Distance Ed Doesn’t Mean We Have to Keep Our Distance

And so another semester teaching an online class begins. Late night emails complaining about the technology, long strings of curse words directed at the computer, blurry eyes reading blog entry after blog entry, feelings of apathy and disconnect sometime around spring break (or every Friday whichever comes first)–and that’s just me. I would hate to think how the students feel.

I’ll admit that I have a love/hate relationship with online classes. Clearly, the online environment, in particular the asynchronous class, offers students access to educational opportunities they might not ever have. My online classes are peopled with full-time workers, contract workers on swing shifts, parents with children at home, adults who are primary care-givers for their aging parents, and others. Of course, 85% of my students also live on campus and are enrolled in face-to-face classes that meet 100 yards from my office.

But that’s okay. There’s plenty of evidence out there that students can learn quite well in the online class. They can break off manageable chunks, work at optimum times, and, when done correctly, the online class encourages active learning. Perhaps just as importantly, we have consistently in the last 20 years over-stated the necessity of the collaborative, in-class learning environment. Individual contemplation and struggling with work by ourselves has a great deal of value and I’ve watched too many of my students use the classroom environment as a crutch. Their ideas are valid only insofar as their classmates agree. Critical thinking and group-think are two different things.

But that doesn’t mean the online environment can leave students all to their own devices. As humans, we crave some connection: interaction and articulation of ideas is a vital part of learning. We need to read, think, and then do. The first two can take place at 3:00 in the morning, but the application, the doing, needs an audience and, most importantly, an informed critical response. And I’m sure has heck not working at 3 a.m.

And that’s one thing that makes online learning tough. I might note here, and I’m sure I’ll write about this at some future date, this need to have meaningful interaction is one reason the MOOCs are not a sustainable model for higher education. While we can automate a good number of things, we can’t automate the human response to nuances of language, expression, and attitude. There is no doubt I can have quizzes graded by a computer, but I can’t program my computer to recognize the subtle strengths and weaknesses of my students. This student struggles with dates, that one with names, the other student mistakes theme for plot, and Johnny-boy over there has never met an adjective he wasn’t willing to over use. Shelly is trying to be creative and funny, but the letters and symbols just come across as clunky and awkward. An automated system can’t address those individual problems and student desires. There’s a reason less than 10% of MOOC students finish the course.

Meaningful interaction, simply put, requires a connection that can’t always be met across space and time. There’s a reason the face to face classroom looks very similar today to the classroom of 1650. It’s not because teachers are lazy or unimaginative: a well-run classroom is a work of art. A brush stroke of information here, a little blurring of lines there, a blending colors and, eventually, the picture comes into focus. Some times it’s a masterpiece that goes on the wall and some days we need to bury it in the basement.

The online environment has to try and take the best parts of the traditional class and reproduce it. The real innovation in online learning is the ability to bastardize the face to face environment and merge it with technology that connects us in both words and images.

Doing so, as many others have pointed out, is difficult. Too often, teachers are forced to adapt pedagogy to technology instead of demanding that technology adapt to pedagogy. And doing so requires not Massively Open Online Classes but Manageable Open Online Classes. While I’m sure it’s possible to feel intimately connected to a 100,000 people, it’s a whole lot easier to work closely with 25.

The most important thing that happens in a classroom, whether online or face to face, is mastery of the material. Nothing, I tell my students, replaces knowledge of facts, dates, processes, formulas, and theories. Those are the foundation upon which learning builds. However, sharing knowledge, applying theory, connecting dates, and adapting processes makes us human and keeps us from turning into a walking wikipedia entry (or the Unabomber). So I’ll keep yelling and cursing at the software (denying my own culpability, of course) for another semester and we’ll see what kind of connections we can create this semester.

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About John Wegner
John Wegner is a Professor of English where he also serves as the Dean of the Freshman College. He and Lana, his wife, have been married over 25 years. They are the parents of two great sons who (so far) haven't ever needed bail money.

2 Responses to Distance Ed Doesn’t Mean We Have to Keep Our Distance

  1. I stumbled recently on a lecture about early language learning, and its dependence on social cues to happen at all – face-to-face results couldn’t be duplicated by a video interaction.

    Yes, there’s lots I could learn online (and in the past I’ve learned plenty by opening books – that ancient technology from the 15th century). But synthesizing it all without someone to guide me through it can be a haphazard business, and sometimes with awful results. Having someone’s face to study, while asking a question, is more than just a warm fuzzy.

    Good luck talking across the ether.

  2. jmgoyder says:

    Oh how well I remember the online dilemma!

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