Higher Education Rhetoric/Composition

The National Center for Academic Transformation and SUNY look to redesign courses

SUNY has entered an agreement with the National Center for Academic Transformation to redesign courses, particularly large enrollment courses, to improve retention and results and cut costs. The goal is laudable and necessary for a public institution like SUNY: to provide excellent, affordable education. Technology serves a primary role in the NCAT vision of how this might be accomplished by substituting technology "capital" for teaching faculty "labor."


In English Studies the course this would target is obviously FYC, and in the original NCAT project, two of the 30 programs involved were composition courses, one at BYU and one at Tallahassee Community College. (I’ve provided links to the two programs’ reports on the NCAT site.) The results were mixed at best.

In the BYU project, course redesign met with resistance from
instructors. The designers created a number of multimedia modules to be
implemented across the program, but these were not widely adopted by
the instructors. They intended to increase class size, reduce contact
hours and deliver a significant portion of the instruction online.
Partly b/c of the resistance to the online material, the other goals
were not reached. As such they only ended up cutting costs by 15%. (I’ll come back to this in a second.)

In Tallahassee, the project was more successful but also more disturbing. As with BYU, they also standardized the curriculum with online modules and course materials, as well as course discussion board. They also outsourced grading and responding to papers to Smartthinking. As a result, "The proportion of College Composition sections taught by adjunct
faculty has increased from 30% in fall 2001 to 63% in fall 2003, moving
the College closer to its goal of 68%.This represents a major labor-for-labor cost savings." Well, let’s just say that some of us are trying to move in the other direction. However they did note that using Smartthinking not only reduced faculty labor but improved student papers. In addition, the standardization of course materials reduced faculty time spent on course prep and management by 33%.

Well. Here’s something you probably can say about delivering composition with technology. First, let’s assume that every section of a first-year composition program is intended to achieve the same goals and basically teach the same material. So we might say that the time spent by composition instructors developing course materials and delivering lectures is inefficiently spent. If you had standard course materials and standard lectures, then these could be delivered online, hypothetically saving instructors from repeating this work. In addition, onilne tools, properly used, can reduce many of the headaches of course management.

You might even go so far as to outsource the evaluation of texts. Texas Tech does this in an internal way, with some grad students serving as instructors and others as graders. However, it does make sense that outsourcing could be cheaper, since you could find qualified graders (e.g., people with grad degrees in English) in India, for example.

Picture this workflow (not that I’m endorsing it, btw).

Composition director and committee purchase and produce course materials for FYC. TA’s or staff, depending on the institution, are then hired to facilitate online discussion, provide online and FTF support in a writing center, and respond to and grade student work. Aside from FTF support, all the rest could hypothetically be outsourced.

Now purely hypothetically, let’s say the following:

–student performance by all assessment measures is the same or improves.
–costs are reduced.
–program is staffed by either TA’s or full-time staff. No more adjuncts.

Now those are some big hypotheses. The first two are folded into NCAT’s objectives: improve learning and reduce costs through leveraging technology. The last one, to me, would be a necessary ethical obligation.

But just suppose for a moment these things could be achieved with technology. What objections could we, should we, have to such changes? I’m not endorsing these changes btw. However, I do recognize that technologies often thrive where they reduce inefficiencies. As such, I imagine these changes are coming.

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