The Sciences

Teaching in the Face of Budget Cutbacks

Cosmic VarianceBy Julianne DalcantonJan 27, 2010 2:52 PM


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Like most state schools, University of Washington is in the process of absorbing a series of budget cutbacks. These cuts are part of a long trend of reduced state support, as can be seen in this plot dug up by my colleague Gordon Watts, but have been accelerating recently in response to the state's economic troubles:

While the University historically has been able to handle the slow erosion of state support in a manner that allowed for continued quality in the educational experiences of our students, the latest cuts are now at a point where they are having a direct impact on the students (beyond the steady increase in tuition and fees, needed to make up for the declining share of state support). As detailed in an article in today's Seattle Times, class sizes are growing, and students have less direct access to their instructors. This quarter, I am living with the "new normal". Click below the fold if you dare. I'm currently teaching a >250 person introductory astronomy course -- a class I usually love to teach. However, this is the first time I've taught it with reduced staffing. Traditionally, we've taught the class with 5 TAs, each of whom would handle 2 sections of 25 students, meeting 2 times a week. During those times the TA's would clarify information from lecture, introduce supplementary material, and walk the students through labs. This quarter, however, we have 4 TAs, handling more than 60 students each. This may not sound like a huge change, but it has set off a cascading chain of decisions that clearly diminish the student experience, while adding increased challenges for the instructors. For example, we do not have the classroom space to allow two large (>30 person) sections to run simultaneously, so the TAs now only meet with their students once a week. The one meeting must be spent working on the labs, so in addition to losing 50% of their contact time with the TAs, the students have lost 100% of their free discussion time. If they're struggling with the material, their only option is to work it out in office hours. However, many of our students are working to put themselves through school, or have family commitments, or commute long distances, making this a tough option for many of them. To increase the students' interaction with the course in the face of reduced instructional time, and to decrease the workload on the TAs, I've also moved a large amount of material on-line. The university has developed a superb suite of tools to help develop on-line material, yet the process remains incredibly time consuming (as you might have guessed by a notable lack of blogging this month). Some aspects of having an on-line component are a net positive. I get many more opportunities to assess student learning, and the students are finally being forced to do the reading in advance of lecture, guaranteeing that they're making much more sense of my rather high baud rate delivery. However, it's added a nightmarish degree of overhead on my end, even beyond developing the material. Suddenly, I'm responsible for >250 students' computer crashes and email failures. In addition, whereas the TA's were traditionally the primary point of contact for assignments, now I am. This means that instead of 5 people dealing with 50 students' assignment difficulties, 1 person is dealing with 250 of them. I would write more about this, but it appears that the service that handles the on-line labs has just crashed, 45 minutes before a lab is due. I need to go answer the 15 frantic emails I just received while writing this post.

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