Thursday, June 14, 2012

"Academic Integrity"

In November of 2011, I started an online course with the University of Phoenix called “VCT/320 Electronic Publishing,” with Pamela Lewis listed as the instructor. I was excited for the class. I had some background in design and layout, but not a lot, and could definitely find room for improvement. I enjoy a class that I can learn from. I wasn’t the least bit concerned about how my grade would turn out in the class, since I have never failed a class in any school – I was even valedictorian for my Associate’s degree at ITT Technical Institute.

The University of Phoenix has a requirement for their online courses that I have always had a hard time keeping: you must make two posts in the forums, and you must do it four times a week. This is a considerable difference from the once-a-week participation that on campus courses require, and that the University of Phoenix brags about when they tell you how much they value working students. The participation points earned by posting in the forums are not a significant part of your grade, so this is usually not a problem.

In this class, however, it quickly became a huge problem. The syllabus simply said that there were five points every week allotted for participation. What the syllabus did not say was that in the FAQ that the instructor posted in a completely separate sub forum, she indicated that she would give negative points for participation. Yes, negative points. To my knowledge, this is completely unprecedented. I received no points at all for participation the first week.

Obviously I immediately brought this to the instructor’s attention, and her only answer was that everyone would be held to the same standard. This very clearly violates an unwritten agreement between every instructor and student that when a student does the work, they will get credit for it. This is the understanding every student has when they attend a school: Do the work, pay for the classes, and get the degree. I took my concerns to my academic advisor, who said that they would be passed on and investigated.

The next week I made an effort to make sure that I posted as many times as the school felt necessary, but the teacher marked every one of my posts as “unsubstantive.” Apparently that’s a word now, and it means “you’re not getting credit for this because it’s worthless.” Once again, zero participation points. I asked numerous times what I was doing wrong, and never received an answer from the instructor. I saw a number of other students simply regurgitate what they had read into the forums in order to get participation points, but this did not work for me.

This was about the time that the instructor introduced the idea that the PDF format would replace HTML and take over the internet. I thought that argument had disappeared in the 90s. She then went on to say that when the PDF format took over, Adobe would have a monopoly. I mentioned in the forums, with proper citation (because she required APA formatting in the forums - seriously), that the PDF format has been open since 1996, and that there are multiple other vendors that provide software to create PDF documents. After this point, I could no longer get a response from the instructor when I asked her a question, and all of my assignments suddenly were graded very poorly.

As I mentioned before, participation is not a significant part of your grade. It amounted to a total of 25% in this class. Not getting a perfect score in participation does not necessarily drop your grade dramatically. But when it is made impossible to get those points at all, suddenly 25% of your grade is a lot. It’s an automatic C.

I got less than 50% credit for my individual assignment in week 2. From what I could understand, this was because my document was a single page. The syllabus did not have a page count requirement, nor did any FAQ or other forum post. This dropped my grade another full letter.

About week 3, it became obvious to everyone in our learning team that we had a lot to do if we intended to get any kind of respectable grade in the class. We began discussing things on the phone rather than in the forums. They had the same experience I did with the page count issue for the last assignment, and also had similar experiences with participation points. We came to the conclusion that rather than attempt to make the final the best it could be, we needed to make the final what the instructor wanted. “Gaudy” was the best word we could find to describe what she wanted from our documents, because that was the best way to describe the PDF documents that our grade reports were in. The other members of the group agreed to create the content for the document, and I would design the layout.

I should mention that at this point I was fairly certain that I wouldn’t get a passing grade. But I had brought my concerns to my academic advisor, and trusted that the school would be doing something about it. The academic advisor told me that once it was passed on from her, she was not kept informed of the status. I also felt that I should continue since I had made a commitment to the rest of my learning team. And if we aced the final, I may just barely pass.

I began researching ways to add animations, sounds, and video to a PDF document. These are generally forbidden by any kind of design standard, but it seemed to be the only way to satisfy our instructor. We got almost full credit for the final document, and most of the positive feedback we received was for the gaudy and obnoxious elements that I had added. She did not know who contributed what part of the document.

But there were even more surprises in my final grade. I received an almost passing grade, which was then adjusted even further to give negative points for assignments that I had supposedly not completed. A few pages before (yes, there were multiple pages in the grade report), she had given me credit for those very same assignments. My academic advisor had me submit a grade dispute. I detailed each assignment that I had not received credit for, and asked that the grade be adjusted. This would give me a D in the class.

My grade dispute was denied. I talked to a number of people about this, and finally received an answer. The University of Phoenix will not tell an instructor to change a grade. The term “academic integrity” kept coming up. They said that there would be no “academic integrity” if the instructor was not free to teach the class as they saw fit. The term “academic integrity” has nothing to do with how instructors teach their classes. It is about the integrity of the students in completing their assignments. When I asked how the integrity of the school could be kept intact when instructors were not accountable for anything, they simply said “That’s the way it works.”

