My April 2018 Deposition Against Amazon.com for Gift Card Balance Theft

The following is an expert witness deposition I wrote in April 2018 in response to a subpoena in a small claims lawsuit against Amazon by an individual in California who Amazon had stolen $3,400 in gift card balances from. In this deposition, I lay out several potential rationales for having a large Amazon gift card balance, detail why Amazon acts in bad faith when blacklisting customers and seizing their gift card balances, and explain how their practices are in violation of state and federal laws.

Regarding the case at hand, I have not heard from the plaintiff since May 2018, so I believe they were successful in recovering funds from Amazon.com, but stopped responding because they signed one of Amazon’s many non-disclosure agreements.

In November 2018, the author of the Miles Per Day blog was banned by Amazon. Amazon proceeded to cancel her outstanding orders and steal over $1,500 in gift card balance, even though she purchased her gift cards from first-party sources to earn credit card rewards miles and points. This prompted me to publish my April 2018 deposition, shown below.


IN THE TURLOCK DIVISION OF THE SUPERIOR COURT
OF CALIFORNIA, COUNTY OF STANISLAUS

[Redacted],

vs.

Amazon.com, Inc.,
Defendant.

SMALL CLAIMS CASE NO. [Redacted]
___________________________________

DEPOSITION FROM EXPERT WITNESS RICHARD THRIPP

Mr. [Redacted], having read articles on my website about my experience of being blacklisted by Amazon.com, Inc. (“Amazon”) and having my gift card balance stolen, has reached out to me and subpoenaed my testimony as an expert witness in her California small claims case. I am a non-lawyer and this is my first time being deposed in this capacity, which I am doing for free to shed light on practices by Amazon that I believe to be unlawful.

Amazon sells gift cards for its merchandise and services, both through its website and nationwide at most grocery stores, drugstores, gas stations, and other retailers through its subsidiary, ACI Gift Cards, LLC, a Washington limited liability company. These gift cards come as “redemption codes” that are loaded onto one’s Amazon customer account. They function differently than gift cards for many other retailers (e.g., Walmart or Target), because once they are loaded to a customer account, they are permanently bound to that account and can be redeemed against future orders only on that Amazon account.

Since 2008, many customers have complained online about having their Amazon accounts blacklisted and being stonewalled when requesting an explanation from the company. I experienced this in August 2015, on my Amazon account which had a gift card balance of $451.20.

The first signs of being blacklisted are receiving an error message about your password being incorrect when attempting to log in. The error message persists after resetting your password, and representatives at Amazon’s customer support call center will say there is a problem with your account that requires a specialist to call you back within 24–48 business hours. These statements are false, because no specialist ever calls back.

Because you are locked out of your Amazon account, you are unable to view your gift card balance, gift card activity, orders, and other customer data. Amazon will not accept returns from a blacklisted customer, even for items defective or damaged in shipment. They remove access to purchased digital materials (e.g., Kindle e-books), do not honor textbook rental return-shipping agreements, and if you have purchased an Amazon Prime membership, they refuse to offer a pro-rated refund. Most importantly, they outright refuse to return your gift card balance, in violation of the U.S. federal and state laws.

On 9/04/2015, I filed a complaint with the Attorney General of Washington against Amazon. The following is an actual response received 9/19/2015:

Dear Andrew,

I’m Suresh Potnuru of Amazon.com. I’m responding to Mr. Richard Thripp’s subject matter complaint, and copying him for his reference.

I’m sorry for the trouble Mr. Thripp’s had in accessing his account.

I’d like to confirm the information Mr. Thripp’s received from our Account Specialist team is correct. As noted in our Conditions of Use, in the section, “Your Account”: “Amazon reserves the right to refuse service, terminate accounts, remove or edit content, or cancel orders in its sole discretion.”

Mr. Thripp can review our Conditions of Use here: www.amazon.com/conditionsofuse

Due to the proprietary nature of our business, we’re unable to discuss with Mr. Thripp, and the decision to close his account is a final one.

Regarding gift card balance: At this time we may not be able to issue a refund to Mr. Thripp for his gift card balance. [Emphasis added.]

