Kevin Pitts Interview Trasncript

Logan Hanson: At the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, the state funding has decreased. And because of that, tuition and fees make up for that decrease in the funding. And so as the university relies a little bit more on the funding from students, is there any chance that this might result in a cons erization of education at the university?


Kevin Pitts:  I think there is an awareness that there’s a business model and what I mean by that is if the university doesn’t bring in enough revenue through multiple sources, state funding, tuition, other sources, federal funding, then when there’s an imbalance, that imbalance is going to correct itself one way or another. And that is you look at some schools in the state that are challenged in this respect. Some of the regional campuses have lost state funding, loss of state funding have forced them to raise tuition. Raising tuition has caused him to lose enrollment and it begins to be something of a death spiral, if you will, because now you have less enrollment, less enrollment means less revenue, less revenue means you got to cut some place.

I mean this is a balancing act and so from that standpoint, yes, I mean there’s a recognition that we have to bring in enough money from all sources. Now, the good news about a place like Illinois is that, that we have opportunities and we have a good demand for students from the standpoint of somehow compromising the value of our degree programs. I would say no way. I’ve not seen any indication of that at all. And I think that’s a reflection of the primary format that we have here. And that is the degree programs are defined and implemented by the faculty, right?

I as an administrator do not determine what it takes for you to earn a degree in journalism. The provost office literally has no say in what it takes for you to earn a degree in journalism. Who decides that? The faculty in the Department of Journalism. And so, I think that is the thing that protects the integrity of the degree program.


Logan Hanson: And let’s just say a student complains about a grade that he or she received a course or during the class and just what would be the standard procedure in maybe correcting that issue?


Kevin Pitts: We have a very well-defined code that outlines the process there. The first line of defense is that the student essentially because the instructor is responsible for the grade, the first line of defense or the first pathway in the code is that the student takes it up with the instructor. If they feel there was either a mistake or misunderstanding or they deserve a higher grade. If the student does not get satisfaction, there is a process by which the student may file an appeal. It’s called the capricious grading process. Every Department is required to have a formal process. It doesn’t have to be exactly the same everywhere on campus because the Departments are different. You have some Departments may rely more on experiential learning, that kind of thing. But they have to have a well-defined process. And I’ve seen that process be utilized by students or so that is the process by which a usually a group of people, which is a combination of a committee of faculty and students will hear the appeal and make a ruling. So, that’s a very well-defined process. If you go to the student code, you will find the capricious grading. The outline of the process. The details may be different from Department to Department. But the Department can tell you what that process is for your Department.


Logan Hanson:  Is there any threshold for what could be considered easy grading by a professor that might raise flags to you as a university? And do you have any mechanisms to kind of supervise this idea of easy grading by a faculty member?


Kevin Pitts:   We’re relying on the Departments and the colleges to essentially police that themselves. What we are doing is we are as a campus now, I don’t mean as an administration, as a campus, what we are trying to do is, is we are defining learning outcomes for degree programs. We hope in the future we don’t have yet, or if they’re not a required requirement yet to have learning outcomes at the course level. We don’t have that yet.  But those are the things that are going to be going to be measured against. And that’s what we, and the reason I say it’s, I mean folks have this, it’s not codified. That’s what, what I mean by that so the learning out, so the Department, the faculty are the ones who enshrine that and who enforced that.

My experience is that there is not a lot of what would I say a tracking of grade distributions in unless there are rather extreme and anomalies. And what I mean by that is, it’s not often that someone’s going to go and say, how many A’s and how many B’s and how many C’s did you offer? Because that’s incredibly difficult to assess other than by the content of the course. And by the expert who’s teaching the course. Our system by and large is essentially what you call an expert driven system, right? And the experts are in the faculty. And so we go through this accreditation process. Accreditation process doesn’t require that we teach specific subjects. What the accreditation process. Rule requires is that we are well defined in the ways that we go about this. And so that’s our system. That’s our higher education system, United States.


Logan Hanson: And so just to clarify, there is no overarching rules implemented by you to Departments or members of the staff that say,  any sort of problem. This is what we need you to do to come to us as a university.


Kevin Pitts: So for first thing, so I appreciate your question. I laugh at that because the provost office, what we do here is we facilitate, we are not, this is not it. Believe me, this is the opposite of a top down organization. We do not dictate these kinds of things. That definitely does not happen. If there’s a problem, if there’s an issue, we helped to try to identify a solution. The college is the degree granting entity. So I am responsible for campuswide undergraduate programs. And again, what that really means is that I help facilitate and I work with and that kind of thing. But my office does not award a single degree bachelor’s degree in journalism or media and Cinema Studies is awarded by the College of media.

They are the ones who do all of the degree check, made sure you did all of your general education, you’ve got the right number of hours and things like that. They are their degree granting entity and they are responsible for what are the requirements of the degree it has to be approved. It’s approved at the campus level. It’s approved by the faculty senate. It’s approved by Illinois Board of Higher Education but they’re the ones who implement this. So, there’s nothing like that. I always get a kick. I taught the introductory physics courses for many years when I was in more active teaching and students always would tell me, well, this is a weed out course and what I would tell you is on day one, I’m giving you the rubric for this course.

