A caricature of a course

The institution where I work recently decided that all academic staff should undergo “equality and diversity” training. To this end, they employed a private training company to produce an online course, and sent round stern instructions to all staff to complete it. The course consists of an animated Powerpoint-style presentation, with a couple of multiple choice questions embedded in it, followed by a multiple-choice quiz. The target time for completing the course is one hour, though the record is currently held by a colleague who has a bug in his browser that accelerates video clips tenfold: he took and passed the course, with a final mark of 86%, in seven minutes.

Being — I think — fairly conscientious about such matters, I completed the course promptly and wasn’t surprised to find that most of the content was familiar. Being fairly unregenerate in other matters, I subsequently rather enjoyed emailing the Equality and Diversity Officer with a list of ways in which the online presentation could be considered to breach accessibility guidelines for users with disabilities: the reliance on aural elements; the absence of a plain text version of the content; the use of odd fonts and unnecessarily cute interfaces (“click on the levels of the pyramid in this order”; “click on the rings of the circle in this order”); and the use at one point of red/green colour coding. Thinking about it later, though, it seems that there’s a larger absurdity present than that of an “equality and diversity” course that fails basic standards for equality and diversity: in fact, this course is practically an epitome of how one absurdity breeds another once the decision has been made to teach a subject in an impossible way.

“Equality and diversity” is a complicated topic, involving notoriously problematic issues such as our subconscious perception of other people and the difference between equality of opportunity and equality of outcome. It can’t readily be reduced to either a small set of axioms or a small set of practical rules; the legislative framework is complex and is perpetually developing through case law. In short, intellectually it’s a mess. (This is not an attack on equality legislation, the lack of intellectual consistency in which merely reflects the lack of consistency in human behaviour, both bad and good; I’m very clear that the occasional idiocies of such legislation are vastly outweighed by the evils and idiocies that it inhibits.) When I did a module on disability and accessibility during my teaching certificate, this involved four half-day classroom sessions and a substantial assessed essay, and still left me feeling I didn’t really understand it. In short, there’s no chance that a one-hour online course will “train” anybody in the topic to any meaningful extent. However, senior management feels we should be trained in this manner, and won’t countenance more resources being spent on it. From this decision, the rest flows.

It’s suggestive that an organisation with many hundreds of qualified teaching staff on the books feels it’s necessary to bring in an external company to provide training. Such companies, of course, exist to provide what the customer orders, and not to object to orders that conflict with their professional integrity. They also need to safeguard their intellectual property, which presumably is why the material is presented as an online animation rather than a downloadable document that could kept for future reference. Commercial considerations, therefore, drive the decision to present the material in a particular way, regardless of whether there is any evidence that this is effective. They also drive the decision to make the material superficially appealing (at least to hearing, fully-sighted, non-dyslexic users with full colour vision and a fairly high tolerance for patronising tones of voice) rather than accessible. If all media were interchangeable and all teaching were simply a matter of “delivering content” then this wouldn’t matter. In reality, as Dan Meyer has pointed out in the context of maths teaching, the online medium inevitably shapes the message — in this case, by radically simplifying it.

The other challenge for the course designers is to ensure that there is some form of assessment but that most of the people who take it will pass. No assessment, and the course won’t cover the university’s back in case of litigation; easily failed assessment, and the peasants may revolt. This, together with the multiple-choice format that’s required to keep costs down, immediately precludes the use of questions that genuinely interrogate one’s understanding or challenge one’s assumptions. (See also Verity Stob on the use of MCQs in her OU module on Project Management.) Instead, I was faced with questions like

Is embracing equality and diversity the same thing as political correctness? (Y/N)

To answer this properly, one would presumably have to unpack the meanings and subtexts of the much-abused phrase “political correctness” and set it within an appropriate framework of expectations and assumptions. In the framework of the online course, though, the “correct” answer is clearly No, because “political correctness” is something vaguely outdated and silly while “embracing equality and diversity” isn’t.

Some of my colleagues faced an even more interesting question:

Would it be legal to refuse a white actor the role of Othello on the grounds of his race? (Y/N)

Now, I don’t know whether there’s case law on this (and none was mentioned in the course), but it strikes me as a fascinating example. Surely the answer would depend on the nature of the production (realistic? modern? Elizabethan?), on any implied transpositions of setting and on the skin colour of other members of the cast. It could also be revealing to negotiate this alongside the question of whether, say, a black actor could legally be refused the part of Henry V on racial grounds, and if so under what circumstances. For the purposes of the online course, though, the “correct” answer is Yes. In fact, all the assessment questions I saw could be answered “correctly” by putting oneself into the role of the imitable Clare Barker, or any equivalent stereotype, and closing one’s mind to all further doubt.

It’s well known that, in formal logic, from any two inconsistent axioms taken together one can logically deduce any pile of cobblers whatsoever. Formal logic isn’t often a good model of reality, but here I think there’s a nice analogy here: once a teacher has accepted the inconsistent task of “training” someone in equality and diversity in one hour, rubbish inexorably follows. Commercial imperatives render the material next to useless; simplification reduces the content to factoids and incoherence; and the assessment format reduces everything to a crude stereotype which surely does more harm than good to the cause of equality and diversity. It’s nothing to do with the course topic, except insofar as it’s a topic that attracts perfunctory treatment. Rather, this is a blackboard-diagram version of a malaise that affects swathes of our education system. You can’t learn “equality and diversity” in an hour. You can’t learn multivariable calculus in a revision week. You can’t learn “interdisciplinary research” in a 20-credit module. All you can do over these timescales is to learn a clumsy caricature of the subject; and if you’re then rewarded for reproducing this caricature, that is all you’ll have any incentive to learn.

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