Please contact me directly by replying to this email if I can be of further assistance.

Best regards,
Suresh P.
Amazon.com

Additional complaints against Amazon resulted in them making these statements:

Please note this isn’t a decision we can reconsider, and we won’t be able to issue a refund for the gift card balance. [Emphasis added]

I realize you’re upset, and I regret we’ve been unable to address your concerns to your satisfaction. However, we’ll not be able to offer any additional insight or action on these matters, and any further inquiries on this matter won’t receive a response.

You must return your rental prior to the scheduled due date in order to avoid any additional charges. You can return the rental using the carrier of your choice. Since you’re not using a pre-paid mailing label provided by Amazon, you’ll be responsible for any return shipping fees. [The textbook rental agreement that I agreed to when renting from Amazon Warehouse Deals stated that Amazon would provide a pre-paid mailing label for return of the textbook. Obviously, I could not print the pre-paid mailing label due to being unable to log in.]

Eventually, I sued Amazon in Volusia County, FL small claims court and reached a confidential settlement agreement. However, due to my blog posts, I receive 2–3 emails per month from blacklisted Amazon customers who are receiving similar treatment from Amazon.

Amazon’s Conditions of Use state that they can terminate a customer account at any time. Amazon’s terms on gift cards state:

We reserve the right, without notice to you, to void Gift Cards (including as a component of your Amazon.com Balance) without a refund, suspend or terminate customer accounts, suspend or terminate the ability to use our services, cancel or limit orders, and bill alternative forms of payment if we suspect that a Gift Card is obtained, used, or applied to an Amazon.com account (or your Amazon.com Balance is applied to a purchase) fraudulently, unlawfully, or otherwise in violation of these terms and conditions. [Emphasis added.]

Just because customers agree to these terms by using Amazon gift cards does not mean the terms are lawful. In fact, the above terms are void according to California Civil Code, Section 1749.51. As we have seen, Amazon blacklists customers without explanation “due to the proprietary nature of their business.” Amazon is incentivized to blacklist customers with high gift card balances, and they act opaquely and without oversight in reaching these decisions.

A customer’s violation of Amazon’s terms does not automatically entitle Amazon to seize their gift card balance. When Amazon blacklists a customer, they make no attempt to refund all or part of the gift card balance, even if they suspect only a portion was obtained unlawfully or in violation of their terms.

Amazon customers can add multiple gift cards to their account balance, and a natural characteristic of gift cards is that they may come as gifts from third parties. An Amazon customer may not know the gift card they have received was, for example, purchased with a stolen bank card. If a bank customer were to deposit a bad check, the bank would not be entitled to seize the entire balance of their checking account.

Amazon acts as a bully toward blacklisted customers. Per their terms, binding arbitration and small claims court are the only avenues available for blacklisted customers to petition for redress (besides attorneys general, the Better Business Bureau, etc.).

In Mr. [Redacted]’s case, he has informed me that Amazon banned several of her customer accounts with gift card balances aggregating to approximately $3,400. It is not necessarily unlawful for an Amazon customer to have multiple accounts, and there are many legitimate reasons to accumulate gift card balances in the thousands of dollars. For example, a customer might purchase Amazon gift cards at an authorized seller, such as a grocery store, to avoid the possibility of debit or credit card fraud when shopping online. Another possibility is that a customer may purchase Amazon gift cards at a grocery store using a credit card such as Chase Freedom or Discover It, which frequently offer 5% in cashback rewards on purchases at grocery stores. If, during such a promotional period, a customer was to use their Chase Freedom or Discover It credit card directly on Amazon’s website, they would only earn 1% in cashback rewards, rather than 5% cashback rewards earned by first purchasing an Amazon gift card at a grocery store.

In addition, customers not familiar with Amazon’s practice of blacklisting customers may believe they are safeguarding their gift card by loading it to their account long before using it, to prevent others from illegitimately guessing or hacking the redemption code to fraudulently add it to their account.