The exams count this much, the homework counts this much and it’s physics. So it’s not exactly where there’s lots of leeway, right? I mean there are rights are right. You know, this is a subject where they’re right or wrong answers. And I understand that every subjects like that. And so what I’m telling them on day one is if every student in the course, now I know it’s not going to play out this way, but if every student in the course gets a 94%, I’m going to give every student in the course today. And it’s not in practice going to happen that way. But the point being that you know, these processes tend to be, and nobody’s, it’s not a weed out course. Now in practice, are some number of students not going to do well and probably not, succeed, proceed in that discipline. The answer is yes, but have I ever been in any way, shape or form at any time in the history of this institution been instructed in anything? Like that answer is absolutely not. We want students to come here and succeed, but we also more importantly want them to succeed in achieving learning outcomes and achieving, the achieving the degree requirements and hopefully after their degree going on at doing great things.


Logan Hanson: We know a students and just, hereby you’re throughout the campus that allow students register for courses that they know might be easier based on professors based on workload and things like that. But when a course is easy, it’s less likely that students are going to complain about it. And so some courses might end up not challenging students at all and nobody will complain because they’re getting those easier grades. Is that a concern for the university?


Kevin Pitts:  Well, I think the question there a is related to the course teaching what the course advertised? And the reason I say that is because what has been reviewed, again, I’ve come back to the faculty governance that we have here. The course is proposed by faculty. It’s reviewed by faculty at the Department, at the college, at the campus level of the pro degree program, in the same way what we review, I say we as the faculty, what we are reviewing is essentially the course content and the syllabus and saying this amount of content is appropriate for three credit hours, whatever that is. So, the question there then is this instructor, is this course living up to what was essentially advertise there? And if the answer is yes, then what we’re trying to track. I mean, that’s what we’re trying to follow. So, some courses are easier than others. There’s no doubt about that. But there’s often depends upon a student’s background, what their level of preparation is whether it’s the type of course it is, that kind of thing. So there’s no doubt that degree of difficulty is different in different courses. Some students are not defined to courses and aren’t challenge. Some students find that to be, yeah. They’re trying to meander their way through with relatively easy courses. You’re not going to be able to do that all the way. Maybe with some general education where you have lots of, uh, but you know, my take on it is it’s different. Students have different experiences there and some students want more and some students want to less.


Logan Hanson: We talked to a member of the C-LOA, they told us that because of the fact that some students complain or give bad evaluations, some instructors will deal with that by giving the student better grades. Is that something that you’re aware of and if you are aware of that is the university concerned about it?


Kevin Pitts:  I’m not aware of that. I find it very difficult to believe myself and the reason I say that is because our experiences and I worked with the folks in CITL quite a bit. Our experiences, that course evaluations are not nearly as correlated with grades as folks think they expect them to be and by that, I mean there are faculty who have relatively low average course grades that get very high evaluations and there are folks who give lots of A’s who have relatively low evaluations. So, I find that quite surprising and I also would be surprised if it would be a successful response. And by that, I mean if I’m a crappy teacher, giving people good grades, isn’t going to make them think I’m a better teacher. That’s my experience and that’s the way I see. I find that very surprising myself.


Logan Hanson:  During our research of just some of the courses at the university we found that the percentage of A’s has increased from 45% in 2005 to now 58% in 2018 why would you think that is happening?


Kevin Pitts:  Well so one thing that has not remained constant throughout that time is the student body, right? And I think one of the things you have to ask yourself is, and I think this is one of the challenges, this is one of the things that makes this very difficult to assess is what is your expectation or what do you think an acceptable grade distribution is? and what I mean by that is if you kind of go back to very old school when people think of a bell curve, right? And there should be a bunch of people in the middle to get a C and then there should be some people in the high end that get a B or an A. There should be some people on the low end that get a D or an F and if you have large populations and you look at their behavior in large populations, you will see a bell curve. Right? So let me give you an example. If I take the 150,000 Illinois high school Juniors that take the SAT tests and I look at all of their scores, I’ll see kind of a bell curve. That’s a large population of pretty unbiased because most high school students, and then when I take the SAT test, so that’s a bell curve. Now we have a rather biased sample of students on this campus and what I mean by that is if just from standardized tests, I look at the average student that attends the University of Illinois, they’re in the top 10% nationally. If I look at the average student who was in the College of Engineering they’re in the top one and a half percent nationally. So the question is then, is the bell curve or is there some expectation that is for grades that we think is right. So if I tell you that your classes is filled with people on average who are in the top 10% nationally, should we still be following the bell curve or not?

Should one segment get C’s and these folks get A’s or B’s and I say that, I don’t mean to ask you that question. I’m saying that is a question and some folks might say yes because the grading should be done with respect to this group of people. Others would say, well gee, it’s not the, it’s not the whole population.  And so one of the things that has happened and I don’t know what all goes into this, so I’m trying to just list some things I would think about in this case. But let me give you another example from what we did in physics. But I’d drawn my own teaching experience for some of this. The Physics Department has some folks who do physics education research for a living. Physics as a subject, at least the kind of the foundational physics doesn’t change because it’s the same science that was understood 150 or 200 years ago. So the course itself doesn’t change. Physics 211 to 212, those courses cover exactly the same material they did when I gave her 20 years ago.