When I asked about the investigation into the teacher’s conduct, I was only told that it was being reviewed. No one would give me that status of that investigation. They did indicate that an instructor could be let go for some of the things I had reported, but that the decision was not up to them.

I spoke to a University of Phoenix alumnus who had a similar issue while he was in the school, and was able to have the grade changed to an “incomplete,” meaning that he was able to take the class again without having to pay for it once more. This seemed like an acceptable compromise. I spoke to David Perry, Director of Operations, who said to submit a request for that specifically, and he would watch for it and make sure it was reviewed.

That request was denied as well. David Perry referred me to Darris Howe, the Campus Director, who had made the decision to deny my request. When I spoke to Darris Howe, he agreed to review the situation and reconsider the decision.

I spoke to another University of Phoenix alumnus who had the same issue. It is apparently not uncommon. He was initially told that they would not change his grade, but a couple weeks later they called him and said they changed their mind. Obviously it is not as impossible as I had been told.

Three weeks later I finally heard back from Darris Howe, and he said he would not change it. The school’s policy is to only allow students to retake a class at no cost if they receive a B or higher. This was irrelevant to my situation, since it was not my fault that the grade was so low. He refused to believe that, despite my previous academic record. He also told me that he checked the grades of other class members, and saw a perfect curve: Two A’s, two B’s, two C’s, two D’s, and two F’s. Yes, a perfect curve. He didn’t find that odd at all. I have trouble believing that it just happened to turn out that way.

Ironically enough, the class the University of Phoenix just had me take was on ethics. I chose not to discuss this particular issue during class, since that would put the instructor for my ethics class in a very difficult situation that she did not deserve. But I could not help but think of the terrible ethics that were being displayed by the University itself while they required me to take my ethics class.

Pamela Lewis is still listed as an instructor in the school’s website.

I have seriously considered leaving the University of Phoenix over this, but I only had 4 classes left. I doubt that that fact was overlooked when these decisions were made. Yes, I intend to finish my degree. I start this same class again tomorrow, trying not to consider it a complete waste of my time and money. Whether I will actively discourage people from attending the school is still undetermined. I am a filmmaker. I know how to reach people. I have had a few people recommend legal action. That is still undetermined as well.

I now understand the many frustrated people who complain about the University of Phoenix, calling it a “diploma mill,” or whatever other term they come up with. We would all like to think that they are the exception to the rule, and that the majority of the people who attend the University of Phoenix are happy with the education they receive, but the truth is that the majority of people who attend don’t ever receive a degree. It is situations like mine that bring the integrity of the University into question.

I am reaching out now to those that Darris Howe and Pamela Lewis report to, hoping that someone there is concerned with the quality of education that students at the University of Phoenix receive. I am certain that we can come to an agreement of some kind.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Let's Get Some Firefly On The SyFy Channel

Science Fiction has been a big part of our culture for a long time. It's more than entertainment. It has opened our eyes to the impossible, and made us dream of the stars. Whether we fantasized as kids about a real light saber, or we watched in awe as a real space ship left this planet, we have always watched with a "What if?" in our minds. What if there are other people out there? What if you could travel across the galaxy in the blink of an eye? What if the impossible was not so impossible?

Then a little show called Firefly came along, and asked a different "What if?" question. What if, even after leaving this planet, everything was just the same? Well, we got some of the answers to that, and they fascinated us, but we never fully got to explore it. Firefly was canceled faster than her captain could shoot a puppy, and it was forgotten.

Well, it was not forgotten by the fans. DVD sales went nuts, which led to a movie being made from a show that had been canceled before it even had a full season.

This is where I came in. I hadn't heard of Firefly before Serenity. And when I saw the previews for Serenity, my wife and I had a unanimous reaction: "That looks stupid." So we brushed it off as another bad attempt at science fiction (because, let's face it, there are a lot of those), until a friend of mine posted on his blog "Serenity and the Death of George Lucas." Wait, what? Oh, yeah. That stupid sci-fi movie. But he wouldn't stop talking about how great the movie was, and how important it was that I see it. So I decided I would.

But it wasn't in theaters anymore. And the DVD artwork looked pretty awful too. But I watched it anyway. Low and behold, it was freakin' awesome. To skip the long middle part (the one you all have been through too, or you will soon enough), I have bought three copies of the movie, two copies of the show, the documentary, countless books and comics, whatever I could get my hands on.

And yet that's not enough. There's no more Firefly.

Well, some of us have decided that's unacceptable. A few of us have made silly little fan films, sure (I'm one of those, yes), but one person decided to do it right. One person decided to really and truly make more Firefly. Michael Dougherty got Joss Whedon's blessing, then he got Fox's permission, and he made some more Firefly. He'll never make a dime off of it either. But he has done two huge things for us: He has given us more Firefly, and he gave all the money to charity.