Moreover, Amazon’s practices may be in violation of these federal and state laws:

  1. The CREDIT CARD ACCOUNTABILITY RESPONSIBILITY AND DISCLOSURE ACT OF 2009 (Public Law 111–24), Title IV, states that it is unlawful to sell a gift card that is subject to an expiration date. When Amazon blacklists a customer and refuses to honor their gift card balance, it may be construed as unlawfully causing the accountholder’s gift card balance to expire.
  2. Chapter 19.240 of the Revised Code of Washington additionally prohibits merchants from issuing gift cards subject to expiration dates, unless the gift card is issued as a donation to a charitable organization or several other exclusions that are not relevant to the Amazon gift cards in question.
  3. California Civil Code, Section 1749.6(a) states: A gift certificate constitutes value held in trust by the issuer of the gift certificate on behalf of the beneficiary of the gift certificate. The value represented by the gift certificate belongs to the beneficiary, or to the legal representative of the beneficiary to the extent provided by law, and not to the issuer. [Emphasis added]
  4. California Civil Code, Section 1749.51 states: Any waiver of the provisions of this title is contrary to public policy, and is void and unenforceable. Therefore, Amazon’s Conditions of Use and aforementioned gift card terms are void and unenforceable according to California law.

Given the above facts, I believe Amazon acts in bad faith, and should pay the gift card balance owed to Mr. [Redacted], or explain their position to the court. Based on my understanding, although pretrial discovery is not permitted in California small claims court, the court “can also order a defendant to do something, as long as [the plaintiff is] also asking for money in [their] claim” (http://www.scscourt.org/self_help/small_claims/small_claims_overview.shtml).

DECLARATION OF CUSTODIAN OF RECORDS
(California Evidence Code, Section 1561)

I, the undersigned, declare:

  1. I am the duly authorized custodian of records for the above information and statements received from AMAZON.COM, INC. and have the authority to certify the records.
  2. The quotations included hereto are true excerpts of records on file with RICHARD THRIPP described in the subpoena. Emphasis (bold text) is added where indicated in brackets. In certain places, explanatory text has also been added in brackets. (Additionally: Quotations are also on file with the Consumer Protection Division of the Washington State Office of the Attorney General; the Florida Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services File # 1509-37467 / MLH; and/or the Better Business Bureau of Alaska, Oregon, & Western Washington Complaint # 10830673.)
  3. The records were prepared by RICHARD THRIPP in the ordinary course of business at or near the time of the act, condition, or event.

I declare, under penalty of perjury, that the foregoing is true and correct.

Executed on April 24, 2018, in Ormond Beach, Florida.

___________________________________

RICHARD THRIPP

CERTIFICATE OF SERVICE

I HEREBY CERTIFY that the above deposition is a truthful accounting of the facts. I have furnished copies by U.S. Mail to the Stanislaus County Superior Court and Amazon.com, Inc., this 24th day of April, 2018.

By: __________________________________________
RICHARD THRIPP, M.A.

Expert witness in regards to Amazon.com, Inc. customer blacklisting and theft of gift card balances.

Before Adjusting Capital Gains for Inflation, Try Interest on Savings Accounts

Recently, a proposal has been discussed by U.S. Treasury Secretary Mnuchin and President Trump of adjusting capital gains for inflation when it comes to taxation of those gains. This has rightly been criticized as a tax break for the rich, but what has not been widely discussed is the hypocrisy and inequity of not including savings accounts, certificates of deposits (CDs), Treasury bills and bonds, and corporate bonds, which yield “interest” instead of “capital gains,” in the inflation-adjustment proposal.

Although there are no legal restrictions preventing most Americans from investing in stocks (equities), about half do not. Reasons include more pressing financial concerns, fear of loss, and a lack of understanding of how stocks work. Therefore, adjusting capital gains for inflation will mainly be helpful to wealthier Americans.

