation of copyright.
James: That’s right, when we make up exams and so forth. But I mean, I’ve talked to faculty who had the exam, and had on the exam, “do not upload to Chegg,” [LAUGHTER] and it appeared, as you said, John, within 15, 20 minutes, and in those cases, it’s pretty easy to prosecute. Chegg will, as long as you go through the official academic honesty policy on campus, they’ll provide information, and that gets ugly really fast for the student. And here’s the other issue, John and Rebecca, I’ve pursued academic dishonesty cases, not involving Chegg, and it is work, it’s effort, it’s stress, and then you get the emails from the student: “You’re ruining my life” and all this kind of stuff. And It can be like, “Oh, boy, wouldn’t have been so much better if we had this conversation and you said, ‘Hey, Professor, I’m really struggling, can you give me some extra help or help me find a tutor.’” Here at Binghamton University, and I assume at many universities, students pay various comprehensive fees. tutoring is free, just go and sign up for tutoring, you’ve already paid a comprehensive fee that covers it. And I make that pitch to the first-year students all the time and say,” You’ve already paid for this, go and use it.” But yeah, I mean, think of the effort it takes for you to then go through all this work and crosswalk an IP address to this and that, I mean, that’s part of the equation we talked about, the time shift, you have to spend time on front creating assessments, on the back end grading it, and all through the process, pursuing it legally, a real challenge.
Rebecca: I think sometimes the argument, too, for students about being honest works a little better when it’s in their major, because there’s a slightly better sell of like a direct impact of “this skill set is really going to get you when you start that job and you can’t do the thing.” But we have to work on our arguments for the courses that might be in general education and things and help students recognize how those are valuable as well out in the workforce. Because I think sometimes that argument can be really compelling for students, but we have to be ready to help make it and help them want to be authentic in what they’re doing so that they can have success.
James: Absolutely. And you’re right. When I talked to students, certainly, for the courses outside of their major, they were much more willing to just survive the course, they really didn’t care. And, again, what lesson can we learn from that? Why are students feeling that way? Why are they saying that? Are those courses not connected? Or did we just not make the connection? We didn’t show them, “Oh, yes, that’s important, that gen ed is really much more important.” I’d argue, certainly in the STEM fields, as so many STEM degrees are being offered worldwide, as technology allows for so many of the things that used to require a person, now can be done by AI, that it’s our ability to work in teams, our ability to communicate, its ethics, and how do you tackle big challenging problems? I might be a mechanical engineer, I bring that background, other people bring other backgrounds and experiences. And that, what a great way to tie in general education courses to the bigger picture. Are we making that argument? Are we helping students make those connections? So, something to think about. I don’t have any answers, guys, so I’ll have to stay tuned to your podcast as you bring smarter people in to say, “Oh, well, when James said that, I have the solution.” [LAUGHTER]
John: Are there some other approaches that faculty could use in place of more traditional exams to eliminate some of the incentives and the possibility for this type of academic integrity concern?
