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I'm currently attending university online (at a notable public institution, not a crappy school—I feel compelled to mention this because one typically expects quality from good institutions). Unfortunately, my instructor didn't put much effort into designing the course.

Essentially, though there are a few YouTube videos made by him and his colleagues, the rest of the course basically consists of:

1) The e-book that we read weekly

2) Other YouTube videos that he's linked

3) Wikipedia articles

I've already brought this to his attention in a professional manner (he didn't get upset), but things obviously won't change during this academic semester, as he's also busy teaching other courses. His reasoning is that in the digital age, since information is so freely available, his job is essentially to help guide us in finding the right information.

I disagree. What's frustrating is the fact that students are paying tuition to have an instructor tell them "Hey, here are some free videos literally anyone can find online, and some Wikipedia articles any competent student can read on their own. Go nuts." Because when you're paying tuition, the implication is that you're gaining special privilege and access to resources and knowledge that are otherwise unavailable to ordinary people/students. A student makes a choice when deciding what school he wishes to attend. In doing so, he gives up the opportunity to attend another school. If all schools just offered the same quality and degree of education, there wouldn't be any competition or a means of qualifying how good one school is compared to another.

I find it unprofessional of an instructor to do something like this. I don't want to strain my relationship with this instructor, but I also don't feel like I can let this go because the course is quite fundamental to the major I'm pursuing, and it's really upsetting that it's in this condition.


What should I do? Should I just let it pass and move on, or should I bring this to the attention of someone else? He also happens to be high up in the corresponding department, so there aren't many people above his status. I don't want to go over his head, but I feel like if I email him again about this, it'll seem like I'm just pestering him.

  • 82
    There is a certain logic in the idea that watching great video lectures is more useful than watching average live lectures. If the professor spends the time he would have spent lecturing on giving individual feedback, I'm not sure it's a bad thing. In the age of video lectures, it would make sense for the quality of a school to be determined by other factors than the quality of the lectures, such as the amount of individual feedback you receive. – littleO Oct 24 '17 at 19:46
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    You are gaining special privileges and access: access to an instructor who can answer your questions, help guide you through the material, and offer feedback on your work. – ff524 Oct 24 '17 at 19:47
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    What are your goals here? Are you hoping to get a change in the course right now, or to change it in the future, or to maybe get a refund of your tuition? Are you wanting your professor to be disciplined in some way? – 1006a Oct 24 '17 at 20:32
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    @HagenvonEitzen Which is why you're paying for the instructor to curate the materials--he didn't just pick them at random from a Google search. There's plenty of good information available for free, including on YouTube and Wikipedia. – Elizabeth Henning Oct 24 '17 at 20:49
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    What is your actual class time spent doing? If it's spent addressing your questions, challenging your understanding, and giving feedback, I'd say the course is doing what it should. If you're just left to watch videos, without helping shape this into learning, then you'd have something to complain about. – Raghu Parthasarathy Oct 24 '17 at 20:50

13 Answers 13

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As a student, you are paying for the tuition (teaching). Teaching is an activity designed to help you learn and acquire new skills. Teaching materials (books, slides, video lectures) can be good, bad or ugly, but they are only a (smaller) part of the whole picture. They are not an activity. Arguably, they matter less.

What matters more, in my opinion, is the opportunity to obtain constructive feedback from your tutors. Not the grade for your submissions, but actual analysis of your work, explaining its strength and weaknesses and providing you with some ideas on how to improve and what to work on. Not a general piece of information, but something unique and produced specifically for you.

I have rarely seen online courses where students have enough personal attention and receive more than just a few lines of personal feedback. Honestly, the situation with many traditionally run courses is largely the same. Being massively oversubscribed and under-staffed, many Departments are not able to provide students with sensible feedback on their work. As a (pathetic) attempt to compensate, they sometimes claim that they provide exclusive teaching materials, which, however, tend often to not really be any better than standard textbooks.

My suggestion is: don't be obsessed with materials you are provided with, but look at whether you're receiving enough attention and personal guidance from your tutors. If you're not getting enough feedback - it is probably time to raise your concerns or maybe even look elsewhere.

