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.