Monday, September 15, 2014

Simultaneous Enrollment

The Crimson has an op-ed on simultaneous enrollment, that I agree with.

Harvard does not like simultaneous enrollment, which means a student taking two classes that meet at the same time -- any time overlap counts (whether the whole class or half an hour once a week).  If you want to take a class via simultaneous enrollment, you have to petition the Administrative Board, and your professor is supposed to provide direct hour-per-hour instruction for the class you can't intend.  As a previous Crimson article states:
The Faculty Handbook requires that “direct and personal compensatory instruction” for simultaneous enrollment, but only recently has the Ad Board refused to recognize videotaped lectures as a stand-in for class time.
The article references that for the past several years the Ad Board has accepted recorded lectures, under some additional conditions, as a suitable proxy for the direct and personal compensatory instruction.  This apparently represented a change from their past position, and this last year, while I was on sabbatical, some Standing Committee on Education Policy decided to push back and say no more recorded substitutions. 

(An aside:  I don't know why they used the dated term "videotaped".  My lectures have been recorded and made available online;  these days, I'm not sure any "videotape" is actually involved in the process.)  

I believe I had a great deal to do with the Ad Board accepting recorded lectures the last several years.  My undergraduate class, CS 124, was recorded with very high quality production for the Harvard Extension School, and I made this video available to the students.  Some years ago, students starting approaching me wanting to do simultaneous enrollment for CS 124, and I thought it was fine, because of the availability of class lectures.  (That was, for instance, how the Extension students were taking the class.)  In particular, every year some number of students seemed to want to take CS 124 and a conflicting math class that overlapped, which made it very difficult for a small number of students who wanted to pursue both CS theory and mathematics.  (Both classes were "gateways" to more advanced classes;  at least for me, changing my class time would have just introduced other more challenging time conflicts;  neither class appeared poised to change times.)  But other class overlaps came up as well. 

I initially faced some opposition from the Ad Board when I supported the students' petitions for simultaneous enrollment because I suggested the recorded lectures were a suitable proxy.  They objected, and I objected to their objection.  After some back and forth, we found language which we managed to agree met the language of the faculty rules, with the outcome being the students could, in the end, rely on the recordings of class lectures.  I admit, I believe it helped that I had served on the Ad Board, and had a good working relationship with them, so they were willing to work with me to come to a mutually acceptable solution.  The framework we established was later used for CS 50 and other computer science classes, because I passed on my successful approach with the Ad Board to others.  (David Malan asked me for assistance on the issue, for example.)  There was, however, always some tension, with the Ad Board continuously questioning whether using class recordings to justify simultaneous enrollment was suitable.  Meanwhile, the number of such petitions kept growing. 

Apparently, while I was sabbaticalling, various powers that be have acted to tighten the rules for simultaneous enrollment, and disallow my previous framework.  Interestingly, CS 50 -- the class with the most requests for simultaneous enrollment -- seems to have acquired a blanket exception, which I am happy for, but still leaves the rest of us facing unhappy students who often have to deal with ugly situations.

What I find frustrating is that, to my knowledge, this change is not based on any data about student performance, or any understanding of student behavior.  It's based on a presumption that students are supposed to sit in classes to learn.  David Malan has some great data showing this presumption doesn't seem to have a basis in reality.  Students in CS50 taking the class under simultaneous enrollment don't do any worse than other students.  In fact, if I recall the data right, they do better than average;  this would not be surprising, as they are a self-selected group with apparently high interest in the subject.  David also has great data showing how lecture attendance steadily drops over the semester.  If a substantial fraction of the students are missing class and watching the video anyway, what's the point of blocking simultaneous enrollment?  Maybe because of all this data at David's command CS 50 got its exemption, but I'm sure if we go back we'd find similar findings for CS 124 and other classes.   

Professors have always had the right to refuse simultaneous enrollment petitions for their class, so if the professor expects student attendance, there is no problem.  I don't think it's a radical suggestion to say that for recorded classes, professors and students should have the ability to jointly decide if simultaneous enrollment is a suitable solution to the small number of inevitable class scheduling conflicts.  I'm not sure what combination of faculty and administrative busybodies decided they had to fix what I see as a non-problem, but I'm sure their rule-making (or in this case rule-interpreting), while it only affect a small number of students, will be a significant net negative.  Kudos to the Crimson for pointing out that this is a poor decision, and I only wish I was optimistic that it could be quickly reversed.  


Anonymous said...

Harvard is a business. They have to protect the idea that going to Harvard and sitting in classes is extremely valuable.

Anonymous said...

It seems that having just one section of a class with 800 people makes it much more likely students will have time conflicts. Why not have 4 sections of 200 people each that are at different times?

Wesley Calvert said...

A very young Val Kilmer was in a movie some years ago set at an elite technical university. The first-year student dutifully comes to class, but notices one day that a classmate has skipped class, leaving a tape recorder instead.

Later, more and more students are replaced by tape recorders.

Finally, the student shows up one day to find that the professor, too, has been replaced, and except for our hero we have nothing but one tape recorder playing a lecture to a room of other tape recorders.

A thought experiment: What happens in our classes that keeps us from being replaced by (tape) recordings of ourselves, or students with "listening" recorders?

In my classes, quite a lot, I think. But maybe that's exceptional???

Michael Mitzenmacher said...

Anon #1: There's nothing to suggest it was the "business" side of Harvard that made this decision, for what that's worth.

Anon #2: There are tons of "sections" (and office hours, oh so many office hours) for students for CS50. The "800" is that there is a single lecture. It's not clear why you think having 4 lectures of 200 is better than a recording of the lecture. Yes, it's better for students to be at lecture, but the work/interaction with others is outside the lecture.

WC: This is obviously a larger discussion. I think professors offer a lot; I think the experience of being in lecture is, generally, much better than from a recording. However, despite that, there may be cases where a recording is the best outcome. (e.g., better than taking another class.)