We recycle final exam questions and the reason we do that is so we can measure whether or not we are doing better at teaching. it’s an effort to try to improve teaching. We have changed the structure of those courses on multiple occasions. We have changed interventions and we actually have measured the fact that students are performing better on identical questions that they were asked years ago. So all I’m saying is I’m not disputing that there are many factors and it could be that overall people give higher grades. I’m not disputing that. I’m just saying there are multiple things that go into that and I can tell you that in the Physics Department, I mean the folks in physics education research group have published dozens of papers about interventions that actually helps students learn better. We know better how to teach. Again, that’s not to say everybody on this campus is a fantastic teacher, but the point being that I think there are multiple things feeding into this. The population is changing. The average SAT score of the incoming freshmen class is better now than it was ten years ago or 15 years ago. Now that doesn’t necessarily mean everybody smarter, right? There are also different reasons why the average SAT score goes up. Maybe people are getting better preparation at a SAT prep courses and things that the point being this stuff is complicated because there’s so many confounding variables.

I fall back on what I started with originally and that is the faculty at this institution define course content. They define learning outcomes. They define success, if you will and that’s the grading, right? And that is the fact that is changing over time.

I mean is it, let me ask it this way. Is it horrible if I teach all of the material that I’m supposed to teach in a course and everybody gets it and gets an A. Well, somehow that doesn’t seem right because it kind of goes against the way we think about the way it’s supposed to be. But if I was then, in theory, it should be okay, shouldn’t it? That in theory it should be, if everybody learned all the material I wanted to learn and were successful, then I ought to be able to give everybody an A. I’m not arguing that that should be happening or that is happening because I know in practice it doesn’t work that way. Some folks have trouble with material, they don’t do all the work, whatever.  But the point being I think we’re often biased by our expectations when it comes to grade and the only thing I’m challenging is I’m not sure we know exactly what to expect in this space. Because there’s been a huge emphasis, over the last decade plus, in trying to be better teachers of student support. One of the things people complain about is ‘Oh, the reason college is so much more expensive now than it used to be is because of the climbing walls.’ Right? You hear things like that. But in fact, one of the things we’ve done is we’ve invested quite a bit in what I call cocurricular support.

These are things like tutoring centers. That didn’t mean all the old folks say, none of this stuff existed when I was here. Right? We got a book and we got homework and we did the assignments or whatever. Now we have office hours, tutoring hours, 24/7 for some subjects that kind of thing. So it’s a moving target. That’s what I’m saying. I think overall is grade inflation a concern? Yes because I think grades are relevant. I think they’re way less relevant than folks think they are and what I mean by that is I’ve never in my career ever had anyone asked me what my GPA was. So you know, were my grades relevant when I was in school and when I was going to graduate school? Yes, but as a professional, I’m judged on my performance.

So there’s a lot of emphasis on grades and I understand that and I want them to be an accurate assessment of  student learning. I can’t go on a course by course basis. The fact that those numbers have changed doesn’t surprise me and I don’t know what to expect. I don’t know what to have expected and how much they changed. So I’m not trying to say that there is not what we think of as grade inflation…that is the same type of people who perform the same way, who get a better grade than they did in the past, right? That’s what we think of is grade inflation. Do we have that? Probably we do, but I think it is really hard to assess. You can try to do it with standardized tests, but even that’s not so great. It’s a complicated subject because there’s so many variables.


Logan Hanson:  You talked a little bit about how maybe in your own mindset GPA isn’t as important as maybe it one once was. Employers don’t really talk about it as much. Why is there such a pride from the university that is promoting high GPA’s and why is it pushed so hard that the students have this pressure of having a high GPA’s?


Kevin Pitts:   I don’t know if the emphasis on the GPA has changed over time. I don’t know about that, but what my point is and it’s not that it’s not relevant. There are folks over there and in the career fair who will say, we’ll talk to students who have such and such a GPA and above. I don’t want to say it’s meaningless that every course should be pass/fail, my personal opinion that there is too much emphasis on it because at the end of the day what we care about is learning, growth and development and folks learn and grow and develop at different paces at different pace  and have the knowledge, know the material, however you want to say that we have put into the curriculum when they finish. I think that’s what’s more important. There’s bronze tablet, which is the top something percent GPA and I think that’s emphasized too heavily. I think students put too much emphasis and too much pressure on their own grade point average. 

