Online -> Mainstream

Available under a Creative Commons License
Giulia Forsythe, http://www.flickr.com/photos/gforsythe/5552385806/

“Will online learning diminish the face-to-face community that is the heart of the college experience? Will it elevate functional courses in business and marginalize subjects that are harder to digest in an online format, like philosophy?”

I don’t know that I would want to have a fully online college experience, unless my personal situation made getting to and from a campus impossible. My college experience was all about extensive reading and problem sets, which then became the basis for class discussions. I think I went to office hours at least once for almost every professor I had, either for an essay conference or a lab report that was going nowhere. To do an online class was unthinkable. Google didn’t exist when I was an undergrad, and Yahoo! was just starting out. Chat conducted via IRC required knowledge of the correct / commands to move into a room with other users. I dialed up via a modem to check my e-mail and not much else.

So I didn’t have an online experience as a student. I learned about HTML and course web pages while I was a graduate student, and three years into my PVAMU career, I taught my first completely online freshman composition. There was about a 50% failure rate, mainly because half the class either never logged in or never turned in any work. This fact makes me pause when I read a question in Brooks’s article like, “What happens to the students who don’t have enough intrinsic motivation to stay glued to their laptop hour after hour?” In my experience, at least, they fall behind. I don’t think it’s analogous to the students who don’t have enough motivation to come to class two or three days per week, since many students manage to skip most class meetings and still pass their courses, as long as they show up on the days when major exams are given or projects are due. Logging into a CMS/LMS on a deadline day is great, but if the required reading and discussions haven’t been completed, pulling off a strong submission can be a challenge.

I do maintain an explicit schedule. Work is due Friday at 11pm; if there are several assignments in a week, some are due Friday and some are due Saturday by 11pm. All the work is available and visible from the first day of class so students can look and plan ahead. I hope the materials are excellent; in my Professional Writing for Electronic Media class, students have 30 different lectures–some my original materials, some links to better web pages–along with 9 podcasts and samples of all major assignments. Of course, there’s always room for improvement.

I think one problem with online courses is students’ fear of failure: they don’t want to do something “wrong” so they don’t do an assignment. In a face-to-face classroom, teachers explain and ask for feedback, which means that students sitting quietly in the second row get the help they need just by showing up; in an online class, students have to choose to click on lectures and to message the instructor with a question. They have to put themselves out there a little more. They have to admit that they are students, still learning. Negative experiences with other instructors, who ignore e-mails or respond to questions with a “didn’t you read the materials?” putdown, may contribute to students’ reluctance to ask for help.

Most recently, I’ve engaged in a slightly more intrusive model: if a student doesn’t log into my class for over a week, I send e-mails to every account I can find for that student. Sometimes that’s the push that a student needs, realizing that someone is paying attention. Sometimes there’s just silence and no reply, no matter how many e-mails or tweets I send.

I also allow students to make up all work. Some may see this as a “quality assurance” issue, but have you ever tried to write 10 thoughtful blogs, create an online portfolio, respond to at least 12 discussions, and write a few papers at the end of a busy semester? I figure if a student is willing to do the work, the least I can do is grade it.

Don’t get me wrong–it’s a lot of work, especially when I start the semester with 32-35 participants and I’m looking at 60 graded assignments, small and large, for each one. I try to comment on most blog posts (over 300 comments if all students keep up), respond to at least one tweet per student, and get grades / feedback returned within a few days of deadlines. If I had four classes like this, I personally would never get off of my computer struggle to maintain the same level of interaction. I don’t know how professors like John Boyer teach over 2600 students in a single class except to theorize that there aren’t multiple research papers like we tend to include in English classes.

But I’m intrigued by the possibilities!

References

Brooks, D. (2012, May 3). The campus tsunami. The New York Times. Retrieved May 5, 2012, from http://www.nytimes.com/2012/05/04/opinion/brooks-the-campus-tsunami.html

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