James: Sure, there are, and they’re are more time consuming. So I’m going to be honest with myself, it’s a little easier to have 10 multiple choice questions in mechanical engineering on an exam, a little bit of a testbank, a little bit of taken from the homework, taken from my notes, super easy to grade. If you got 100 plus students, you can grade that pretty quick or you bubble source it. And I justify it, because the licensing exam is multiple choice. Well, it’s okay. It’s okay. I think we got to go back and say, “Well, maybe a judicious blend of some multiple choice questions.” Hey, you know what? The licensing exam is multiple choice. And sometimes you just got to get the right answer. With longer answer prompts that ask them to evaluate something, that’s the approach I use, and it weighs heavily on the back end. The grading is now something that you spend the weekend with a stack of papers,going through them. And you know, you guys know how that is, you can’t start grading a problem and stop halfway because you lose it in your head, right? You got the rubric in front of you. But still, you get a certain “Ok, I took a point off for that, yeah.” And so you got to sit and do that whole problem. And that’s for a lot of folks, I’ll just say, for me, that’s a shift in doing things as we shift to online. I hope that when we go back to face to face, and let’s hope it’s this fall, that we don’t forget some of these lessons, that we really should be designing better assessments that really challenge what the students know. My argument is, if you can google on it, and it’s three mouse clicks away, it’s probably not worthy of testing them on it. And the students are telling you that by saying I’m just gonna copy it. So I don’t have great solutions. I know some of the learning management systems, you can put problems in there, they’ll mix up the order, they’re timed, you can’t go back. But, the only problem I have with that is what is it we’re really testing? The time thing just puts a lot of anxiety and pressure on people and I’m not a good one under those conditions. And you know, John, I’m a “Oh shoot on problem two, wait a minute. Yeah, I did. Oh, I did that. I want to go back to problem two. I just remembered, cause in problem six, there was something similar.” You can’t do it. So yeah, there are things we do out there. But they’re not getting at the heart of what we want. And that is students to learn this material and for us to assess it in a fair and reasonable way, and help the students connect all this for whatever goals they have in their lives. What are you trying to do? Why are you in college? What’s your goal? Let’s connect what we’re doing to that goal. So Chegg’s not in front of that, that’s a deeply philosophical question for another podcast. [LAUGHTER]
Rebecca: I think combined with that, James, depending on your class size, open pedagogy or authentic assessments are also options, but it has to be the right kind of course, with the right kind of content, and the right kind of class size…
Rebecca: …for those things to all work in the mix.
James: Yeah, Rebecca, right now I’m teaching an innovation class with 10 students. [LAUGHTER] It is an absolute joy. It’s 10 motivated students, we’re using a platform called mural, which is an online collaborative platform. And so when the homework is due, I can actually go into Mural and see them doing the homework and they see each other’s homework. It’s like, yeah, we’re all going to collaborate on this. And so they can actually look and see what other people are putting in. And I mix it up, I randomize some stuff. So they have to do the reading and then they have to do parts. But, the students love it. And believe me, it’s almost like a bespoke education. This is like hand crafted somewhere between there and I used to teach some of the big sophomore engineering classes with 175 students, and I know some of your listeners who are teaching even bigger classes. That becomes almost industrial in scale. And the ability to give authentic assessments becomes very, very difficult. And until we get those AI engines up… and I’ll tell you what, when they get to the level of being able to do that. we’re all out of a job…. [LAUGHTER] or we better redefine what it is we do as educators.
Rebecca: I think what you’re pointing out, though, James, in some ways is that it tends to be those lower level classes that are bigger, those introductory classes. And so although they might get away with it, in those lower classes, they may not be thinking about the long-term game there.[LAUGHTER]
Rebecca: …because those are skills and things that they need in those upper-level classes, especially in their major, it’ll come back to get them in a way that if they don’t take an upper- level class in something else, they might not experience the same kind of consequences. But even reminding students of that, particular long-term consequences of their choices, could be useful.
James: That’s excellent. Rebecca. And as we talked earlier on, I mentioned some of the strategies that seems to work was faculty instructors talking about this, just having a very frank conversation. “Yeah, I know, all these platforms exist. Let’s talk about it. Here’s what I’m trying to do in this class.” Rebecca, I don’t think, in general, we do a great job at connecting the courses across the curriculum. And so I’m teaching my course and I do my thing. And then I hand the students off over the fence. “There you go, go take the next course,” unless we’re doing kind of self studies within our disciplines. “Hey, you know what, I teach this basic thing here at the sophomore level, and you don’t use it till last semester senior year, when does the student practice that thing?” And now we’re expecting them to pull that out of their hat and be experts at it? Why don’t we change things so that they’re constantly using it? And these are great conversations to have… a good hard look, a deep dive into how we build curriculum, helping students connect it, helping connect it to the progress they’re trying to make in their lives. Why are you studying mechanical engineering? What do you want to do with that? Let’s connect those dots through the program, so you can see where things are connected. But as long as the barrier to entry to online cheating is low, [LAUGHTER] but we got an uphill fight.
John: I have tried using some open pedagogy projects, including student-created podcasts and videos created by students, but it’s so much more work evaluating that, that it just doesn’t scale very well. I have been using them in my classes of up to 50 in my online class, but I have not yet committed to doing that in a class of 400, which I normally teach in person… last fall I taught synchronously online.
