Section: Opinion

Using online homework means more time for students

It’s wonderful that Griffin Burrough ’18 is writing op-eds for the Collegian

That’s an experience he wouldn’t likely be offered at the University of Phoenix. 

I was 49 years old when I wrote my first op-ed about the Tri-State Crematory scandal in which a cremation service failed to fulfill contractual obligations to cremate bodies and instead disposed of them outside. I wrote it in less than a day and it was quickly accepted by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. I thought, “This is easy and kind of fun.” I was wrong — it’s not easy. Over the last 11 years, I’ve had more of my op-eds rejected than accepted. I now think, “This is hard, and kind of fun,” so I keep doing it. 

Why is it hard? Because a lot of people have opinions and want to be heard. The key to success in writing op-eds is to have something interesting to say and to say it well. It also helps to have a good “hook” — an event to hang your opinions on.

Griffin’s hook is that his economics professor uses an online grading system called Aplia, on which he hangs his opinion that Kenyon’s on the road to becoming a clone of the University of Phoenix. A clever hook combined with a defensible opinion makes a good op-ed. Griffin should keep doing it. 

However, I think he’s wrong about online grading systems. In his essay, he describes the benefits of having his economics professor meticulously grade roughly 720 homework assignments during the fall semester, but skirts over the costs. The principal cost is the value of what his economics professor could be doing instead of slogging through an enormous pile of homework assignments. 

Many of us have had the experience of being rejected by Princeton University, which only accepts 7.4 percent of students applying to its undergraduate program. But it’s even tougher to get into its graduate program of economics, which only accepts four percent of the students who apply. One year, one of the 25 first-year students in their program was a Kenyon graduate, Christine Ostrowski ’11. My guess is that none of them is a graduate of the University of Phoenix. 

Many, if not most, of the applicants to Princeton’s graduate program in economics will have stellar credentials in terms of undergraduate grades and GRE scores. What often makes the difference is the quality of letters of recommendation, ones that describe the experiences of faculty working closely with the student on their undergraduate research projects.

I know that Chrissie worked really closely with Kenyon faculty in economics and mathematics on research projects and that the faculty wrote her glowing letters, first to help her get a job at the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, then a National Science Foundation fellowship and, finally, acceptance to Princeton. 

Kenyon needs to compete with other liberal arts colleges ranging from Albion to Williams, as well as the honors program at the Ohio State University, more than with the University of Phoenix. More specifically, it needs to allocate its faculty’s time in a way that helps its students successfully compete in a mind-bogglingly competitive world. That means embracing online technology that is complementary to that mission, including the marvelous online grading system called Aplia.

I hope that Griffin keeps writing op-eds. He has a knack for it as evidenced by the fact that one of his readers felt compelled to respond. That’s what editors like to see.

David Harrington is the Himmelright professor of economics at Kenyon College. He can be contacted at harringtond@kenyon.edu.

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