At the same time, we also have what we call good academic standing. If a student’s grade point average is too low, then they run the risk of falling out of good academic standing and they may be put on academic probation. That is meant to be a way to identify students who are not achieving the learning outcomes are the achieving essentially the goals of the program

and hopefully help them maybe either move to another program or take corrective action, whatever that might be. But I do think there’s too much emphasis on grades. It’s my personal opinion I don’t know how to overcome that, but I would love to. I think part of it is because you have a place like this, you have students who are all very high achievers. When they were younger, like I said, walk over to college of Engineering. The average student, I mean, this is the middle of the distribution, right? Is in the top one and a half percent nationally. In other words, these students are all a bunch of people who graduated in the top few percent of their high school class, a whole bunch of them were Valedictorians so they’re used to being at the top of the top of the heap, if you will and even probably without a lot of effort. Putting them in an environment where now they’re kind of in the middle of the pack it is what it is. But it’s easy to lose sight of kind of the broader picture, if you will. We’re all here together. We’re all here to learn and so I do think it’s overemphasized. But I also recognize that these are not meaningless quantities for a student who wants to go to graduate school. Your undergraduate GPA is a relevant factor, right? If somebody applies for the graduate program in physics here and they have a 2.1 grade point average, they’re less likely to be admitted than somebody who has a 3.7. That’s a fact. So it’s not that these numbers are meaningless, but I wish we didn’t put quite as much emphasis on it. I wish we put more emphasis on what people learn and what their experiences are, but that is easier said than done. I don’t mean to say that I have all the answers, that’s more of an observation. A prescription for success.


Logan Hanson: During our research, we found that the online education has become a new source of revenue for a lot of universities including UIUC. In 2009 to 2010 online courses represented about 2.8% of all courses at the University. But in 2017 to 2018, it doubled representing 5.6% of all the courses at the university. As these numbers keeps increasing, how is UIUC going to supervise the quality of these courses?


Kevin Pitts:  Exactly the same way we supervise the quality of the face to face courses. In fact, what we actually find is that if you just look at face to face courses, traditional face to face, right? We’ve been doing it for 150 years, right? We have some fantastic courses and we have some not so fantastic courses. I’m putting it nicely. We’ve got some great teachers and some not so great teachers. We’ve been doing it that way for 150 years. Now, we’ve added online, in fact, we were doing some of the things that we were doing online using other modalities, but in fact on the essentially technology bandwidth made online more feasible and what do we have online? We have some fantastic courses and some not so fantastic courses. It’s the same overall as it is face to face. It fascinates me that some folks naturally assume that online is somehow a step down. I think what they’re assuming there is what the online course must be they’re thinking kind of old school of like somebody who videotapes, but back 20 plus years ago it wasn’t called online education at that time it was called distance education. They used to videotape instructors giving lectures and they would mail the video cassettes to people who were enrolled in the distance education course and they’d put them in there, their video cassette recorder and play the videos and so now people imagine, oh, well how do we do it now what we do at exactly the same way except we put the videos on YouTube or something, right?

That’s not the way we do. That’s not the way we do online education. The online education, if you look for example in the iMBA program, is very high engagement. I mean, these students are having face to face, they’re not face to face. But they are on several sessions with the faculty member in real time, where they’re doing discussions, office hours, teamwork. I think the naive assumption is, ‘well, you can’t do any of that stuff online because you’re not in the same room, you’re not in the same place, you’re not in the room with the instructor.’ And the answer is, we’re doing all of those things. Now, is every online course doing that? No, some of them are asynchronous and they are probably more of the experience where here’s a video of an instructor standing at a chalkboard or whatever it is and so my point is that the quality of the online varies widely justice face to face does.

We are trying to assess that and the way I would say primarily we assess it, again this is done at primarily Department and at the College level, that is number one we’re looking at learning outcomes. But the other thing is we do respond to student complaints.

When I was in a jury college and that was in the Physics Department administration, I do believe we had one capricious grading claim. So that was a claim that a student had received a grade that was an error. But I received several complaints from students who felt like they were not getting a good educational experience. And by several I don’t mean like dozens and dozens but more than a few. These were face to face courses. This was based on there in class experience. They felt like they were not learning, they were not being taught and they were not learning what they were supposed to be learning. So, we had to take action.

