You Say You Want a Revolution…

In yet another article on the promise of online learning, the Washington Post offers a blog entry from Larry Cuban, a long-time educator passionate about basing educational practice in sound research. The title of the article? “Why K-12 Online Learning Isn’t Really Revolutionizing Teaching.”

My position: online learning is not going to revolutionize American education. It does have the potential, however, to enhance students’ experience if teachers as well as STUDENTS are open to new pedagogy.

Cuban points out, “The pedagogical epicenter of most online instruction is squarely within the teacher-centered tradition.” I can’t disagree. Images like the one below, from 1975…

1975: And the Changes To Come

…haven’t changed that much. The teacher is there, an authority hovering and helping at a moment’s notice. Whether students are looking at flashcards like the ones in the machines above, reading textbooks, writing in their journals, or staring at a computer screen, the teacher is calling the shots.

But, if you will permit me to center on my own teaching tradition…as a college instructor dependent on student evaluations, I was dismayed, some years back, when my students lamented that there weren’t enough lectures or videos telling them exactly how to do everything in my online course about social media use. For instance, I asked students to design a short Prezi presentation on any professional topic of their choice, using a class account. I told them they could work together, use any web sites or how-to videos, etc. I told them it was OK if the final result was rough — they were learning, after all. I encouraged them to play around with Prezi’s features and have fun, putting together something they could include in a work portfolio someday.

Well.

“I am practically teaching myself!” many complained. That was actually my goal, to let students stumble through the web tools and to lean on each other for assistance. Yet it may have been too far out of their comfort zone. Some wanted more directions, more examples, and less work — there is a lot of work in the class, to allow students to practice again and again and again. Two even levied the damning charge of “this teacher is doing nothing for her paycheck.”

The next semester, I explained my approach. They would be frustrated and confused and even angry, I said, but this is how their own students might feel when faced with new technology (my course is aimed at preservice teachers). It might take them some time to catch on, but learning to learn is a valuable skill. I graduated the expectations, so during the first week of a 10-week project, students would get full credit for trying. Later, they would have to show some competence, and by the end of the project, full credit only went to those submissions that demonstrated mastery. I even offered to proof the major projects, for those concerned about their grades.

Nope.

I got the same requests for additional guidance. I suspect that my college students, stressed over their GPAs, their heavy course loads, their outside employment, their families, and their activities, didn’t have the time to flail around teaching themselves. This time around, several stated they would prefer to take the class in a traditional classroom, where they would get “better” instruction.

And thus it was that I downloaded Camtasia and started my own YouTube channel full of how-to videos. I also started accepting 95% of the course assignments through the last day of classes, so students who fell behind wouldn’t just drop the course or take a failing grade. I can’t count the number of times I have e-mailed a frantic young person some variation on “It’s OK. I take late work. I want you to practice using these tools. If you will do the assignments, I will give you credit.”

The latest version of my social media course includes upwards of 20 instructional videos (updated every few months as new versions of Web 2.0 tools emerge), even more text lectures, some podcasts, and examples of all projects. I conference with students via e-mail and Twitter, as well as in person — I have offered to Skype-conference for the last three years, but no one has taken me up on that.

I have taught this class in a traditional classroom, and I never will do it again. It struck me as ridiculous to stand at the front of a room, showing students various sites via LCD projector, while they sat there staring. “We need computers,” they said. Great! I taught the class in a computer classroom, where I’m not sure it went much better. I went with a flipped classroom model; they were supposed to watch some videos for homework, and then our class time would be work time where they had me and their peers for assistance. Videos went unwatched. Computers were used for Facebook and e-mail. Students tried to walk out after 20 minutes of a 80-minute session, stating they would “finish the work at home.” Some tried to enlist me as their personal tutor, standing by their side for the whole time.

Some students say my online class is the easiest English class they ever have taken at the university. For others, it’s the most challenging. How do I balance the level of instruction I give? Where is the line between too much spoon-feeding and so little scaffolding that students feel like they’re in free-fall? Is a less teacher-centered tradition the best call for all learners? For all subjects?

My latest idea is to offer the course in a computer classroom (if I can get one, as they are scarce on my campus) with completely optional attendance, so those who want a teacher can have that while those who want to work from their apartments at 3am can have that option. “Well, why didn’t you do that in the first place?” you might be thinking. I welcome you to the world of course fees, attendance certification, traditional vs. hybrid vs. online workloads to comply with new credit hour standards, etc. Students who come to class might need different homework than those who used the course site all week or than those who came one day but went online the other, so everyone puts in equivalent minutes. My head hurts thinking about the logistics.

I have student success rates and graduation rates to consider, and for all my tinkering with this course, I still have about the same proportion of students who drop or fail. Maybe it’s me. I’m sure my pedagogy needs work. But I also suspect that until students become more comfortable with something other than a teacher-centered environment, online classes where they hold the reins will be a hard sell. It’s hardly a revolution.

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