James: Wow. Yeah, you’re absolutely right. And what are the recurrent themes here? Part of it is: let’s have conversations with students, let’s rethink formative and summative assessments, are there solutions at different scales that make sense? The real challenge, Rebecca, you’re absolutely right, is the big introductory sort of classes where we’ve become used to having sometimes hundreds, if not more, students in the class, these pools of multiple choice questions that make it, and I’m using the phrase industrial and I don’t mean that in a pejorative sense at all, but it’s this ability to be able to expose students to a chemistry curriculum or mechanical engineering curriculum at scale in a very efficient way. [LAUGHTER] I mean, It’s kind of what STEM people do: how do we make this more efficient? And then a big change comes, a huge disruption, and we have to scramble. And so, I don’t see a way around the fact that this is going to be a lot of extra work. And if this were a long term shift, then absolutely, I think we’d be talking about how we restructure higher education in general and different departments and disciplines. I think because it’s short term, the concern I have is, we are going to forget all this, we’re going to wipe our hands of it and go back to face to face and go back to the old way, and not address some of the structural challenges that we’ve uncovered here: helping students understand why it’s important, and “oh, by the way, if the courses are disjointed, that’s on us, go fix that, put some effort into that, and have those conversations with the students.” That’s one of the things I always think about is what is it going to look like a year from now. And I’m concerned that we’re going to miss learning the lessons, we’re going to forget to apply these lessons, when we get back to our old ways, because we’re used to them. “I’ve got my research, my scholarship, my teaching, I’ve got it all balanced just right. I’ve been doing this for a long time, don’t make me change.” But we might have to in order to really help the students be successful. And one thing I always remember is this generation of students is going to be taking care of me when I’m old, so I want them to be good decision makers, [LAUGHTER] and have a good strong set of ethics and a moral compass. So they’re like, “oh, yeah, we have to look at society in a bigger sense.”
Rebecca: That keeps it in perspective, I think, James. [LAUGHTER]
James: Yeah, that’s right. It’s like, “Make sure I’m nice, because when I’m retired, these will be the wage earners. So I want to make sure that they keep the wheels of the economy turning and keep healthcare going and all the things we rely on, that we became painfully aware of during this pandemic, and how thin some of those threads were, how tenuous some of those systems were and are.” So really, it’s amazing how this pandemic has impacted absolutely every aspect of our lives. And we’re talking about some very specific things here. But there’s deep stuff going on here. And this is an opportunity for us to rethink how we move forward.
Rebecca: Especially because it’s easy to go back to what we had or to desire that, especially when we feel potentially burnt out with the workload and things of shifting, or just even having to have the difficult conversations with colleagues about really needing to do significant change when it’s really hard work that needs to be done.
Rebecca: So it’s easy to want to avoid it. [LAUGHTER]
James: Yeah, and I’m assuming this is a true statement. But, as a mechanical engineering professor, my training was watching my mechanical engineering professors, right? And their training was watching their professors. And so we teach the way we were taught unless we pause and take a look at the science and research and scholarship in teaching and learning, and then try to apply that. And yeah, Rebecca, you’re right, it’s work. And when you upset that balance, what’s going to happen here? And what does this mean for the future of how we do things? It would be great to not have these massive classes where you could interact with students more directly. I don’t know that that would solve the cheating problem. My students aren’t cheating in my class, there’s only 10 of them, I know them extremely well, they’re very motivated and interested, and they see where it’s connected. So how do you do that at scale and how do you do that across the curriculum?
John: On a more positive note, many faculty who had not been very involved in professional development, who had not reflected on their teaching, because they were just doing it the same way they always had, were suddenly forced to confront some new realities, and they’ve learned a lot during the past year. And I’m hoping that much of what people have learned will not be forgotten as we move past the pandemic.