What I’m saying is students play an important role in the monitoring of quality primarily through their vocalization of particularly bad experiences. You’ve got an instructor that’s now not so great. I’m not excited about it but you know he or she knows their stuff. Well, you kind of muddle through. Right. But you’ve got somebody who’s awful that maybe they’re not prepared or maybe they are just a total mismatch, they’re not covering the right material that kind of thing, you’ve got to go tell somebody about it. So the folks can take action. The same is true with online and we do the course evaluation system, the ICES system, and we do some additional assessment for online as we did even more in the early days. Students are incredibly honest. it’s not a great way to measure what you learned because you know your understanding of what you learned in of course often evolves over time after the course is over. But your experience in the course which is a very fair measure of essentially the instructors, kind of overall ability and the modalities part of this is really valid. The point being we monitor online course quality more extensively than we do face to face and the reason I say that is because when the courses are developed we do things like we do compliance checking to make sure that everything is accessible for students with disabilities. Are there folks on campus who are providing non-accessible information? I bet there is. So in some ways now that’s not it. That’s a different thing. But the point being in some ways we actually monitor online quality it more than we do face to face. But I’d say overall we monitor this quality. And let me just say this I’m not an online evangelist. I think that there are different ways to present different material. I think different courses can be done in different ways. I’m not somebody who would tell you that the future is everything online. I absolutely am a strong believer that the campus experience educationally, especially for undergraduates, the campus experience beyond the classroom is absolutely crucial for the development of young people. This is one of the reasons why we don’t have…well arguably we have one or zero undergraduate online degree programs almost all of our degree programs are at the graduate level. That’s because it’s very different for a 35-year-old who has a family and a job and wants to earn an MBA to enroll in an online program. That’s very, very different and they’re never packing up to come here. The only way they’re on enrollment in an MBA program or an accountancy program in Illinois is if it’s online. That’s very different than a 17, 18-year-old high school graduate who’s really in a growth phase their life, asking them if they need to come, they need to be here and this is why we value the residential experience so much. So online course quality I think is very important but so is face to face. Quite honestly, there’s actually an additional emphasis here that is national and that is because of the growing student debt some folks will say crisis, student success is a very important topic right now. What I mean by that is the worst thing we can do especially with low- and moderate-income students is bring them to campus, saddled them with debt and send them home with no degree. So there’s a huge, huge emphasis on providing support structures on college campuses so that the students who are coming to campus are successful. We do quite well here in that respect. Our undergraduate graduation rates about 86 percent which puts us at the very, very top tier. 

But it’s a huge area of emphasis nationally. I think the overall course quality issue is a really important one and I think it’s true of  all modalities that just give you one more example of what’s called blended learning, which is a mixture of online and face to face. So in the Physics Department when we  introduce blended learning into  Introductory Physics course, the great thing about these Introductory Physics courses as I mentioned before number one the material doesn’t change because classical physics is still classical physics. 

You get great statistics because you’re enrolling about two thousand students a year so you don’t have to worry about small numbers bouncing around and you can measure how things change over time. Then when we introduced blended learning of the learning outcomes in student performance again these uncontrolled questions we’ve been asking for years. It went way up. 


Ramiro FerrandoWe have noticed that in Reddit, Facebook, everywhere, students are trying to find out which courses are easier to take. There are groups called Easy A’s. So we are a little bit hesitant about complains about of course being too easy because that’s what students are trying to get. My point is, who’s going to complain about something they want?


Kevin Pitts: I agree with your point primarily when it comes to general education. I would agree with it probably less when it comes to courses in your major and the reason for that is that there’s a higher threshold here. A lot of students say, ‘OK these are courses my major, these are the things I’m being trained to do for a living. The fact that I have to go take a history course or I have to go take a walk or a course in cultural studies or something. Well that’s a hoop I have to jump through that.’ My experience and talking to students so that’s how I would put it. But your point is well taken especially in the general education arena where students see these as boxes they need to check, hoops they need to jump through what’s the easiest way I can get. I don’t dispute that students are doing that.  I think the only way you can say that online is somehow worse than face to face is to begin with an assumption that a face to face course that’s an easy A is somehow different than an online course that’s perceived to be an easy A.  I mean because like I said the whole thing about students trying to navigate the system to find easier courses that predates online education. That’s my point 


Ramiro Ferrando: But now they have more and more tools to do it. They have Reddit. They have Facebook. They have a lot of ways to share information. 


Kevin Pitts: Word of mouth predates the internet and is actually quite effective. Look, I can show you the courses where there were different faculty that taught courses and had different standards and we you could track Romans. I mean this is not a new problem. 


Ramiro Ferrando: What I mean somehow is that it took me 20 minutes to find all the answers to all the quizzes in one course. I just Googled it. Somehow technology’s helping cheating the system. 


Kevin Pitts: Right. You know fraternities have test banks, that’s right. But again that’s not limited. That’s by no means limited to online education. I think you’re right. You know you look at some of the things that folks are doing to try to combat that and it’s clear that they’re not plagiarism checkers and things like that. 

That part of it is absolutely a different world. I completely agree. But the point I’m making here is I think this is from the standpoint of students wanting an easier pathway. I don’t dispute that. I don’t think it’s new. You may argue that technology makes it different and that may be the case. Based on what I’ve seen, there’s [not] anything that’s unique about online education in that realm. That’s my opinion. I’m telling you I’m not an online evangelist, I’m not saying this is somehow the future or anything like that.

Would you like to see things different? It’s true in face to face as well. Unless you’re starting with an assumption that face-to-face education is inherently better, which you can assume that, that’s fine. But I’m not sure there are studies that bear that out. I think you find that the issues that arise with face to face also arise with online. That’s my experience with this. I’m not thorough in the literature so you may be able to find stuff I’m not aware of.  But that’s my experience with this. 


Pramod Acharya: We have some students saying that there is nothing special to learn from the GenEd courses. They even said that general education classes a kind of a nuisance that needs extra money and effort. Is there any discussion going on in the university to improve the quality of GenEd courses?


Kevin Pitts: I would say the I don’t think there’s any specific discussion that I’m aware of over the quality of the general education courses. There are discussions about the nature of General Education. There are some  other institutions that have made some modifications their GenEd criteria that are in some cases aimed at  being more relevant being maybe better aligned with kind of more modern views of  General Education. 

