09 August 2010

What you learn on trains . . .

I was travelling by train the other day -- something I don't do that often because I love driving -- when I heard two teenagers or early twenty-somethings talking about their university courses. As a TAFE teacher, my ears instantly pricked. I'm always interested in what's going on in the trenches -- even if they're not exactly our trenches.

So, one of the students was talking about having to do a compulsory online subject. Seeing as I teach (or, rather, moderate) online subjects sometimes and am involved in their design, my ears pricked further. This I wanted to hear.

The main thing I picked up was that the student thought his online subject was great because he was paying his sister $10 to do all his assignments for him. Hmm. Apart from the fact that she was charging far too little in my opinion, I was also struck that this was one of my great fears in online teaching. How can we verify that a student's work is their own -- how do we know they're even engaging with the content?

Well, we can tell that they've been online -- how long exactly, how many files they've looked at, how many sessions they've had, when the first and last time they logged in was -- all sorts of stuff. (And don't I love the student tracking device!) What we can't ascertain is that it's actually them on the other end of the computer. Maybe they should have their webcams on -- might make for some interesting viewing of those who like working at midnight in their PJs!

Ultimately, though, university (and TAFE) students are supposed to be doing a course because they want to do it -- places are competitive. Not everyone gets in. Of course, it would be naive to think that that means they all do want to be there -- some are there because of parental pressure and for all sorts of other reasons.

What I wanted to ask this student was whether he had thought about why he was doing this subject. Most probably he would have told me it was compulsory, and that he didn't particularly like it, and that's why he was paying his sister, in which case I would have asked him why he thought it was compulsory. Subjects usually are for a reason, and that reason has to do with skills -- essential skills.

As well as novel writing, I teach editing. Novel writing is not a compulsory subject, and generally I know my students enjoy it. Editing, which involves the nuts and bolts of grammar and punctuation -- before they get onto the more exciting stuff -- is what lies under good writing. I'm not saying all good writing has to be grammatical -- it doesn't -- but if someone's going to break the rules, they'd better understand them first. Many of my students don't enjoy the subject -- well, not at first, anyway. Some grind their teeth all through the year, whereas others learn to appreciate it, or even to love it. (I was one of those.) By the end of the year, even those who haven't particularly enjoyed it have learnt a grudging respect. They understand why they have had to do the subject. I've even had a few who haven't enjoyed it but who have sacrificed a Pass to do the subject again because they know they haven't yet quite mastered it. (After all, if you score 50%, realistically you know about half of what you should know.)

So those students who cheat, ultimately cheat themselves. They might think they've come out on top, they might feel they've outsmarted their teachers and the system, but the only person they've truly outsmarted is themselves. Kind of sad, really.

1 comment:

Sherryl said...

The tyranny of "must have the piece of paper". No wonder TAFE and uni teachers grind their teeth at the students who aren't that interested but want the qual. And then employers cop the duds out in the workplace. Another good reason why training packages suck. When all you get is Competent as a grade, it's meaningless to an employer.