James: Yeah, I agree. And I’ve been, as I’m sure you’ve seen, I’ve been just blown away by my colleagues, the huge shift, the willingness to just jump on board, to try new technology, to experiment with things and get feedback. Hey, I tried this and it really works great. And then we’ve been able to get that in the hands of other people. It was incredible to see and you’re absolutely right. So let’s pull these good pieces and bring them back. I can see myself now, even when we go face to face, just being more than happy if a student wants to Zoom with me for 15 minutes, and it’s in the evening, I could set up two evenings a week, set up an hour to do that. Like, before, I would have been: “When I get home, I’m toast. I just want to maybe catch up on my reading, catch up on my emails,” I could see that changing. And John and Rebecca, one of the things I have done, is for my entire staff, I have a weekly Zoom town hall where they can ask any questions, I give them updates. It’s fantastic. Folks really like it. And then I run a scholarship program and I just have… every two weeks, I set up a time chunk of time, vast majority of them show up, and we just chat, like, “How are things going?” And I didn’t do that. I mean, I certainly didn’t do it on Zoom before. And I might see individuals now and then, but it made me much more accessible. But in a way that was acceptable. It’s like, “Oh, I’m used to Zoom now, yeah, I don’t mind sitting in my attic studio at home and setting up a 45-minute Zoom and meeting with some students or some colleagues. So what a cool thing to be that accessible and be comfortable with it, within, obviously, within limits, and so forth. That’s a cool thing that I want to continue. A lesson we learned is that when we shifted to online, one thing became apparent right away, is there were a lot of students in socio-economic situations, they didn’t have a laptop, they didn’t have a camera, they didn’t have headphones, they didn’t have internet. And this pandemic has widened the gap to a very uncomfortable level. And so paying attention to that. And what we did at Binghamton is SUNYgave us laptops, we went out and bought a bunch of laptops, we bought mobile MiFi hotspots, 250 of them. You don’t even want to know what my monthly bill is for those… unlimited data. But we just did it. We just did it and sent it out. The other thing is we did a phone campaign just to reach out to students. And we recruited faculty and staff. And it was incredible, just to have a conversation with students. They were like, “Hey,” the overwhelming comment back was “Wow, like, thanks for contacting me.” “Yeah, I’m doing okay,” or “No, I’m not doing okay, I’ve got to take care of my younger brother and sister, my mom is working as a nurse, and it’s absolute chaos here.” So those are two things we learned in the pandemic that I hope we pay attention to, because there are students for with having all this fancy technology, that doesn’t exist. They’re in school, because there’s a computer lab and they don’t own this stuff, they don’t have it. And then the other is just reaching out to students, being a human, you know, “Hey, how’s it going?: …incredible, how powerful that is.
John: This has all become much more visible for faculty as a result of the pandemic. Those inequities were always there, but they were hidden. And now that faculty see that, it may also provide a richer appreciation of the inequities that students face as they were reaching the college level. And that’s something, as we move into the fall, that I think we’re going to see magnified because most students completed most of the last academic year remote, and some students were in well-funded school district with many resources, and all of the students and the faculty had good equipment. And in other schools, they did not have that sort of environment and much less learning occurred. So, we’re going to be faced with a student body that’s going to be experiencing greater inequities as they arrive on our campus in the fall. And I think that’s something that we all have to be prepared for.
James: John, you’re absolutely right, and well said. I think it’s always been there, and now there’s much more awareness. And I think that is something we cannot forget. And the second part of that is the students coming in… we’ve had some conversations with school districts, principals, high school principals, so forth, superintendents, and what we’re hearing is exactly what you said. It’s all over the map in terms of what that academic experience is. We know that the incoming first-year students had a pretty crazy year and a half, a lot of school districts had a “do no harm” policy. So John, if my average in your class was an 87, it didn’t matter. I couldn’t get worse than an 87. So am I motivated to work harder? Or am I going: “and thank you, I just got to take it easy.” And so I may not have learned all that material. So we have that. We have principals telling us that people have moved because of the pandemic, they had to move in with relatives. So the student isn’t showing up, they go to the house, they don’t even live there anymore. Like, where are they? So that’s a challenge. So if you think about the social aspects at home, you think about the emotional growth aspects, you think about the academic aspects, and then you add in standard test optional. The cohort of students coming in is potentially very different in a lot of ways. And we’re going to have to look at how we support them. It’s not a deficit model on their part. It’s a deficit model on our part, too, as instructors. So what are our deficits? And how do we change and modify to meet the students at a place where they can be successful? And I think that’s very important. But John, here’s the thing that was most sobering. One principal told us that it’s not just the seniors, it’s the juniors. It’s like, “Oh, yeah, so not only did the first-year’s propagate through the system, right behind them is the juniors who had a wacky…” and here’s what one principal said: “The biggest failure rate they’re seeing is in the high school sophomores.” This is a problem that isn’t going away. This is going to wash up onto the shores of higher education and if we’re not ready for it, we’re going to be in for a heck of a shock. And quite frankly, those students are going to be in for a shock. So we’ve got to figure out, what do we need to do as institutions of higher learning? And how can we best support students to be successful? No one goes to college to flunk out. They’re going because they’re trying to make progress. They’re trying to make progress in their life. Okay. How do we help them? Oh, yeah, deep and profound stuff, John and Rebecca, the effects of this are going to be with us for years to come.