General Education on this campus is faculty-driven. The General Education requirement on this faculty are on this campus were put forth by the faculty. They were approved by the faculty senate. Faculty on this campus are the ones who have defined General Education. 

We believe that our role as an institution is to train young minds to think creatively, think broadly, solve problems, see connections. We are not simply a vocational training ground. You can go online you can take five courses from Google online and you can be certified as an I.T. professional with Google, that is vocational training. There is nothing wrong with it. It’s in my opinion is very different than what we do here. We’re offering thousands of courses across this campus. Some of them are major courses. Many of them are major courses, some of General Education courses. One of the things we do very poorly here is make help students, make connections. 

For example, maybe students taking a history course and maybe they’re taking a writing course and maybe they’re taking some technical course and there may be some real interesting and important connections between those courses. But because these faculty are all over campus and they have different numbers of students and the students are going in different directions for class and after class, we’re not in a position to help draw upon the connections that are made or could be made. I think it’s very difficult just because of the sheer scope of this campus. We have 35000 undergraduates on this campus in another 14000 graduate students something like that 13000 graduate students. 

So, ideally General Education would not only be about broad based liberal education learning things about why we’re here and how we’re here and how things fit together. But also these connections and how they might affect us going forward. You could argue that a lot of the challenges we face as a society right now are kind of lessons that from the past that we’ve not successfully learned from. And why is that so? There’s always a tension. And students tend to fall on the side of wanting more of what I would call a vocational training. 

I am here to learn pick your subject, journalism. I am here to learn Kinesiology. So, I want to take courses in that area so I can be trained to go out and get a job. The faculty here are saying our job is to help build good, smart, well thinking broad based citizens. Yes, we want to train you in a discipline that’s your major but we also want to provide this General Education. There’s always a tension there. There’s no doubt about that. And part of that tension manifests itself is that many students are going to try to navigate the General Education system in a way that minimizes resistance easier courses. Believe me that was true when I was in school and that was a long time ago. So that is a tension. That is  always here in terms of the overall course quality we fall back on. We have a General Education Board which again is a wing of the Faculty Senate shared governance on this campus and faculty oversight of the degree programs and the course offerings is what we rely on. 


Logan Hanson: During our research we found that more students actually get more A’s online than they do in a face to face courses with about 65 percent of students getting A’s online while only 49 percent of students get A’s is in face to face. Why do you think that is?


Kevin Pitts: So my first thought would be are they the same courses. So did you compare apples to apples there, is that all courses?  So one of the things I would do is I would say the fair comparison would be to say so for example Sociology 100 is taught online. Other for other courses that are taught online. We’ll look at the grade distribution number of A’s in those courses and then let’s look at the number of A’s in those same courses that are taught face to face. The reason I say that is there are a whole bunch of courses that are intentionally not taught online because of the very nature of the courses. 


I would say one of the things that I would say is it an apples to apples comparison? I don’t know this I haven’t looked this myself, I would expect overall the General Education grade average is probably somewhat higher just because of the very nature these tend to be 100 level courses sometimes 200 level. But I’ll just give an example, there’s a reason we never put our Physics courses online, and we never tried to teach them in summer and in winter term because somebody cannot learn a four credit hour physics course in four weeks because clock time matters.


So, I think there’s a different sample there. But again, you know this actually ties a little bit back into the grade inflation question. I think it’s a fair question to ask. These are the studies, people are doing these studies and education journals and I think that one of the things that comes up with the online courses is: Are you getting the attention the interaction that you might get from a from a face to face course?  I do not dispute that. I would I love it if all of our courses had had 20 or 24 students in them you know because it would be more interactive, more direct interaction. Absolutely. Are they out of reality out of necessity. No, they’re not. In a perfect world,  would we do things differently? There’s no doubt about that. 


Ramiro Ferrando : Do you see it by now you mean synchronous activities in online education?  


Kevin Pitts: Yes absolutely and one of the things I would say flat out…there’s another reason why most of our online degree programs are at the master’s level and that is we know that especially younger students are so great at asynchronous courses self-paced learning, things like that. I think there’s a real value for synchronous learning even in online space. Number one it brings people together. It enforces a kind of both community-based and project-based learning and it also provides opportunities for them to interact directly with the instructor. So I know that some of the courses are completely asynchronous and I appreciate that. And then they tend to do their Web chats and things like that. But I think there’s a real value to the synchronous component. I think there it was the first thing that comes to mind is it depends. I think it depends on the nature of the learner. I don’t know what it is. But one of the things that comes to mind is I know one of the challenges is if you look at the online MBA program there’s a bunch of synchronous stuff. 

These folks have jobs right there. They’re taking the courses evening and weekends and they’re also taking courses in many different time zones. So, they find it difficult to participate sometimes in a synchronous. Now what they try to do with that is they try to have a morning and an evening session to try to get as many as they want. But they find it difficult to participate sometimes just because of scheduling issues. But beyond that I don’t know the answer to that. Yeah, I completely appreciate that a lot of them are asynchronous. You know there are some interesting technology developments though. For example, one of the things that can be done now is if you have good pedagogy says that video for an online course might be maybe 12 minutes not  super long, you know having a 50 minute contiguous lecture videoed is not good online pedagogy is not say people don’t do it but that’s not the right way to do it. 

