I realized today that in theory, the entire thing could be automated:
- The course content is all online, so there's no reason why I need to add anything to it. Let the students read it on their own without the professor offering any extra commentary.
- The discussion boards are for students to interact with each other, not the professor. When "participation" is one of the grades of the course, there are tools where you can get post counts, average length of post, and all kinds of usage stats without ever having to actually, you know, read what one of those student people is actually saying.
- Papers can't be automated easily, but if you design the course you could go light on those assignments and heavy on multiple-choice and fill-in-the-blank quizzes which can be graded by a computer system.
- Instead of holding regular "office hours", simply post your phone number and let students call if they need help with anything. You know they never will, whether it be from feelings of politeness or intimidation.
Not that I would ever teach this way, mind you. I don't think it's really teaching if I'm not involved, it's more like a long, drawn-out certification process.
On the other hand, it's easy to "teach" a class this way, so I'm sure there are people out there who do it like that. Some might just be overwhelmed with other things in life so they fall back on something easy. Others might be greedy and want extra pay for next to no effort. Still others might think this is what online classes are supposed to be, that once you get a computer involved it somehow means humans should be removed from the equation.
I suppose the lesson here for students is: buyer beware. Make sure that you're getting your money's worth when signing up for an online class, and make sure you know what kind of instruction and personalized attention you can expect. If all you're looking for is a few quick credit hours without having to leave your dorm room that's one thing, but if you're actually looking for an education then do your due diligence. (Put at least as much effort into shopping for a class as you might into getting a high-end stereo system for your dorm, since that's probably about what you're paying.)
Interestingly, I think there's a parallel here with outsourcing in the game industry, in that many companies that think "outsourcing" really want the thing they're outsourcing to be automated (and they find out to their chagrin that game development is not so easy a process to automate).