Rebecca: …at least 13 years, I think, K-12. [LAUGHTER]
James: Oh yeah, right?
John: The preschoolers might have gotten past it by the time they arrive, but…
Rebecca: Yeah. A lot of preschools, I think, still maintained in person, but…
James: Yeah, so big challenges out there. I think we’re up for it. What I love about being in higher education is that we constantly question, we’re curious by nature, stubborn sometimes and have to see data in order to change our minds. But, these are all things we’re good at, and as long as we pay attention, don’t forget the lessons we’ve learned and recognize that the world has changed, and if we’re willing to figure out how we change, then I think this has a good ending. So I’m optimistic. But it’s going to be a lot of work. [LAUGHTER]
Rebecca: Definitely, and some values, of changes of things like flexibility are things that we see as value, perhaps, in students now that we didn’t see before as important skill sets and things, and adaptability.
James: Yeah, and helping students persist, and all the qualities that helped drive us to moving forward in higher education, and so forth. How do we instill some of that curiosity and work ethic? All of us, each one of us, has a unique story of why we went to school and how we want to move forward with our lives. So how do we tap into that and help students be successful? That’s what gets me up in the morning and makes me excited about my job.
Rebecca: And we always wrap up by asking what’s next?
James: Good question. So I can tell you what’s next on my horizon. I’m in the STEM field, I’m doing some research and doing some digging. I’m concerned about traditionally underrepresented groups of students in STEM fields and their success and persistence. I am very fortunate to have an NSF grant that’s sponsoring some work in this area. And when I interview and talk to students, their perspective is very interesting. For example, I was talking with a young Hispanic woman, very smart, already has a job lined up, great, great student. And she said, “Yeah, they bring guest speakers in the class, and no one looks like me, all the guest speakers look like the professor,” …which is like me, an old white guy. So where are the young people? Where are people that, I know it sounds silly, but that look different, but more importantly, have different backgrounds and different experiences and different paths to success. And that’s such an easy thing to fix at all our institutions. We have alumni of diversity who are out there. So I’m concerned about our ability to attract and retain traditionally underrepresented students in STEM fields, because that’s the pipeline for faculty in STEM. So you want to attack the faculty problem in STEM, let’s fix this problem. And you can argue let’s fix K through 12, but I can impact where I’m at right now. And down the road that’s going to impact senior-level administration. So the more people who choose an academic career, the more diverse points of view we have, the more likely that they’ll persist in the career and move into leadership. So, that’s a big problem I’m working on. That’s what’s next for me is some research and scholarship in that area. Because I want the best and brightest students no matter what their background is, because they got to take care of me when I’m old. And I’m already getting pretty old.
Rebecca: I think that’s a perfect note to end on. [LAUGHTER] Thanks so much for that conversation. Really important things to be thinking about.
James: Yeah, good stuff. And thank you so much for inviting me. I really appreciate it. Best wishes to you all. And let’s reconnect in the fall and see what lessons have we hung on to and how crazy is the fall. So, let’s circle back if you don’t mind, I’d love to catch up with you again.
John: That would be great. It’s always great talking to you. Thank you.
James: Great. Awesome. All right. Bye bye.
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Rebecca: You can find show notes, transcripts and other materials on teaforteaching.com. Music by Michael Gary Brewer.