So you have tools now that can not only look at whether or not a student viewed the lecture but they can actually say when did they stop it, when did they go back, was there a topic that they didn’t understand that they went through more than once the, did they fast forward through a bunch of it to try to get to the answer to the quiz questions, so we can assess you know those are things we can assess now, and at very least whether somebody is going to use that to polish the course, I don’t know. But at very least you can use that to help figure out how to better assemble courses how to better you know structure them so students get more out of them. You know the thing that’s fascinating to me about, I’m a physicist right, I’m not a professional educator per say. The thing is fascinating to me about this is how much folks have learned about how to teach over the last couple of decades because you think wait a second. You know people were teaching. You know like in the seventeen hundred right there at chalkboards writing stuff it’s like we know a lot more now than we did 15 or 20 years ago about how to be effective teachers and how else how students learn. And we’re not done with that yet. I think the same thing is happening right now online. Again. I’ll get back to what I said earlier that I there’s no doubt that the quality varies wildly in online education just like it does in face to face. 


Logan Hanson: And we’ve also found that as the enrollment size increases for a course and this is about face to face online combined than the percentage of A’s tends to also increase. And we understand that bigger courses just bring in more revenue for the university. Is it something that alarms you or worry you in any way because of that?


Kevin Pitts: It’s interesting. I’m not surprised that the fraction of A’s in larger courses tend to be higher because the larger courses tend to be at the 100 level introductory courses. There are lots of things that feed into that. Let me just give you an example,  right down the street area Math Department. Calculus 1, which is a 200 level but Pre Calculus is 100. These are first year courses one of the things that you find at an institution like this is the level of preparation of incoming students varies wildly. So, what we’ve got is we have a bunch of students who are taking to say first semester question freshmen taking Calculus 1. Some of those students have never been in a calculus course for in their life. Some of those students had a one year Calculus course in their senior year of high school. But maybe they didn’t quite get Advanced Placement credit. And so, the level preparation these students have in these first year courses varies wildly. Saying with like a history Gen Ed, maybe you’re taking a history course that you had it you know essentially you had in high school. So not much effort and you can get an A. So, the large courses tend to be the foundational courses right.  I don’t have a thousand students or 800 students in 400 level courses, usually, regardless of the subject. So, they tend to be first year courses. They tend to be General Education. So that’s why I would say I expect a correlation there. 

The only place where I would think that essentially and I would say cost, I would say resources, come into play is if you’ve got a thousand people who need to take Microeconomics this semester, what’s the most cost effective way to do it? The most cost-effective way to do it is to put them in Foellinger and in a room that can hold them all and teach them all at once. Now is that the best thing pedagogically. Well if you do it well with maybe with some flipped learning and stuff…things like clickers it’s actually not bad. We know that. But is that as good as 50 sections of 20 students per section. That’s a resource thing. So, I wouldn’t call it revenue but I would say there’s a resource function we don’t look at when we’re teaching at ECON  102. We’re not looking at how much money that brings in and the reason we don’t think of it that way is because especially for undergraduate tuition is twelve thousand dollars a year whether you take twelve credit hours or 16 credit hours or 20 credit hours. We’re not thinking of this as in every student that’s in this class means more money.  I think of it is resources. I think there’s a correlation there. That is an absolutely resource issue. We don’t have the resources to teach 50 sections of 20 people. So, we don’t do it that way. 

And does that the great student experience you’re sitting in a room you know you’re sitting in an auditorium with a thousand people versus sitting in a classroom with 20 people. It’s a different experience. Absolutely. 

One of the things I’ve done this for many years. I talk to prospective students and one of the things I tell prospective students is there are a lot of different places and a lot of different ways to get educated. I’ve never ever in my entire career told a student they have to come to the University of Illinois because I went to a school that had two thousand undergraduates in it. My senior year I took a bunch of courses where we sat around tables like this because there were five people in my class. You know it’s a different. 

I also didn’t have access to a lot of the resources that you have at a place like this. There are lots of tradeoffs and you know there’s a downside to size. There are other upsides which are resources and opportunities. I didn’t get to choose for my courses because there weren’t that many offered when I was in school because I was at a tiny school. So, there are all these tradeoffs that go on. And one of the downsides of those tradeoffs is we have some very massive courses. 


Logan Hanson: You’re around the university and around the campus is there a lot of talk about these easy courses that maybe have this reputation of being considered easier?