Capital gains already have numerous tax advantages over earned income, such as:

  • No 15.3% payroll taxes (7.65% employee and 7.65% employer share)
  • If older than one year (long-term), the tax rate is much lower or even 0%
  • Long-term tax rate tops out much lower (20% instead of 37%) for high earners
  • You can choose when to incur capital gains taxes (when to sell)
  • Capital gains tend to be received by high-earners, who gain the most from these advantages because they are in high tax brackets

Presently, interest on savings accounts, CDs, T-bills/bonds, and corporate bonds is taxed at the same rate as earned income and short-term capital gains. Except certain corporate bonds, these types of investments do not yield any capital gains, but rather yield interest only. Thus, none of the above benefits of capitals gains apply. Americans, especially those with lower incomes and net worths, are more likely to put their money in savings accounts, CDs, and Treasury securities rather than stocks. Therefore, they miss out not only on the capital appreciation power of stocks, which is much greater than low-risk assets over the long term; they also miss out on preferential tax treatment that already exists. To add an inflation adjustment on top of this is ridiculous.

Some may quip that stocks do pay something similar to interest, in the form of dividends, which are taxed like earned income and short-term capital gains. This is false; for most “buy and hold” investors in index funds and many individual stocks, the vast majority of dividends are treated as “qualified” dividends which are treated not like interest, but as long-term capital gains. Again, investors in stocks get preferential treatment.

Each year, banks, the U.S. Treasury, and other firms must issue Form 1099-INT to report how much interest income you received in the prior tax year on savings accounts, CDs, T-bills/bonds, et cetera. However, we should not forget that savings accounts typically pay low interest rates—sometimes as little as 0.03% annual percentage yield (APY), with the best accounts paying no more than about 2.0% APY. If we were to adjust savings interest for inflation, which is around 2.4% presently (or 2.9% including food and energy), this would be a loss rather than income! If we adjust capital gains for inflation, shouldn’t we adjust interest too?

Logisitcal challenges aside, if we were to go a step further, offering an above-the-line deduction (like we do with student loan interest) for lost purchasing power on Americans’ savings, capital gains would still be far too advantaged.

Due to the unfairness of how interest is treated, with no consideration of inflation, some have dubbed saving money a suckers’ game. Although a majority of Americans do not understand this, investing, on the other hand, is a winners’ game. The prudent step would be for the government to begin adjusting interest income for inflation but not capital gains. Even then, investors would still be receiving highly preferential treatment as compared with savers.

The Manifesto of the Financial Educator

As a financial researcher and aspiring financial educator, I’ve been thinking at length about the principles behind good financial teaching. These five ideas are by no means new or original. However, they are research-supported and not yet mainstream.

1. Behavior Under Management

Know when the student is not ready.

This is straight from Andy Hart’s podcast and conference, with support from a wealth of research in behavioral psychology, economics, and personal finance. Emotion, perception, knowledge, and experience all play an important role in why people make bad financial decisions.

It is widely accepted that younger people should be fully invested in stocks, because their time horizon is long. As they get older, volatility and profits should both be suppressed by divesting stocks into safer, less profitable assets such as bonds. However, young people commonly freak out when there is a bear market, selling their investments and even losing part of their principal. This is traumatic and may result in them never investing in stocks again, which is a worse outcome than if they had invested later in life with greater knowledge, experience, and resilience.

It is not fair to a student to advise an objectively superior course of action when it will lead to financial ruin because the student is not ready.

2. Educate in Arithmetic and Statistics

When the odds are in your favor, it’s only “gambling” if the consequences are disastrous.

Recent evidence suggests that mathematical education may be more important than financial education. The ability to perform mental computations is important, as well as skill with picturing compound interest and percentages. Understanding risk and reward over time is critical. Anyone with a complete understanding of gambling mathematics should know that as you gamble more, you get closer and closer to a guaranteed loss of money.

Investing in the whole global stock market, on the other hand, is neither speculation nor gambling because the odds are in your favor and the consequences of loss are temporary. Although the market declines in about 25% of given calendar years, over longer spans it almost surely increases from the starting point.

Insurance companies make money because they pay out less money than they take in. On average, the odds are in their favor. For any one individual or family, however, the consequences of losing the bet are disastrous. This is why it is wise to purchase health insurance, term life insurance, auto insurance, et cetera. You are insuring against uncommon yet disastrous events. Nonetheless, these disastrous events are much more likely to occur than winning a large lottery jackpot. On the other hand, purchasing insurance against minor losses, like a SquareTrade warranty or collision insurance on a car, is only necessary if these items are critical to you and you do not have the funds to replace them.