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    RE: "some self-proclaimed expert on YouTube". I'm assuming that the instructor has reviewed the videos and found them to be accurate, helpful, and credible. You don't think you're getting your money's worth, but have you ever paused to consider how many crappy videos this instructor watched and endured just to find the good ones that would lead students in the right direction? – J.R. Oct 24 '17 at 21:13
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    @anon OK, but are they useful, informative videos or not? – Elizabeth Henning Oct 24 '17 at 21:32
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    Just because he has a PhD and years of experience does not mean his lectures would be good! It's possible he has discovered from experience that he cannot teach effectively through lectures, and so chooses to direct that time to "one-on-one" sessions instead. – Nate Eldredge Oct 24 '17 at 22:03
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    You got access to someone with a PhD and years of experience in the field's curated collection of videos. – Fomite Oct 25 '17 at 0:26
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    @anon 25 minutes one on one time a week is more than most students get at a traditional university. I wish (some of) my professors had had that much one on one time with us, but it's impossible with hundreds of students in each class. Consider yourself lucky. – Sumyrda - Reinstate Monica Oct 25 '17 at 10:17
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Because when you're paying tuition, the implication is that you're gaining special privilege and access to resources and knowledge that are otherwise unavailable to ordinary people/students.

Not really, and it certainly doesn't mean that the access you have to all resources is restricted. Lots of professors post their course materials on publicly accessible websites because they feel that they should be freely available.

If you feel that the quality of the course is subpar, then you have every right to complain higher up. But the course isn't subpar just because you're not getting something that other people aren't.

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As a professor, I spend a large amount of time reviewing and choosing reading materials so that students can learn efficiently. Then I spend time organizing the order in which students will study these materials, planning how I will interact with students in class to coordinate with readings, planning assignments to with the readings, etc. Time lecturing, leading discussions, answering questions, etc., are only a small part of teaching. The rest is hidden from students. (Grading and providing feedback on students' work takes up a lot of time, too.) As it happens, most of the materials that I curate for students cost money. I would probably spend more time choosing materials if I had to use only free materials. There are good free materials for some purposes, but they vary more (it's the internet, you know, so there's a lot of junk along with the good stuff); with free materials you'd have to spend more time filtering out the bad ones or working around flaws. Publishing houses and editors spend a lot of time curating good resources and helping authors to make them better, so there's a reason to expect less variation and higher quality in non-free teaching materials, on average.

So if the materials in your course are poor, that would be bad, but if they're not, but they're freely available, so what? That doesn't mean the instructors aren't helping you learn by choosing those materials and assigning them. If the instructors aren't providing enough in addition to the selected materials, that's another issue, but that's not what the question was about, as I understand it.

(There are some comments on other questions that make similar points, but I felt this should be an answer. It's actually something I feel strongly about. Think about how long it would take you to learn something if you just had to poke through videos or web pages on your own, or had to spend a lot of time trying books in a library or buying them online, only to find that this one is too hard and that one's on a different subject and this other one is trivially easy, and that one over there is kind of OK, but doesn't really communicate the material in a way that's best for you, or this one has only two chapters or two minutes that are useful, .... You could do it, maybe, but it would take a long time. The point of good instructor is to make your learning more efficient than it would be if you had to do it on your own.)

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    Time lecturing might be only a small part of the amount of time spent teaching, but in any section with fewer than 40 or so students in it, it is arguably the most important part of teaching a class. So much research from so many perspectives agree that building a classroom community and connecting with students are highly important aspects of teaching and measurably lead to better outcomes. Don't underestimate the power and importance of an effective lecture or discussion section. – Todd Wilcox Oct 25 '17 at 12:21
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    No argument from me, @ToddWilcox. The interactive parts of teaching have to be coordinated with the non-interaction materials, of course, so the time spent on finding and preparing materials can be crucially important to interactive teaching time. – Mars Oct 25 '17 at 16:53
  • @ToddWilcox OP didn't state the class size. Totally agree with you for n<40, but these days I'd call that a seminar or even a large tutorial (as an undergrad tutorials had n<5, but where I'm teaching they are typically 25). A lecture is often several hundred, and when turnout is much less than 50% there is very little appeal in spending many hours preparing a good lecture. Time to teach different. – beldaz Oct 26 '17 at 1:41
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Most information is freely available in one form or another. Most of what you pay for in school is getting access to people and resources. The fact that the instructor has directed you to open resources shouldn't reflect poorly on their judgement as long as they really are high-quality resources.

Most credible institutions require their professors to provide a syllabus on the first day of classes, and then give you a 2-4 week grace period to drop courses. If you really don't feel like the course is worth your money, then don't pay for it.

Even if you took this class as a traditional (not-online) student, chances are that not a lot would change.

