CC-licensed photo by walker cleavelands.
Last summer, i wrote what might be my most well-read blog post about my dissatisfaction with online education… both the class I was taking at the time and the class I just finished teaching came to mind. there was, as i saw it, a lot to improve on, but i didn’t think that the mechanics of the class I taught were anywhere near as bad as the one that I was taking.
Yesterday’s New York Times had an article about Idaho teachers resisting technology. My favorite paragraph from the article is:
She said she was mystified by the requirement that students take online courses. She is taking some classes online as she works toward her master’s degree, and said they left her uninspired and less informed than in-person classes. Ms. Rosenbaum said she could not fathom how students would have the discipline to sit in front of their computers and follow along when she had to work each minute to keep them engaged in person.
Published just as I finished a semester taking two online classes and still teaching one of my own, I think the online classroom is a topic worth visiting again.
In the first online class (Class A) I took this semester, things were very structured — something that, as the class started, I was very happy with. The course met synchronously every week, and there were no other class discussions or sessions outside of the weekly meetings. The course was front-loaded with LOADS of reading and every assignment except one was group work due on very specific dates — even the final paper was a group project, difficult when everybody in the group lives in a different place, most in different timezones, and some in different countries. The course built towards two collaborative classes with students in Japan and seemed to lose focus after that, and the wheels all but came off the bus when the professor took time during the last class to explain why the course was laid out as it was and what her goals for the class were — we were getting this at the very end of an instructional design course. Group papers.. and the endless Adobe Connect meetings to facilitate them… were just a terrible exercise in frustration. I got no feedback during the trimester on how I was doing, no grade on any assignments, and I’m still waiting for a final semester grade.
The second class I just finished (Class B) up had me worried from the very beginning. Recalling the class I took last summer, there were no meeting times, just a lot of discussion on the class Blackboard space. Everyone was required to contribute on Blackboard every week, and there was an optional synchonrous meeting every week on Adobe Connect. To be honest, I went to the optional sessions — even though it was clear that they would have no bearing on class performance — to make up for my infrequent and last-minute weekly comments. The professor gave regular feedback via direct email, discussion feedback, and during the webinars. Both papers due for the class had suggested due dates, and I did much worse meeting that deadline with the final paper. I ended up really happy with how the course went, not only because the grade I got ended up being pretty good, and not only becuase I rather enjoyed the subject matter, but mostly because I felt like I was an active part of the class for the entire semester. Not only that, but I felt like I had a voice throughout, and a professor who was about as responsive as I could have hoped he was. (Several of us in the class are even going to do an online book club with the professor in the coming weeks, reading both The Shallows and Constitution 3.0 and discussing them online.)
“The role of the teacher definitely does change in the 21st century. There’s no doubt,” Mr. Luna said. “The teacher does become the guide and the coach and the educator in the room helping students to move at their own pace.”
That’s from that Times article, and it makes such a great point.. except I don’t get why it seems to be missing an unwritten “… and there’s nothing we can do about that.”
I’ve conducted my own class this year very much like I did last year, though we went straight to world-watching at the start of the course with the #Occupy movement. Now, with half a year left, we’re going to get in and produce our own media and see what the social aspect does to it. We’ve accelerated the order of things from last year, but the class is still split between a weekly synchronous meeting (this year we’re using Adobe Connect instead of Elluminate) and an online space for discussions and handing in assignments (this year we’re using Schoology instead of Moodle). While I like how it’s going — the classes have great discussions, and it’s very interesting to me that two different sections have entirely different discussions on the same topics. I’ve also had the great luxury of tying into a US history course that was talking about the American Revolution as we were recapping the Arab Spring and #Occupy protests.
I like how my own class has gone, but I’m conflicted. I liked the freedom that that Class B afforded me as a student, and because I got regular feedback, I didn’t mind the lack of a mandatory synchronous meeting. But I’m also about to jump into ds106, which should really shake up my ideas of what can be done in an online class and absolutely destroy my conceptions of what an online classroom should look like. I’m very interested in how the whole MOOC thing might translate to K-12 education, and the whole thing makes me wonder if a synchronous component to an online course is just trying to fit the standard definition of what school is into a new construct, one that’s more participatory than prescribed, more choose-your-own-adventure than textbook.
I don’t think that I’ve seen an online class that has clicked on every level yet, but I have to believe that it’s possible. There’s obviously another chapter to this story coming (and that’s ok, since no modern story is ever finished)…