“Fair warning!” begin the editors of the American studies text Rereading America
(2010). “The essay you are about to read may trouble you, infuriate you, or confirm some of your worst suspicions about the policies and standards of American higher education.” The essay they are referring to is “In the Basement of the Ivory Tower,” originally published in The Atlantic
in 2008 by an anonymous author who refers to himself or herself as “Professor X.” It details the struggles of an adjunct professor at a small private college who must teach beginning English classes to nontraditional students.
The author details many of the challenges instructors of nontraditional students face, including a longtime gap from school, computer illiteracy, and poor writing skills. But can an online class help boost the output of older students who have made evening college their choice? To determine whether this is the case, I analyzed students who were able to take advantage of online class material in studying for exams, writing papers, and delivering presentations, comparing them with students who did not view such material. I also looked at whether the students were able to access the material in general.
“Many of my students have returned to college after some manner of life interregnum: a year or two of post-high-school dissolution, or a large swath of simple middle-class existence, 20 years of the demands of home and family,” writes Professor X. “They work during the day and come to class in the evenings.”
He goes on to write, “I ask them about their computer skills, and some say they have none, fessing up to being computer illiterate and saying, timorously, how hopeless they are at that sort of thing.” He notes that some can do Google searches or send an email, but seem baffled by JSTOR or online academic research. Of one student the professor dubs “Ms. L,” X writes “Ms. L ... had never been on the Internet. She quite possibly had never sat in front of a computer. She was preserved in the amber of 1990, struggling with the basic syntax of the World Wide Web.”
But what if Professor X's work is molded in the amber of 2008, slightly before the mass proliferation of online courses, where the mention of MOOCs required an explanation in the New York Times
, and where hybrids were merely environmentally friendly vehicles?
Sullivan (2001) has found that online education (also known as distance education) might be ideal for nontraditional students because of this group's work and family needs. And Jacoby (2014) points out that few “traditional” students that Professor X laments not being able to teach fit the modern-day definition of the 18 to 22-year-old student with continuous education experiences, attending classes full time while living on campus. “What if we view these students in terms of what they bring to the classroom instead of differentiating them for failing to meet a fading standard that is no longer, well, standard?” Jacoby (2014) asks us.
Like Professor X, I teach at a small private college, with a program for nontraditional students in the evenings. Like my traditional day students, this class gets a hybrid format (Tures, 2014), where in-person classes are matched with online assignments. Students can access syllabi, from course lecture PowerPoints, practice exams, and sample papers, along with instructions, and monitor their grades.
The question is whether the nontraditional students taught by Professor X can and will do so when given that opportunity, considering how the anonymous author writes with concern about their computer skills.
To test this, I looked at each assignment and which students had viewed the online material, and I compared their grades with those who had not done so (due to ability or desire to do so). It should be noted that there was an orientation session solely devoted to accessing online material, an in-class demonstration of doing so, and a secretary checking to see that all students could access their accounts. Every student except for one accessed at least one assignment during the semester, and that student dropped the course after two weeks.
On the first paper assignment, those who viewed the syllabus (where the details of the assignment are listed) earned an average grade of 72.31, while those who did not averaged 62.33. There was also a 10-point difference for those who analyzed the sample paper provided by the instructor (73.64) and those who did not (63.1).
By the second paper, the grades of both groups of students improved. Some of this was due to adding a community component to the assignment, as recommended by Director of Online Faculty Development Rebecca Zambrano from Edgewood College (Kelly, 2014). For this paper, students had to analyze a local issue directly affecting them. But there was still an advantage for those who read the sample paper (81.8) and those who did not (77.5).
On both exams (the midterm and final), 88 percent of the students viewed the practice midterm and practice final. The efforts paid off, as students averaged an 82.1 on the first exam, and an 80.8 on the second exam.
As for the presentations in class, seeing the examples given also tended to boost the grades of nontraditional students. On the first presentation, the average for those who viewed the sample presentation I provided was an 84.3, as opposed to a 78.6 for those who did not. On the second presentation, which involved a community component (Kelly, 2014), the scores were even better. But those who viewed the sample presentation outperformed those who did not, (88.9 vs. 84.5).
Only in a few cases was the difference between means statistically significant. But in each case, the students did receive higher grades, often by several points. And those grades can be the difference between a B and a C, or at least a B- and a C. For students who are in danger of getting a D or F, like Professor X's student “Ms. L,” that online supplement from a hybrid class can provide some pretty precious points.
After all, imagine if Ms. L was able to view what a completed paper looked like. She might have done better on the assignment, especially if she had received some help with online instruction (which it sounded like she badly needed). One of my students even told me that she hadn't written a paper “since Reagan was president.” They often need all the help they can get.
Evidence shows that nontraditional students can adapt to online instruction. Not all are “frozen in the amber” of prior decades. Students who make use of the extra online supplemental material, like sample papers, examples of presentations, and practice exams, do better on assignments, sometimes significantly better, than those who do not look at these learning aids. And in nearly every assignment, there were more students downloading the online material than not doing so.
Nontraditional students will still need help with their papers and presentations. They'll still struggle with exams. The will have all of the challenges Professor X identifies. But this study shows that they can handle the online components, and even improve their grades by doing so.
Colombo, G., Cullen, R., & Lisle, B. (2010). Rereading America: Cultural Contexts for Critical Thinking and Writing, 8th Edition
. Boston & NY: Bedford/St. Martin's Press. www.macmillanhighered.com/Catalog/product/rereadingamerica-ninthedition-colombo
Jacoby, B. (2014). “A New Way to Think About Non-Traditional Students.” Magna Publications Online Seminar Archive. October 7. www.magnapubs.com/online-seminars/teaching-non-traditional-students-an-asset-based-approach-11963-1.html
Kelly, R. (2014). “How to Design Online Courses That Motivate Students.” Online Classroom
. Vol. 14, No. 9 (September): 7-8. www.magnapubs.com/newsletter/online-classroom/127/-13154-1.html.
Sullivan, P. (2001). “Gender Differences and the Online Classroom: Male and Female College Students Evaluate Their Experiences.” Community College Journal of Research and Practice
. Vol. 25, Issue 10: 805-818. www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/106689201753235930#.VLPjdMstCUl
Tures, J.A. (2014). “Would A Hybrid Be More Efficient? Analysis of Class Grades: A Traditional Format vs. One with an Online Component.” Online Classroom
. Vol. 14, No. 9 (September): 5-6. www.magnapubs.com/newsletter/online-classroom/127/-13158-1.html
Professor X (2008). “In the Basement of the Ivory Tower.” The Atlantic
, June 1. www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2008/06/in-the-basement-of-the-ivory-tower/306810/.
John A. Tures is a professor of political science at LaGrange College. He thanks Dr. Jon Ernstberger and Ms. Terri L. Bassett for their help with this course.