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    People and resources, and also structure. Don't underestimate structure. – Faheem Mitha Oct 27 '17 at 15:51
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You're mistaking the value of the medium vs the value of the lectures themselves.

You mentioned YouTube and Wikipedia, and have the mistaken idea that they're free. Sure, they're free to access, but they're not random YouTube videos or random Wikipedia articles. They are specifically tailored to the course and relevant.

You haven't raised issues with actual academic problems with the course. Have you had a professor that do not know the subject they are teaching? (Example: A DBA was teaching a Java course) Have you had a professor that plagiarizes tests, and they contain material not covered in the course? These are real problems.

YouTube and Wikipedia are free to access. The discovery and organization of the material is not free. Just because a photocopy costs 5 cents, it doesn't mean what is being photocopied is worth only 5 cent. It could be a photocopy of an extremely valuable formula.

Bottom line. Evaluate the worth of the content. Don't get caught up with the medium of delivery.

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    Sounds nice but research shows that the medium matters. In-person lectures are much more effective than videos. – Todd Wilcox Oct 25 '17 at 12:22
  • "Research has shown", eh? I can re-watch a video as often as I want to, to help me understand the material. For a lecture, I get one chance to take notes on what I hope are the important points while trying to pay attention at the same time to the overall structure of the content, and if I feel I missed things I then have to schedule and meet with the instructor (when/if possible) to get clarification. "Professor, can I leave the room? My brain is full." ( Gary Larson cartoon. ) – mickeyf_supports_Monica Oct 25 '17 at 12:40
  • I like videos because good ones have subtitles, and i can play them back at 1.5 speed. – Nelson Oct 25 '17 at 13:48
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    @ToddWilcox The research I have seen is not nearly that conclusive. The effectiveness of live lecture vs video seems to vary depending on the specifics of the study (for example: whether or not students have a chance to re-watch the video) - see e.g. 1, 2, 3, 4. – ff524 Oct 25 '17 at 17:58
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    @ToddWilcox (Also note that the OP is an online student.) – ff524 Oct 25 '17 at 18:04
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The problem seems to be a disagreement between you and the lecturer over what your payment covers. I can't tell for sure on the information you give who is right, but if I had to make a call I would bet that they are right, since that seems more likely in general.

What you should do is get someone you trust who is far enough from the situation to be reasonably independent, and ask them to look at the material advertising the course that you could access before signing up. Is the lecturer's behaviour out of line with was advertised? If so, you would have an argument to take up with the administration (not the lecturer directly). If not, then you need to accept that you went in with the wrong expectations, and consider what you want to do about that (eg change course).

  • Yep, I get your point. Unfortunately, it seems the university doesn't have anything written regarding what is expected of online lecture materials, so I guess that defaults to "It's the instructor's choice." What a shame :/ – anon Oct 24 '17 at 21:12
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    Yes, what a shame that someone who is desperately busy has to try and deal with the someone expecting something highly time consuming of them that was never promised and will never get them any form of reward :p – Jessica B Oct 25 '17 at 6:05
  • This doesn't seem quite right to me. Instructors usually have extremely wide latitude in how a course is constructed and how they deliver it. This seems to be a dispute about quality rather than whether the material technically fulfills the requirements of a course (it almost certainly does). Also, surely students have some recourse if course quality is bad enough. – user24098 Oct 26 '17 at 8:15
  • @dan1111 The question is not about the quality of the material, it is about the nature of it. – Jessica B Oct 26 '17 at 9:03
  • @JessicaB as I understand it, the OP feels the course is of poor quality due to the nature of the material. Even if the course contents technically meet the institution's requirements and technically don't disagree with what was advertised, a complaint about quality may still be justified. – user24098 Oct 26 '17 at 10:18
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Perhaps the issue here is that the "lecture" time could be more productively used as a Q&A session.

You say :

The instructor is actually very helpful during our one-on-one sessions (though unfortunately, he only holds them once a week for just 25 minutes). It's just I wish the course were in a better shape. I would've loved to have listened to, say, an hour-long lecture from him, someone with a PhD and years of experience in the field, than some self-proclaimed expert on YouTube.

and :

His actual involvement in the course is answering questions via email and helping us during office hours (which is essentially a 25-minute session only once a week). Aside from that, class time is, I kid you not, just spent reading the book (which itself is quite poorly written, and contains mistakes) and watching YouTube videos.

Well this suggests the problem is not the instructor.