Now, I have heard all of the complaints about Browncoats: Redemption. I know there's no Nathan Fillion. I know it's not made by Joss Whedon. And I know it wasn't a $40 million dollar movie. But you know what? It's a good movie! And it's Firefly! Why aren't we more excited about this? Why aren't we running around telling all of our Browncoat friends, "Hey, there's more Firefly!" Why aren't we telling Fox that we'll gladly spend money on more Firefly? You can't even claim it's a waste of money, because it goes to some of the best charities in the world. This is a win/win situation. We get more Firefly, Fox sees that we're still here, and charities get all kinds of money.

Well, the other day someone named Tim Brown had an idea. What if the SyFy channel aired Browncoats: Redemption? He posted it on, and it got some of us thinking. Would it even work? The answer turns out to be maybe. Yes, there are lots of legal issues there, but that's what SyFy pays their lawyers for. We just have to convince them that it's worth it for them.

Do we even realize what would happen if SyFy did air Redemption? There's been a lot of hype lately about Firefly airing on the Science Channel, because Firefly is back on the air. But we're talking about new Firefly being on the air. It could seriously reinvigorate the fandom. Fox would notice, too. If we can get excited about an independent film, how excited would we be if Joss and Co. came back to make more Firefly? And how many people would this introduce to the 'verse? How many people would go out and donate to Redemption, then buy Firefly and Serenity?

We know there's a lot of "if" coming from this plan. But isn't that the point? Isn't that why we love science fiction in the first place?

What if it works? I intend to find out.

We've set up a facebook page at, and we're asking for people's support. (Facebook pages are the new petitions, basically). You can also e-mail SyFy at Compared to the impossible things we've done before, this should be a walk in the park.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Firefly is Awesome Because of Fox

I put up a rather contraversial post on yesterday. I've never had so many responses so fast. Makes me feel popular. Or something.

Anyway, for any of you that share the frustration that I've felt with Fox and their handling of Firefly, give it a read.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Browncoats: Redemption Review

If any of you out there are fans of Firefly, or if you're just looking for a high quality independent film, then I'd like to introduce you to Browncoats: Redemption.

I watched this when it was briefly available for free streaming. I have the dvd, but I must admit that I haven't put it in my player yet - I've been crazy busy lately.

First off, these guys make me proud to call myself a Browncoat. They set this up as a non-profit charity project so that they could give the proceeds to groups like Equality Now, Kids Need to Read, Dyslexia Foundation, The Al Wooten Jr. Heritage Center, and The Marine Corps – Law Enforcement Foundation. Their writer and director Michael Dougherty is one of the most down-to-earth guys I've ever talked to.

I've seen some bad reviews for this movie, and I can sort of understand what they're saying, but people forget one big thing: This is an independent fan film. Its only real flaw is that it is so close to big-budget Hollywood quality that you sometimes forget how much of a struggle it is to create something like this on such a limited budget (I would know, this is what I do too).

The characters are easily believable, and very relatable. As is the issue with any ensemble cast, you don't get to know the minor characters very well, so Mike Dougherty did a good job of choosing a few characters that we need to focus on, and giving us hints about the rest of them. The family dynamic that we love so much about Serenity is on Redemption as well. We see them through the eyes of the not-so-welcome newcomer, and watch as the status quickly becomes not quo. (Bonus points if you get that reference.)

The ship is spectacular. I certainly didn't expect to see CGI like that in a fan film. There is a scene inside the ship that is really brightly lit, and we start to see some of the shortcomings of the set, but for most of the film, the interior looks phenomenal. For comparison, just the cargo bay set for Firefly cost over a million dollars. This entire film was done for around $30,000. To pull off a set like that for the amount of money they had is impressive.

In the streaming version that I saw, the sound had a few issues, but from what I've heard they're all corrected for the DVD release.

The story does take a little while to set up, and I've heard a few people complain that they just couldn't get into it, but it's well worth waiting a few minutes for the action to start rolling. By the time you finish the film, you'll be cheering on the captain and her crew, and you'll be begging for more.

So go out and buy your dvd, give them some money to hand out to some worthy charities, and show your support for the 'verse. I can't wait to see what these guys come up with next.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Can't Stop The Serenity

The Salt Lake City Can't Stop The Serenity screening is tentatively scheduled for October 1st. This is a charity screening of the movie Serenity, which benefits groups like Equality Now.

Become a fan of the Utah Browncoats Facebook Page to show your support, and watch for updates.

Friday, June 11, 2010


This is a submission for a Trans-Siberian Orchestra contest. Please head over to youtube to like, comment, and share. It's for about $15,000 worth of computer equipment. And we put a lot of heart and soul into it.