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Online Teaching: Top of Week 5

June 29, 2008

This week is the last of Summer Session 1; Session 2 begins next week, on July 7th. My online 101 is coming to an end much in the same way that it began. Grades are being posted. Some students are opting to revise; others aren’t. I feel like I’ve learned some things about the medium — but I’m still not convinced that it’s an optimal replacement for face to face teaching. I can see, with some tinkering, how it could be useful for people who are traveling, or are overseas, or are geographically isolated from traditional opportunities in higher education. The biggest issue, however, is planning. When online education took off, it was seen simply as a replacement for a chalkboard and face to face class discussion; the thinking behind the initial implementation of these programs was that it was simply a better tool — like when a TV & VCR replaced film reels for educational films and when overhead projectors made it easier for teachers to plan out lessons and not have to write on and erase the board so much.

The fact is, however, that an online class is a completely different thing from a traditional classroom, in every sense of the word; it has even given rise to discussions about how digital rhetoric is unique from other kinds of rhetoric because the environment — the context — is different. Most people who are familiar with wiki, social networks, blogs, and the different media outlets available in digital format understand these differences almost innately. Sadly, these are not the people who are in a position to change the way things are done. I have accepted (grudgingly) that online education is here to stay; but there is no wisdom in simply following the trend if we don’t actively work to improve the medium and enhance the entire educational experience — for students and for teachers.

Online degrees are achieving new respectability, primarily because traditional institutions, like ASU, are planning to offer new programs in entirely digital environments. Over the past ten years, low residency programs have grown in popularity, such as the MFA through Spalding and the MA through Wesleyan; and now Old Dominion is offering a low res PhD. I see no reason why this trend would slow down; and since it is here to stay, it behooves people like me, instructors, to figure out the best way to incorporate technology into our pedagogies. But this also means that the people in administrative positions need to do more than rubber stamp policies and make pithy statements about being at the forefront of education in the new millennium.

One issue that must be dealt with is the knowledge gap. Many traditional students are more technologically proficient when it comes to discussion boards and the use of programs like Blackboard, PowerPoint, and the various word processing programs — this is especially true when the students come from middle class or higher economic backgrounds where technology in the home is more than common. However, returning or non-traditional students, as well as students from disadvantaged backgrounds — either geographic, economic, or both (since these issues are nearly always tied together) lack the knowledge — the context — to make online education a useful experience. Two of the students in my online course are returning or non-traditional students; they are older, and are not, as Marc Prensky describes, digital natives. Online programs appeal to these kinds of students because they work and have families, or because the thought of walking into a traditional classroom after X number of years away is intimidating. However, they are not always aware of the perils of an online environment. While it is true that, in my experience, non-traditional students have added motivation and tend to be more focused and active learners, it is also true that these students in an online environment have to contend with more than leaning new information or developing potentially latent critical thinking skills. They must also learn rules of engagement, and they are placed at a serious disadvantage when pooled together with students who are, just because of their age, more technologically literate.

Naturally, we can’t separate these students from the techno-savvy kids; and I am not suggesting that we should do so. We should, however, seek to develop better software as well as ensure that each student is technologically up to date. This may mean developing a class (for credit) that will give students who are unfamiliar with online education a chance to learn. It should mean that students who do not have access to newer computers — which are necessary to run most programs that have come out in the past 5 years based simply on the amount of memory they require — should be given access. There are always computer sales the the month or so prior to the beginning of the Fall semester; moreover, many companies will give educational discounts. However, this does no good if the sale price is still more than a potential student can pay. Therefore, it makes sense to me universities should aspire to and seek funding in order to provide all students with a working laptop — both online and traditional students. Students could opt out if they have a computer themselves; but this would allow disadvantaged students to at least have the same technological tools. This won’t solve the problem of context — but at least it will give a necessary leg up.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Harvey Craft permalink
    June 30, 2008 12:58 am

    What is the role of homework in planning, teaching, and ultimately in grading?

  2. ohioexpatriate permalink
    June 30, 2008 3:36 am

    The role of homework depends on the class; in most cases, it is a way for students to practice whatever was gone over in class. In terms of teaching and planning, it is a common exercise that can be discussed by the entire class — it offers context. For grading… well… it gives teachers something to grade, which ultimately shows a student’s progress in the class.

  3. July 1, 2008 3:24 pm

    The latter issue is a big one for me, especially in writing. Living in a culture so thoroughly entrenched in the dogma of the end product, for a class that translates into “the grade”.

    “Mr. Jones, what’s my grade?”

    “Do you really care beyond your GPA?”

    In writing instruction, the end product matters more than anything else to students, despite the emphasis on the process itself within class. “Just give me a grade and let’s get on with it.”

    So, how do we motivate them to care about their writing to begin with? One big perilous start I find with many of my colleagues is a compulsory move to forcefeed students a lot subject matter and material they don’t care about so that they can write a paper about it. A 19 year old college freshman doesn’t give a rat’s ass about Social Security Reform — and those that do usually have such an ironclad opinion stemming from one top-down agenda or another; thus they can’t effectively write about the subject, either.

    Is there a way to get them to really care? Would scaring the crap out of them somehow change anything? How do you frighten a trenchantly cynical generation? Keep this in mind: starting this year, our college freshmen are going to largely be the first generation who have spent the entirety of their formative years growing up in a climate of warfare and paranoia “concretized” as a response to “terrorism”. Iraq and Afghanistan are routine, the status quo. They are facts of life. Whereas for us, watching the invasion on live TV was a shock to the system, for our students, it’s inconceivable that American troops could leave Iraq any time soon.

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