Lecture material often is poorly written (let's not kid ourselves) and mistakes are quite common in lectures, so a more "customized" lecture experience probably would not solve those issues. And lecturers are not always very good at speaking, so a video may be better than many people get.

It's a simple fact that you are expected to learn more yourself than simply at lectures. So I wonder if the correct approach is to get together with your classmates and discuss asking for the lecture to be replaced by a Q&A period, while students look at the video and read the notes ahead of time ?

  • Then university should have being clear that the information given is available trough YouTube and that the professor is there just to answer question. That would have given the student a way to know what they are paying for and if the money being paid was worth it or not. The whole point of paying for an education is that you get something is not freely available for free elsewhere. – rxantos Oct 30 '17 at 11:50
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  1. You are paying for an educational pedigree that states you're such and such breed of book smart.
  2. An easy A is an easy A.
  3. It is the age of information. For example, M.I.T. lectures are free to watch and learn from. The chance of being acknowledged for your proficient knowledge in a subject, aka a degree, is what you're spending your money on. A fair argument can be made if you had a hard professor who challenged your thinking but you failed the class. Did you waste your money?
  4. Life rarely gives you a break. Do you really want to look a gift horse in the mouth?
  5. If you are not liking the class then switch it, or bring it to the news for a fluff exposure piece, or go talk to your financial advisor for proper procedures. Then, yell at the Dean for the indignity, if you must.
  6. How much is this course worth to you creditwise vs timewise vs moneywise? What is the impact of this course to you (pros and cons)?
  7. Personally, I'd take the easy A. And if I needed some skill I could not learn from the class, I'd take the extra time I have to learn them on my own since it is an easy class.
  • This seems to me to be very bad advice. The point of university is not just to buy a certificate at the end. Having your thinking challenged is arguably the most important point. – Jessica B Oct 26 '17 at 17:20
  • @JessicaB still people pay good money mostly to avoid just that! – mathreadler Oct 26 '17 at 20:51
  • In other words universities have become obsolete with the new technologies. All that is needed is an online way of accreditation. Which begs the question if the money spend cannot be better spent elsewhere. – rxantos Oct 30 '17 at 11:52
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AFAIK, you pay for the piece of paper from the university that grants your degree. How you get there is sometimes with an awesome instructor and sometimes with an AWFUL one. If I had considered that I was paying for the classes then sometimes I would have been happy but mostly I would have been rather displeased with that situation. There was one mandatory class for my degree that had about 5 people show up to an average class and the rest (80+ people) only came for exams because the instructor was just. that. bad. Another time we had a quiz on some material that was taught, and after the quiz people were still discussing the material on the quiz was supposed to be worked out (no one knew!). Again, because the instructor was just that bad.

TL;DR: change your perspective. You pay for the paper the degree is printed on. Not for the classes themselves. They are simply necessary to get that very expensive piece of paper. Expect roughly a 60/40 of bad/good professors.

Also, bear in mind that most professors are not professors because they want to teach. The teach because it is required as a side effect of doing research at the university.

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    +1 though when I was told about this someone explained it as you're really paying for the opportunity to jump whatever hoops the course has in it's grading scheme (exams, assignments, projects, reports, whatever), which hopefully in the end will lead to that piece of paper called your degree. 60/40 bad/good professors seems generous, but I'm biased by my own experiences. – user1821961 Oct 26 '17 at 1:22
  • -1 while there is a certain amount of realism to this, moving in this direction is not good. College is supposed to be about learning, not just getting a credential. If this is just about getting an extremely expensive piece of paper, it's a colossal racket that no one should be happy with. Wanting your classes to be a great learning experience is the right attitude. Being dissatisfied with mediocre classes is the right attitude. Yeah, mediocrity is too often the reality. But that doesn't mean we should all just lie down and accept that reality. – user24098 Oct 26 '17 at 8:20
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    @dan1111 "to learn" and "to get a paper" are two different goals. Ideally, these should be the same. In practice, the match is never perfect. How strong is the match, is out of the influence of the students, thus they can't be made responsible for it. – peterh says reinstate Monica Oct 26 '17 at 10:56
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    +1, because providing credentials is really a university's unique value proposition. – Nat Oct 26 '17 at 14:07
  • In other words, universities are obsolete and have just become accreditation institution. Something easily replaced, Wonder how long before someone convinces government that instead of financing many overpaid lecturers they should finance very few and pay them better. Meanwhile make the accreditation process automatic and have for pay tutors as 99% of the professors are not needed anymore. – rxantos Oct 30 '17 at 11:57
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How have the course materials being audited for quality?

