I am writing this post on behalf of a number of students who have had a challenging experience with this past fall semester. I myself am a former graduate student who has taught 7 semesters of classes during my PhD. In these sorts of situations things can be subjective; I am hoping my explanation of the details will be more neutral than some of the students since I have experienced things "from both sides" in my past teaching. There is a lot of nuance here so I am hoping the extra detail will help to clarify exactly what issues are present.
A number of students were set to begin their masters in a well-respected international multi-university European program. This program consists of over 10 different universities and students (from all over the world) will attend different semesters at different universities depending on their program track. This particular fact has caused a lot of complications since it requires the coordination of many different institutions. In light of recent events with COVID-19, many international students could not move to Europe. The program offered these students the opportunity to take the program online while other students who were local could take it in person. This required a lot of work on the part of coordinators who got volunteer administrative staff to set up an online platform and then volunteer professors to add content for a course. This has resulted in a few different challenges:
- The content of the online class and the in-person class differs significantly (more details in the issues section below). Nobody has offered a straight answer as to why the in-person classes could not be live-streamed or at least loaded online after they were taught. But the fact of the matter is that the in-person classes are taught by professors who were supposed to teach the classes in the first place while the online class is taught by volunteer professors only from many different academic institutions around Europe.
- The fact that the professors volunteer for the online content means that nobody "owns" a class. They simply put content online and leave it. Most classes are taught by anywhere between 6-10 professors who generally refuse to answer questions about their posted lectures or clarify anything. Due to the decentralized nature of each class it is essentially taught my multiple professors and nobody at the same. Coordinators have no real sway over these professors as they may or may not be a part of their academic institution.
- The volunteer professors have no knowledge of the program scope, content, or prerequisites, and have just posted material that is relevant to their field of expertise regardless of whether students were really expected to know it according to the program's standards.
- This is a masters program which will be rigorous and means students must become independent learners and researchers. However, the administrative issues force students to waste most of their day with "busy work" and trying to decipher unclear instructions where this time could be better spent reading textbooks on their own.
Obviously COVID-19 was unprecedented and put unexpected strain on professors and admins who have many responsibilities including those to their families. The students appreciate the quick turnaround to put the classes online and understand that this was challenging. However, a number of issues have emerged that I feel are unacceptable and some compromise should be provided for the students as they have paid a lot of money for this program.
The program has suffered from numerous problems throughout the semester. Some issues are bound to happen due to COVID-19 and the nature of online learning. However, the following are, in my opinion, particularly egregious.
- Classes are not really classes. Many professors started off providing lessons with voiceovers and then gave up after week two, instead posting powerpoints with no context: missing legends, color-coding on figures absent, tables with no explanation, paraphrased bullet point paragraphs, "fill-in-the-blanks" in sentences since they were supposed to be answered in-person by the class during a lecture, essentially making them useless. Other professors have just posted hours of YouTube or Khan Academy content, many of which are the first result from Google.
- The content of posted videos often contradict one another or have superfluous content. Sometimes videos use different terms for the same concept. It is unclear what students are responsible for, which definitions they need to know, and since classes are decentralized, those writing final exams may have different terminology than the videos. There is no syllabus so nobody knows what content they are actually responsible for in the videos.
- Video content is often in excess of 8 hours per class with 2-3 class per day. This differs from the in-person students who simply have one 2 hour lecture. The coordinators have stated that each class should not take more than 3 hours per day but this is impossible when the content is always longer. This leaves no time to revise or do assignments and with no clear guide about what to study, students end up having to watch all 8 hours of videos per class (i.e. no way to "work smart, not hard").
- Content is spread everywhere. There is no syllabus and assignment due dates are in 3 different places, sometimes contradicting one another.
- Prerequisites were not adequately communicated to students and volunteer professors have ignored this. Some professors have content from upper-level undergraduate engineering topics (e.g. fluid dynamics, differential equations) and this was never indicated as a requirement anywhere in any course content. This is clearly because these are volunteer professors.
- The semester ends in 3 weeks but so far less than 10% of assignments have been graded. Student have had no feedback on anything and within a few days of final exams have no clear idea of their standing in the class.
- A student may sometimes get a response from a professor who claims an assignment is optional but then never communicates this to any other student and fails to change the "optional" status on the online platform where assignments are submitted. Additionally, a professor may claim an assignment is optional and not be on the final exam but it appears those that write the final exams were never made aware of these changes.
- Assignments sometimes switch from optional to not-optional without notice. Grades switch from out of 10 to out of 20 for no reason and nobody will answer why this happens (a 100% is now a 50% and nobody addresses it).
- A few hours before a deadline an assignment's prompt may change but if you've already turned it in before this point, you will be penalized because the grader will think that you didn't follow the prompt.
- Some assignments marked down because professors wanted something in a specific format (but this was never specified anywhere). However, since they waited 2 months to get to grading and to express this fact, multiple assignments have been turned in in the wrong format, all receiving penalties.
- No way to contest grades if there are errors. Nobody responds to emails, some professors have 3 email addresses and can take weeks to respond.
- Graders are not those that write the assignments and often ignore rubrics or prompts. They give one sentence feedback on assignments that are clearly incorrect (e.g. say something is missing when it is clearly there) but even in the case where there is a miscommunication there is no response to emails for clarification.
On the occasion that professors actually show up for a live stream they were assigned to by coordinators they are generally quite hostile and respond to feedback by saying to "just Google it".
Major decisions about moving overseas given only 10 days notice to decide and unclear emails about how to get clarification take nearly a week for a response.
To prevent cheating, final exams online are designed so that if you move to the next question, you cannot return to a previous one. This destroys any attempt at pacing or providing an opportunity to revise a question if you think of the answer later in the exam.
Around a month in, coordinators and professors essentially gave up and ignored all feedback from students.
In short, students simply want to just learn the content and they are not learning this way. They are wasting hours doing busy work for professors that could be spent actually learning. Further, the amount of clerical errors and mismanagement means that student's grades are represented incorrectly.
To reiterate, of course COVID-19 has been an incredible challenge for many universities. However, in the end this is a business transaction where students paid for a particular service and deserve a proper education or at least a fair compromise that respects them as well as the professors that have had to work overtime to provide content. The numerous clerical errors, mismanagement, and ignoring of communication is completely unprofessional and unfair to students.
The questions I would like answered are:
- Given that students have been told that refunds are not an option and they paid for the year on week two of the semester, what can students do in this situation? How do institutions normally handle situations like this?
- In the event that the numerous clerical errors regarding assignments are not addressed how can students contest their grades when coordinators, professors, and graders ignore all communication?