Melinda Ciccocioppo, Teacher of Psychology
16. June 2020.
Maybe you have already heard about the online courses that Pitt van Outlier offers. Outlier is a New York-based trading company which, according to its website, offers the best online education in the world. Outlier offers online courses for $400 each, with a money back guarantee in case of failure. Pitt has currently commissioned Outlier to organize two courses during the summer, Calculus I and Introduction to Psychology.
I can understand the appeal of these classes on the students. They cost much less than other Pitts courses and you get your money back if you fail. Besides, you’re taking online courses anyway, so who cares? As a teacher of the Course Introductory Psychology at Pitt, I would like to draw your attention to some very important differences between the Course Introductory Psychology of Outlier and the Course Introductory Psychology of Pitt outside of this contract with Outlier.
Some teachers, including myself, met Outlier.org CEO Aaron Rasmussen and his team at the end of January. We were told that the purpose of the meeting was to discuss the evaluation of the deviating course. But my fellow psychologist and I had some questions for the Outlier team because we had just learned about the company and the collaboration with Pitt through an article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. After this meeting, I was given access to the course on outliers and I was able to view the course programme and the recorded lectures.
The main difference between the Introductory Psychology course and the other Pitt Introductory Psychology courses is that the exit course is not taught by a Pitt professor. In fact, there is no instructor for the course. Instead, speakers from all over the country give pre-recorded lectures. I don’t doubt the ability of these trainers to teach their courses. Many of them are known and respected in their field. But I would say that teaching a course is much more than just a lecture. For example, what my fellow psychology professors and I do in our courses is to connect the different topics we discuss during the semester. We want you to see the big picture – how things like neural communication, memory, emotions and prejudices interact. Making these connections is an essential part of quality education and is not possible if several speakers give a lecture on different subjects. Usually each lecturer only gives one lecture on a specific subject and he/she does not know what has been discussed in previous lectures, so he/she cannot refer to other documents.
What should you do if you have a question about a topic discussed at one of the conferences? In any other psychology course at Pitt, you can contact your teacher directly by email or drop by during office hours to talk about your question or anything else that fascinates or troubles you. For the course on outliers Mr. Rasmussen told the meeting that the students would put this question on the outliers channel so that their classmates or the teacher could answer it. These mediators don’t need a diploma in psychology, Rasmussen told the meeting. An open discussion forum without the help of an expert is a recipe for spreading misinformation, and we know that misinformation on psychological topics is abundant on the Internet.
What about the notes? Most of your assessment for the Introductory Psychology course is based on three tests consisting of 50 multiple choice questions. These investigations are carried out remotely using the Exam program, which blocks the browser and checks eye movements for possible fraud, they said during the session. Once you have started the exam, you have two hours to finish it based on the exam I wrote during the course. The curriculum I reviewed does not mention how students with disabilities can make use of accommodations such as long exam hours.
In addition, you must have the necessary technology, such as a webcam and fast internet access, to follow the course. This raises questions about the availability of the course for all Pitts students. All other Pitts courses are required by law to provide education that is accessible to all students.
What is lacking in the outer course of events are the human connections. Even when I moved my Introduction to Psychology Online course last spring, I did my best to be available to my students if they had questions or problems. In my recorded lectures, I experienced the links with the current pandemic. During this time I even adapted the material to what I thought would be most useful for the students. These are spontaneous adjustments that cannot be made in pre-recorded lectures by lecturers from different institutions.
Referring to your online courses last spring, I think the possibility for your teacher to contact you has done everything possible to make your teaching experience more meaningful. This link is necessary to strengthen the feeling of being part of the course. We know that this sense of togetherness is not only important for you to be satisfied with your course, but also to learn from it.
It should also be noted that the course on external knowledge of psychology was not developed by the Pitt-faculty. Actually, there was no supervision by the psychology department. We were told that there is a faculty advisory board that assesses deviating courses, but that there is no psychology department on that board. The Introductory Psychology course has been offered by Outlier since last year, but we have received no data on the student’s progress or satisfaction with this course. I also strongly advise you to speak with your advisor before enrolling in any course offered by Outlier, as these courses may not be eligible for intermediate or higher level courses.
You chose Pitt because you recognize our ability to provide you with world-class education. These lessons are given by the teachers of Pitt. As a teacher, our main concern is your education. Outlier is a trading company whose main purpose is to make money.
I understand Pitt’s tuition is high, and I certainly don’t want you in debt all your life. But I would say that there are better ways for the university to solve this problem than offering subcourses to students, and I hope the administration is willing to consider these alternatives.
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