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Online Teaching: Summer Session 2. Top of Week 2

July 14, 2008

I’m in the process of slogging through the first round of student essays — or what I’m calling “Weekly Writing.” The writing is pretty much what I expected, and I’ll probably discuss that in more detail in my next blog.

The biggest issues from this past week were mostly related to clarity: making sure students followed the instructions for assignments and for turning things in. One of the biggest changes I’m noticing in the way I handle things is that I’m becoming more insistent that students follow certain procedures. For example, I insist that they name document files in a certain way so that I know at first glance what it is. Initially, I felt a little guilty asking students to do this; but I decided that being a stickler in this regard would be better for my overall mood. Besides, the document title formula is not that complicated:

lastname_assignment

So, for example, a student file name should look something like this:

Smith_WW1

Jones_Quiz1

Boone_Summary1

WW, in case you didn’t know or couldn’t figure out, is “Weekly Writing.” I’ve also had to remind them that they need to put their names on the actual document (a no-brainer, I think, but I can imagine how a student might think that having his or her name in the email would be enough), and I’ve asked them, for my own sanity, to include the line number on the document as well. The line number is a four digit number that is the section number; since I have two classes, both of them emailing me documents at any given time, this is a major time and stress saver for me.

Online classes, I’m learning, function almost entirely on these kinds of seemingly innocuous requirements; creating a kind of course etiquette so that no one is confused and everyone knows what’s going on. In a F2F environment, this is part of “community building” — establishing standards so that the students and I all know what to expect and how to expect it.

This is the first time I’ve noticed any kind of real correlation between digital and F2F environments, beyond the course material itself. And I’m also realizing that, as detached as I still feel online classes are, the major burden of “community building” still falls on me. Maybe it’s understating to refer to it as “etiquette.” But I also think that most of what we use to define community, culture, and civilization as a whole relies on everyone knowing and understanding the expectations.

However, I am still struggling with the absence of the tangible; never seeing my students, never hearing them speak, and never touching an assignment are continue to create a disruptive level of dissonance on my part. In trying to understand the nature of online education, though, I am trying to come to terms with what may seem like some very basic things — like the nature of reality. A concept that is helping me to come to terms with this is the philosophical position termed meta reality, developed by Roy Bhaskar . For the more philosophically minded, Bhaskar’s concept has to do with how we describe the dualities that seem to define our existence: for example, happiness and sadness or freedom and oppression. What intrigues me about this particular notion it insists that, regardless of these dualities, that it is within our power to change them; that the world, separate as it is from us, is still dependent upon us. We can define our own boundaries. In a digital environment, reality becomes (for me) an increasingly important issue — because the reality of digital space is almost entirely an artificially created construct. Our interactions have the potential to be real, but the setting is not. The probability of genuine interaction in a digital environment has been improved by the popularity of social networking sites like Facebook, MySpace, and Xanga — particularly for digital natives and more or less comfortable adaptives (like myself). Issues of etiquette boil down to following simple instructions because the overall rules of engagement are clear — at least to natives and adaptives. (Ushering non-digital adaptives into a digital culture is another issue for another blog.) In terms of how I am coming to terms with the dualities that are defining my digital existence, I am finding that I am having to change the way I conceive things — such as the wonder abstraction that is reality — and that this shift is allowing me to at least see the potential for something as problematic as online education.

I am beginning to think of digital space geographically. When I started teaching, I was very conscious of classroom geography — the way in which a classroom, by its design, encourages or inhibits the educational process. Straight rows and immobile work tables make it difficult for students to see that they are a community; in every F2F classroom where I can, I move desks around so that students are facing one another. This forces them to see the other students as people, and in a workshop setting, enforces a kind of humanity in all the interactions.

In a digital environment, this is a challenge. We don’t see one another, and I haven’t even attempted to try a workshop style approach beyond the Discussion Board. One of the things I am noticing, though, is that the artificially created environment — in my case Blackboard — has some serious geographical issues. It’s not a hard program to learn to use; but students who are unfamiliar with it find it difficult to even turn in assignments or find where things are posted. Visually, it’s not a particularly appealing program, and this adds to the frustration of interacting through it. When I am shifting from Facebook to Blackboard, even I get (momentarily) annoyed. I find myself thinking things like “This shouldn’t be such a hassle.” (That’s the edited version of some of the things I think.) With the collaborative capabilities in Wiki formats as well as the ease of moving around in environments like Facebook, I find myself wondering why higher education isn’t innovating itself. Online education is exploding because of the increasing costs of education and transportation; yet institutions aren’t considering the digital geography that they are dumping students into.

This apathy is nothing new; but administrators, regents, and those who hold the purse strings need to realize that if we don’t make some fundamental changes, not only will we not be doing our job as educators, but we also run the risk of losing students — who may find that there are less complicated alternatives to a higher education. In order for digital education to function and to be successful, we must strive for clarity of intention, instruction, and interface. Otherwise, our students will see themselves merely as dollar signs and will see college only as a kind of intellectual fast food drive-thru.

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