Consider both your personal evaluation of the utility of the materials, and those of your peers, and then consider the formal process that exists, for the teaching establishment, regarding the auditing/setting of standards for educational materials on this course.

This will give some context as to whether expert opinion has gone into the material selection, if there is a process to validate this, is there a process of consensus on this, and some actual feedback on utility from those using the materials.

Furthermore, you could skim the materials used in similar courses, in other "respected" teaching establishments, and see if they match. Additionally, many materials have reviews and those can be helpful to examine. I have completed a lot of online courses (admittedly free Coursera ones) and Princeton,Harvard etc all use (and list) YouTube materials for their courses.

This, i think, will help position your feelings, with respect to the course, in terms of a broader quality argument.

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The best (youtube) videos are often wastly superior to most lecturers (sic). The problem is that finding the right video is a nightmare, especially if you are not familliar with the subject. So if the videos picked for you are relevant and accurate, and you get personal feedback time, you are indeed getting world class service.

In fact I have been trying to get the university to consider moving lectures to this kind of format. With the change that video lectures are paired with hands on exercises, with course assistant present. The benefits are considerable, as you can now invest in the material in a different way and feedback becomes your primary focus. However mostly this means that the videos need to be scripted as if they were tv shows, which is harder to do. Bootstrapping this skill, and getting material done pays itself back in no time. And yes if all you teach is available on youtube fine, use that if license permits.

The days of talking head lectures are over. After all Internet was founded to make information flow faster, better and more efficiently. Yet, we are surprised when it does just that.

  • Which begs the question. Why pay for something that is already being given for free? – rxantos Oct 30 '17 at 11:55
  • @rxantos Everything universities teach is freely available or available at the fraction of the cost in literature. The thing that really matters is feedback, the need to do all those things for one full degree and equipment. So not so much about what but how. You don't get that online. But yes i didn't pay anything for my masters degree, nor do most of the students i work with pay anything, so I am the wrong person to ask. University degrees as a general rule are free of charge where I am, so I am not really concerned with that. – joojaa Oct 30 '17 at 13:53
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This is one to check what the original marketing materials for the course promised, bearing in mind that they may be different to your interpretation of what appropriate teaching is.

Without that information, you're paying mainly for the materials you need to learn and the final accreditation that you're reached the academic standards necessary. And, you're probably paying a premium based on the pedigree of the university.

Now, in the UK where I work, there is no guarantee of a link between the name value of a university and the quality of its teaching. My experience is that less-known universities often have higher quality teaching. There are many reasons for this, but having less name value, they have to try harder. They are also likely to attract students below the top tier, so have to concentrate more on ensuring that the teaching materials are suitable for all levels of learners. And, the academics are likely to have a more teaching oriented career path, as opposed to one that concentrates on research.

Often, if you're working with a very well-known professor, they are also likely to be in great demand, and not working in a role where they're expected to concentrate on teaching. In some cases, you're lucky if you see that professor at all, as opposed to a load of grad students delivering classes.

Again, this will all depend what the original promises made were. I've written a lot of course marketing materials and if would be rate to promise contact with a particular professor, as this makes too many assumptions about how that professor's career will evolve (they may take another position, for instance).

Finally, there's nothing wrong with writing a course based on curating materials. It can be quite a job to find the best ones, organise them and write the links between them. It's not that different to academic practices of the past where a professor would issues assigned reading, in the form of academic papers or textbook chapters, to the class.

There are lots of online courses structured that way, both paid and free.

There is a danger if those materials change, as they are not owned by the course. For instance, YouTube videos can be taken down and Wikipedia pages edited by third parties. So long as the teaching team monitor that and have a backup plan in place, the general principle of course curation sounds acceptable to me.

0

Dont judge a book by its cover

You are judging the value the instructor can offer ONLY based on the source of the course videos.

Instead assess the value you can derive out of the course based on other factors also as described in other answers such as one-on-one time you get with the instructor, his credentials, value of the certificate you are offered on completion etc.

You also need to consider the value in terms of infrastructure made available for practice.

Given that its almost a week and you havent accepted any of the answers, I assume you are finding it difficult to let it pass and move on. If so, does it interfere with your learning process? It would be in your own best interest to talk to the instructor a second time about it.

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    It would help if the downvoter could post a comment on why he/she thinks this needs a downvote. – user3526 Oct 30 '17 at 10:11

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