Kevin Pitts:  Yes, I am aware of courses that are seen as weed out courses. Those are the courses that they’re trying to use to get you out of this institution. We don’t really have those.   The thing that is interesting though and I have now seen this kind of over time is that sometimes these courses change. And sometimes that may be the function of the instructor or it may be a function of a way the material is presented or emphasized. It may be kind of the way the course is done. For example, maybe there’s a course that is a General Education course, somebody who teaches it, tends to follow the textbook pretty closely and has multiple choice exams that are largely textbook questions. And then somebody else comes and teaches the same course and requires three 15-page term papers or something like that. So, a course can even change its reputation over time. Part of it depends on how it is taught it’s not to say either one is right or wrong or that there may be better or worse learning outcomes either way, but these things do, there are definitely courses out there I have no doubt about that the perception of courses and the degree of difficulty of these courses I mean there is no doubt about this. There are courses out there that are not challenging and there are courses that are extremely challenging. What I do believe is somebody may navigate their way through the General Education system by selecting some courses that are not challenging there is no doubt that’s possible. The menu of General Education courses we have is really lengthy so you can find your way through that. You can’t do that in your major, right? Because your major courses tend to be less negotiable, you may have elective options, you may have tracks, but you’re not finding the easy courses to get through your major because you still gotta complete the major.


Logan Hanson:  Just as we know because of the increase in tuition due to the cuts from the state, the students are paying more now and do you believe that because of this increase in payment that students feel more entitled to receive better grades?


Kevin Pitts: Yeah you know that’s a really good question. This is exclusively based on my own experience. I do not have the sense that students feel more entitled. Now I have no doubt there are outliers so don’t get me wrong. I’m trying to overgeneralize for the very broad. But the reason I am drawing this contrast is because I believe that parents absolutely believe that they’re paying good money and their kid should get this treatment and these grades and this outcome so I would actually think. My experience is that it’s parents that have that attitude and I think the reason for that is because students tend to not have a reference point and what I mean by that is so students pay a lot of money to come here well, maybe their parents pay, maybe we help pay, maybe the federal government. I could give you a whole hour thing on what we do with financial aid at this campus. I’ll give you another example: when there was a surge in demand in STEM disciplines, Physics major courses that used to have 20 students in them had 50 students in them just because there were more physics majors. Faculty would complain bitterly. ‘I used to have 20 students when I taught this course. Now I have 50, it’s a lot more grading. I have to go to a bigger classroom’. Students never complained. Why? Because students didn’t know their used to be 20 students. They just came in there’s a classroom of 50 and they’re learning Physics. I have no doubt there are outliers, but by and large students don’t tie that together how much they’re paying with their grades. They may say, ‘this course was too hard or you graded me unfairly’, but I don’t think that’s prevalent that students say that ‘I am paying this many dollars so I should get this grade’ however their parents who have seen this longitudinally and remember how much less expensive it was 15 or 20 years ago are saying, ‘I am paying so much more now than my parents paid when I was in school or I paid when I worked at the pizza place and came to school here. My kid should be getting this, that and one of those things should be these great grades or this leniency or whatever it might be. In my opinion it’s parents more than students.


Pramod Acharya : A member from C-LOA said that the university, the Departments get funds based on IU’s. So, they are trying to keep IU’s, they are trying to keep students, they are trying to attract more and more students because they can get funds from the state or federal level. Do you think that there might be a possibility of compromise that students are trying to get A’s and the university is trying to get more money so the Departments can provide easy A’s. Do you see any risk in this situation?


Kevin Pitts:   I think this gets back to the General Education at the individual course level. I think it is a risk and I think we rely on the faculty to police that. Two things: one is with the amount of money that comes with instructional units is not enormous so the incentive, there is an incentive there I agree with that. I would argue it is not a huge incentive, but incentives are incentives. So, if this general education course is easier and I could get more students, that is a concern I agree with that. At the program level, the answer is no. In my opinion because  a) you’re talking about an assembly of courses, and b): these are what the faculty this is their discipline, this is their reputation. I’ve had a number of discussions over the years with faculty members that say we cannot graduate students who don’t know the material, who are not able to complete this because it is our reputation on the line whether they’re going to graduate school, whether they go out in the world and saying ‘I’m an Illinois graduate, I don’t know this and that and the other thing’ which of course people don’t say that they reflect it. I think that at the degree level that’s not a concern. At the individual course level, I think you’re right I think it is a concern. However, there’s competition from a large market and  there is no doubt that some students are negotiating for easier General Education courses. I don’t think it’s everybody.

The fact that we don’t see any small number of courses that are dominating the market tells me that it’s not off the charts, but it’s a fair question and it’s a fair concern. The idea of the way the financial system works on the university is: we’re trying to flow the funds to where the demand and the need and the resources are. We have 1000 students that are taking ECON 102   they need the resources to be able to teach 1000 students Microeconomics. Another course has 25 students they’re not going to need as many teaching assistants. Different institutions do that in different ways. What we actually do here is we try to mitigate those incentives and we subsidize cases where folks aren’t able. If we were completely incentive driven, this place would look really really different. But it’s a fair question. But at the end of the day it’s the faculty that define the curriculum , they define the programs and they are the ones who are responsible for its delivery for better or for worse. Overall the education system in the United States this is the way it is.  But overall I think it’s a good thing. I think the faculty provide considerable oversight and that’s a good thing.

This interview was jointly conducted by Pramod Acharya, Ramiro Ferrando, and Logan Hanson.