3. Make Choices Simpler

Don’t do business with businesses that put bad choices on the table. (Unless you are beating them at their own game.)

People often ask why one should pick Vanguard over Fidelity, Charles Schwab, or another firm for directing their investments. Although Fidelity and Schwab do offer low-cost index funds and arguably offer superior customer service, they are also determined to sell you on products and services that are very bad for your financial health, such as actively managed investments with high management fees.

It is an unpleasant and cognitively taxing experience to be required to repeatedly decline detrimental options. The extended warranties that are sold at the checkout counter at Best Buy are an awful deal. Likewise for trip “insurance” from your airline and GoDaddy’s upsells of inferior hosting services and over-priced options when all you want to purchase is a simple Internet domain name. It is bad enough when a business puts bad choices on the table; aggressive sales tactics are the coup de grâce.

This is why a hard rule of using cash instead of plastic is effective and beneficial for most consumers. The exception is if you are a “travel hacker” beating the credit card issuers at their own game. If you have to ask, you’re not a travel hacker. Simplifying the equation by avoiding the potential for making bad choices is worth losing a few benefits that are, by comparison, small. In some industries, all the major players violate this rule. However, when there an alternate option is available, it should usually be preferred (e.g., Vanguard, cash or debit cards instead of credit cards, etc.).

4. Inculcate a Habit of Inquiry

The squeaky wheel gets the grease.

There is plenty of information available easily via web search. For example, you can easily learn about investing, retirement accounts, or strategies for convincing your bank to waive an overdraft fee by searching Google. However, many people are not in the habit of seeking information nor asking for special consideration from a lender, bank, et cetera. There are differences between how subject-matter experts and novices seek information; novices may not know where to begin, and are typically unfamiliar with the jargon of personal finance, insurance, taxes, credit cards, mortgages, student loans, credit-reporting bureaus, and more. Therefore, it is unfair to blame them for failing to seek out information. Instead, we should educate them in the basics and encourage them to build a habit of inquiry, so they less likely to be shortchanged in their financial dealings.

In addition to educating others, we should lobby for laws and regulations that compel employers and financial institutions to conduct business in ways that do not unfairly disadvantage the non-wealthy (e.g., comprehension rules), and advocate for prosocial behaviors among employers, financial institutions, corporations, and governments that benefit the poor. For instance, it is unfair that many government benefits are not received by the most needy, due to being difficult to claim.

5. Focus on Long-Term Lifestyle Strategy

But, give tactical advice when appropriate.

Reducing bills, increasing income, and changing one’s habits is important. There are many forums and other websites about living frugally. In some ways this overlaps with Item 4; for example, one can save quite a bit on a car, phone or cable bill, rent, or terms of debt service by inquiring with sellers, service providers, landlords, and lenders. Responsible financial educators should encourage learners to (a) reduce expenses as a way of life (e.g., smaller living space, more roommates, no dining out, etc.), (b) focus on significantly increasing income by leveraging education, skills, et cetera, and (c) eliminate debts, save, and invest.

Financial education appears to be more effective when it either focuses on norms and general principles or is given tactically (i.e., “just-in-time“). The best time to tell someone how to write a check is immediately before they need to write a check. Financial advisers can serve as financial educators by offering key information and advice soon before significant financial events such as shopping for a house and mortgage. On the other hand, if this advice is offered many months or years in advance, it is neither remembered nor followed.

Optionally/additionally as a grammatical alternative to and/or when the prior item(s) are essential

The grammatical construct “and/or” is frequently criticized for being unnecessary and/or ambiguous.

As a logical operator, when used in a list of two things (e.g., rice and/or beans), it implies that it is acceptable to have:

  • Item 1
  • Item 2
  • Items 1 and 2

However, having no items is unacceptable.

When used in a list of three things (e.g., rice, beans, and/or salsa), it implies that it is acceptable to have:

  • Item 1
  • Item 2
  • Item 3
  • Items 1 and 2
  • Items 1 and 3
  • Items 2 and 3
  • Items 1, 2, and 3

However, having no items is unacceptable.

This, obviously, is quite vague. Some have suggested just using “or” instead of and/or. However, “or” is also ambiguous in common language. This may be why APA style tolerates and/or, neither endorsing nor forbidding it.

