Is there trouble in online education?

30 Jul

When I was first told I was going to teach an online class last semester, I responded with the same cynicism that Dr. Mark Edmundson, professor of English at the University of Virginia, did when he guest-penned a commentary piece for the New York Times last week called “The Trouble With Online Education.”

“Internet learning promises to make intellectual life more sterile and abstract than it already is,” he wrote, “and also, for teachers and for students alike, far more lonely.”

I agreed with Dr. Edmundson wholly and completely—before I taught online.

That’s because I could only picture an online course as a poor substitute for an in-person experience. I imagined video-taped, canned lectures broadcast to hundreds of marginally (if at all) motivated students with few student-teacher interactions, or at least few so-called organic student-teacher interactions. (E-mail is a poor substitute for a real conversation; with this point, I completely agree).

Needless to say, I approached the idea of teaching online with a great deal of trepidation.

Luckily for me, I was only a teaching assistant—not the primary instructor, who designed the course. And luckily for the students, the particular professor under whom I was teaching had a very different notion of what it means to teach an online course.

As Dr. Edmundson rightly acknowledges in his op-ed: “Every memorable class is a bit like a jazz composition. There is the basic melody that you work with. It is defined by the syllabus. But there is also a considerable measure of improvisation against that disciplining background.”

And I agree true that it’s more difficult to improvise in an online course—but it’s not impossible.

What this requires, however, is that professors re-conceive of the idea of what it means to teach a class when they approach the online format.

The professor I taught under, for example, did not conceive of the online environment as an opportunity to stream taped lectures. Instead, he went through months—years, even—of course design to create an online environment that paid homage in some ways to the gaming experience, setting up extra activities and discussion forums for which students were sectioned off into teams and could earn extra points and battle each other for intellectual glory at the end of each unit in a discussion forum which he judged.

The battles required each team to draft an extra two essays for no credit—so, just for fun—at the end of each unit.

My sections never missed a battle, and were enthusiastic about it almost the entire time. For anyone who has struggled to get students to complete assignments on time or at all, the idea of being able to get students to write a dozen extra short essays per semester for no reward whatsoever is somewhat astonishing. What’s more, I think they retained the material better for having done so.

Dr. Edmundson notes that a good lecturer in a classroom can “feel when the class is engaged and when it slips off. And they do something about it.” He suggests it’s incredibly difficult, if not impossible, to achieve the same online.

There are two issues I take with this basic idea:

  1. In a (large) lecture class, where the professor is viewed as the ‘giver’ of knowledge, the student is most often forced into a passive role, absorbing things and taking notes. While a professor might be able to adjust his speech, his explanations, or his tone to better capture his class’s attention, this does not necessarily ensure that authentic learning is taking place.
  2. It is possible to adapt and adjust in an online course, too, if it is designed the right way.

For example, in the course in which I was a teaching assistant, the professor provided canned lectures to the students each unit. But the lectures were broken up into what you could describe as bite-sized bits. He broke them up at around 10 minutes, thus providing a half dozen to a dozen 10-minute clips per unit rather than an hour-long clip.

Like it or not, students are accustomed to jumping from one thing to another online—and even in viewing things. It’s likely that in a big lecture class, a number of students are texting their friends or going on Facebook on their laptops every 10 minutes anyways. At least in this instance, students can watch a clip, go online without missing anything, and then come back to the lecture.

The clips were also not videos of the professor talking; instead, they included inventive graphics, clips, and segments of videos which helped explain the material better than an image of his face or a video of his in-class lecture ever could.

Further, the course was offered to 300+ students—but not only did the professor supervise the course, but there were at least six additional teaching assistants who were assigned to a specific group of students, checking in with them often and monitoring discussion boards, where students were expected to post in response to guided questions.

I admit that I was afraid that the student posts would be terrible; I anticipated lots of informal language and internet lingo, such as: “OMG, can’t believe we had to read Virgil :(.” But that rarely—if ever—showed up.

Instead, students who normally would have hidden in the back of the class or perhaps not spoken were required to post in the forum so that they wouldn’t lose participation points. And I found that, given more time to think, and given the pressure of having to commit those thoughts to writing, the students wrote about the works we read that semester with a greater attention to detail than I found in my in-person weekly discussion groups.

Needless to say, I was shocked.

Dr. Edmundson wrote in the Times: “Online education is a one-size-fits-all endeavor. It tends to be a monologue and not a real dialogue. The Internet teacher, even one who responds to students via e-mail, can never have the immediacy of contact that the teacher on the scene can, with his sensitivity to unspoken moods and enthusiasms.”

While I may agree with Dr. Edmundson’s assessment in the theoretical sense, in a practical one I couldn’t disagree more—if the online course is designed and conceived of differently than an in-person course.

There was no monologue in the online course I helped teach. The posts I mentioned above were all to a group forum, and I often found that the students not only posted but read each other’s posts and challenged each other’s ideas, engaging in an online (written) conversation about the topic at hand.

I begrudgingly admitted at the end of the semester that I saw more student-to-student engagement in the online forum than I’d ever seen in a lecture hall.

In the beginning of the semester, I couldn’t imagine teaching a course online. By the end of the semester, I couldn’t imagine having taught this particular course any other way.

Some students might prefer, and learn best from, an in-class experience. I came to realize, though, that while I personally prefer to learn from an in-class experience, there are students who may just learn more online.

Dr. Edmundson is right to note that “a truly memorable college class, even a large one, is a collaboration between teacher and students.”

He goes on to say: “It’s a one-time-only event. Learning at its best is a collective enterprise, something we’ve known since Socrates.”

I agree with his statement about learning—but I simply disagree that it’s always exclusive to the in-person classroom.

Published last week by the Stonebridge Press and its newspapers affiliates in Massachusetts and Connecticut.

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