Due to its vagueness and a lack of viable alternatives, and/or is used in many situations where it does not apply. One common instance is using and/or when you really mean to say “this item can be added, but the prior items are essential.” To address this, I propose a new grammatical construct: optionally/additionally.

Optionally/additionally has all the slashy goodness of and/or, but an air of sophistication. Sure, you could just say “and optionally,” but this isn’t strong enough at conveying that the subsequent item or items are optional add-ons, while simultaneously conveying that the prior item or items was/were essential.

For instance, when suggesting how to invest in equities, I would advise investing in a mutual fund of the whole U.S. stock market and optionally/additionally the whole international stock market (encompassing the whole world except the United States—the US is about 50% of the global market by market capitalization and all other countries sum to about 50%).

I would not want to say “the whole U.S. stock market and/or the whole international stock market” because the first item is essential, while the second item is not (depending on how bullish you are on the United States).

Of course, there are index funds that combine both the U.S. and international markets. For the equities portion of a portfolio, it would be fine to suggest investing in the whole U.S. stock market or the whole world stock market, but if we replace “whole world” with “international” (all other countries except the US), neither “or” nor “and/or” are acceptable, because both imply the first item is optional rather than mandatory. This is an example of when the optionally/additionally construct is useful.

I did not do extensive research into whether someone else has addressed this conundrum of grammar and logic. Please reply if you know of such sources. A Google search shows that optionally/additionally has been used three times before, but without elaboration on the grammatical or logical implications:

  1. On 2010-03-14, “GrapefruiTgirl” made this statement on the LinuxQuestions.org forum: Optionally/additionally, as your regular user, enter your ~/.fonts folder (or create it of there is none) and repeat the above three commands as regular user.
  2. On 2010-04-25, Michael S. from Vienna, Austria made this statement on TripAdvisor: Take the first train to Innsbruck which is a nice little city surrounded by majestic mountains. The city has a small but fine city center and you can easily and quickly go up to 2.300m above sea level by ropeway. Ex Innsbruck you could optionally/additionally visit the Karwendel Area with places like Seefeld and Mittenwald. The Karwendel Railway is known for spectacular views. Prepare for a long day but it is feasible!
  3. On 2016-11-15, “horst” made this statement on the application programming interface (API) discussion board in the ProcessWire content management system (CMS) forum: Optionally / additionally interesting in this regard maybe the weighten option of Pia here.

From these examples it appears optionally/additionally is most relevant to fastidious Austrians and computer programmers, but its slashy goodness remains undiscovered by the rest of Googleable humanity. A search of additionally/optionally reveals more than 20 uses, but I prefer emphasizing the optionality before communicating the supplementary nature of the subsequent items (and, consequently and implicity, the necessity of the preceding items), so additionally/optionally is of less interest to me.

Thoughts on being a university instructor (graduate teaching associate)

While earning an Education Ph.D. at University of Central Florida, I have worked as a teaching assistant and now teaching associate for a course called EME 2040: Introduction to Technology for Educators. In the past two semesters (Fall 2017 and Spring 2018), this means that I have been the instructor of record for 140 preservice teachers as they take this required course in pursuit of their four-year education degrees, with slightly more than half of these students majoring in elementary education.

The two sections I have taught in each semester have both been mixed-mode with 35 students each, with much of the students’ work being completed from home and submitted online, but with biweekly face-to-face (F2F) meetings. The scope of the course is quite broad, covering the basics of computers, the Microsoft office suite, searching online, emerging technologies, curricular and pedagogical integration of technology, and many other issues.

Although I have obviously made it widely known that I am instructing the course, based on my LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, et cetera, I have not yet written about the experience of doing so.

Teaching is certainly my favorite part of being a doctoral student. It’s a lot of work and responsibility, but I was prepared well by TA’ing (being a teaching assistant) for my supervisor for an entire year. Being actively involved in Toastmasters for several years, including being president of a club, helps me to not be afraid of speaking, and gives me presentation experience.

On the other hand, it is difficult to be a teacher educator without K–12 teaching experience, who barely looks older than his students (I am Age 26, but many say I look younger). My technological knowledge is impressive, and I do have pedagogical knowledge from my studies as an Applied Learning & Instruction M.A. student (completed 2016), but it can be hard to pull it all together for the students.

Here, I will briefly share a few observations and thoughts from my experience so far.

First, a bit of context: UCF uses the Canvas learning management system (LMS), and the materials for my course are prepared by the course faculty shepherd and my doctoral advisor and supervisor, Dr. Richard Hartshorne (yes, it is confusing in meetings as we both have the same first name). Presently, there are six sections of the course offered in each of the 16-week semesters (fall and spring), of which four others are taught by four adjunct instructors, and three of those sections are fully online, with the fourth and my two sections being mixed mode (in Summer 2018, I will teach a fully online section).

For our F2F meetings we use the following classroom at the UCF Teaching Academy, which has a desktop PC for every student (photo courtesy of UCF):

UCF TA 303

The room has 36 PCs including the instructor’s, so UCF is maximizing the room’s value by enrolling 35 students. However, face-to-face meetings usually have lower attendance as students can learn about and do much of their work online in the LMS.

I also borrow about a third of my slides from Dr. Hartshorne for the F2F meetings, while making the rest on my own. Here is a set of my favorite slides from one of our last meetings of the semester, posted to SlideShare as “Thripp EME 2040 Slides on Microsoft Education Badges, PowerPoint Quiz, Computer Backups, and Digital Security.” Like many instructors, my slides are text-heavy out of laziness (incorporating images and synthesizing text into bullet points is hard work). But, the course is quite applied; during much of class time I am demonstrating how to do things with PowerPoint, Excel, Weebly, LinkedIn, MindMeister, et cetera using the overhead project which projects my PC’s screen.

It may surprise some that I am actually inclined to be a rather “easy,” forgiving instructor. Although students definitely have to do the work to earn an A in the course, I am more concerned with them learning and applying principles of pedagogy and design, as well as big-picture technological knowledge. This is my aim even if they do not get it right the first time.

Influenced by Schimmer’s persuasive essay, I got rid of late penalties in Spring 2018, as well not requiring attendance. In some ways this backfired, as attendance was low on several meetings, which leads to students not submitting assignments that follow the instructions, even though they are all posted online. Also, many students waited until pretty late to do a big chunk of the work, although not having late penalties also seems to inspire just as many students to work ahead and finish the course early!

My rationale for not taking attendance is probably as trite as the rationales for requiring it. College students are usually adults and preservice teachers, especially, should demonstrate self-regulation. I am actually quite hard on myself so when I see students not attending or leaving early, I chalk it up to failure on my part to capture their attention or teach them something useful. However, in some ways a course like this does not necessarily need F2F meetings, and in fact, the students who attend religiously tend to be the ones who follow directions and put in more effort anyway. This makes grading hard, as submissions from non-attending students often require revisions, not just because they did not come to class, but because they approach their studies differently.

We do have a textbook on technology, with quizzes and an exam derived from the publisher’s test bank, but like with many mixed-mode and online courses, these are delivered unproctored through the LMS. I feel it necessary to explicitly instruct the students that the assessments are open-book. Sure, I could say they are closed-book, but in a way this penalizes honest students with no repercussions for those who reference the web or textbook. I could also offer no guidance on the issue, but this results in the same problem. At the same time, there is a time limit of 1–2 minutes per question (on average), so studying in advance is advised.

As a specialist in financial issues, I am abundantly aware of the costs that college students incur. Although not widespread, a few students fail each semester due to disappearing—they do not participate, respond to messages, nor withdraw from the course. This is disappointing and quite negative. I partly summed this up in this excerpt from an announcement to students late in the Spring 2018 semester:

Please do what you can to take the quizzes/exam and submit assignments, even if they are suboptimal, as it is a shame to leave these points on the table. Even if you are leaving college, it is better to have a higher grade as your grade point average (GPA) will follow you throughout your undergraduate studies if you return to college later, and will be a factor in graduate school admissions if you complete a 4-year degree in the future and apply for a Master’s, doctoral, or specialist degree program.

Another big issue is that these students may have student loans to repay, sans degree or even course credit. Like with damaged credit, failing courses is, in many ways, worse than having a blank college transcript. I, too, had problems getting through my undergraduate studies that damaged my GPA, and I only got to “reset” my GPA in graduate school. I think there are underlying psychological issues here… I speculate that students who are far behind on a course hesitate to even open the LMS or their email out of feelings of shame or regret. In the long run, this may be more damaging than having done the work in a “tough” class like physics, yet failing due to getting the steps and answers wrong.

While only 5% or less of my students fail each semester, there is a larger cohort that shirks part of their coursework, resulting in B’s and C’s where A’s were easily in reach. I am a habitual procrastinator, but since beginning at UCF in 2012, I always get something turned in on-time (usually earning an A as well—thanks in part to grade inflation). It is very sad that many do not make lemonade out of lemons (if procrastination can be likened to lemons).

Teaching EME 2040 is quite obviously easier in many ways than teaching K–12. Nonetheless, I do not offer much in the way of “stern” classroom management. Students listening to music during class or engrossed in their phones or unrelated PC activities are puzzling… why do they come to class at all? My predilection is toward chalking it up to my lectures being boring as hell, even though they are quite interesting to me—I am too interested in showing tools and tricks and discussing technical information rather than how to apply technology to K–12 (and mainly K–5) teaching. For the latter I lean on materials and guest appearances from my supervisor. Another issue, a decidedly first-world problem, is that a classroom with rows of desktop PCs for each student does not encourage F2F engagement or collaboration.

One of my goals is to teach students about copyright and fair use in a nuanced and practical way. This includes recognition that the majority of teachers do not follow the guidelines presented in the class, but that “setting the example” (i.e., social modeling) is a worthwhile pursuit. When I ask students to cite even public domain images, I explain that although not required by law, it informs the viewer that the image is public domain without them having to wonder. When talking about copyright infringement, the practical reality is that being sued is rare, cease and desist letters are more common, and even more important is staying out of trouble with supervisors. I cite university guidance and urge erring on the side of caution.

My vision for EME 2040 diverges from the state’s. The purported focus of the course is on use of technology in the classroom. I think the teacher’s personal use of technology for organization and productivity may be equally important. This is why I cover subjects like Evernote, email management, file management practices, password management, digital organization, and keyboard shortcuts. The dream, of course, is to get more done in less time. The reality often is that “spare” time just gets sucked up by more work. I ask many teachers, administrators, and professors a simple question: Do you get all your work done in under 40 hours per week? I have never heard anything but an emphatic NO! Educators are over-worked, and perhaps work-aholics as well. It comes with the trade.

A big challenge is grading somewhere around 1,000 assignments received from 70 students in a semester. Before, I was the TA to my supervisor sharing the workload with him, but now, I do it all myself. The practical reality is that giving detailed feedback on every assignment would lead me to becoming burned out. Instead, I opt for a policy that I can just give a paragraph or few lines of feedback for students receiving a 90% or above. I do focus on what they did well and what they could do better, but I only pull out the rubric if giving a B or below. I consistently type 100 words per minute, so I can write the feedback up quickly… watching students’ videos and reviewing their websites, PowerPoints, gradebooks, concept maps, et cetera is more work. But, I love it when so many of them go above and beyond the course requirements, and when their work introduces me to new subjects and perspectives.

As a technology instructor, it is surprising how much I prefer text as a medium of communication. I don’t like phone calls or video chats and finding images is hard. I would prefer writing a novella-length blog post to recording a two-minute video of myself. But, there is a place for text that is often lost in our push for multimedia integration. Any avid reader knows this.

I live about an hour from campus, so I put “by appointment only” for my office hours on my syllabus. I answer plenty of course messages and emails from students, but no one ever schedules an office meeting. The challenge, of course, is large, being a Ph.D. student teaching two sections of a course while trying to publish a manuscript and taking three doctoral courses at the same time. Many days, I wish I could just do the teaching job.

These thoughts were in no particular order, and obviously are not comprehensive. Hopefully they were an interesting insight into my work as a Graduate Teaching Associate.

Writing on finance, education, et cetera