So Easy Even A Porn Star Can Do It

onlineeducationOne of the major difficulties of teaching online, as I noted in yesterday’s blog, is creating connections between the student and faculty and student to student interactions. We know such things are important to student persistence, but we also know that the cyber-world, even in our Facebook-era willingness to share the minutia of our lives, can create isolation.

Don’t get me wrong. Isolation in and of itself is not necessarily destructive. Good learning, sometimes great insight, often occurs when we are by ourselves. There’s nothing wrong with being alone, being an introvert, and liking the quiet corners of the library.

But I’ve also never met a student who didn’t, at some point, have a question or need to at least know she wasn’t alone in the wilderness. Don’t misread me. In my face to face classes, I never have participation grades. I realize it’s trendy these days to discuss the difference between attendance and presence (attendance is showing up and presence is active engagement some folks argue), but I was never an active participant in classes. Being quiet, though, doesn’t equate to disengagement and I think we do ourselves a disservice when we engage in psychoanalysis in the classroom (unless, of course, you are teaching a psychoanalysis course).

The online world, though, creates some problems with regards to these issues. I’ve seen plenty of students participate (be present, I guess) with inane, useless commentary and I’m certain I have students who have attended (logged on) and walked away from the computer. The student I worry about is the one who is quiet and, in the online world, seemingly alone. This is the kid who sits in the back, watching, paying attention: he enjoys being around people but doesn’t feel compelled to speak. (Unlike the student who never met a moment of silence he could endure.) This student is in danger of falling behind, slipping through the cracks, getting unplugged–pick your image.

This is the educational mass in the middle. My goal in life is push the good students a little further (and then get the heck out of the way) These are the kids (like the 4 in my class right now) who complete the first weeks’ assignments within 24 hours. I’ll admit I spend very little energy on the bad students. (These are the two who haven’t logged in and won’t respond to my messages. I’m sure that sounds harsh and I am sorry those kids are disengaged and apathetic, but no one is forcing them to register for my class.) Simply put–good students are going to get the work done (that’s why they are good students) and bad students won’t get the work done (that’s why they are bad students) but that kid who wants to learn, tries hard, and usually earns (yes–earns) a C or D. Him I want to help. I tell my students I’ll give them the same effort they give me.

These are also the kids who struggle in online environments. They have questions they sometimes don’t know how to articulate. They need to hear other people’s questions. They need to see other people working hard. They need to connect to me and their colleagues.

And so we blog. During our semesters, my students do the standard reflection-type blog (answer the following/apply this idea to this work/blah,blah,blah) but we also do little mini group sessions where 5 students discuss a topic. Sometimes we do this discussion on skype. Both of these get the students in contact with each other and they both serve their purpose. (Note–ASU uses Blackboard so our blog function is a bit different than something like wordpress. It’s pretty limited. While I could require that each student create a wordpress blog, that would cause more problems than it’s worth.)

But it’s the video blog that works the best. At the end of the day, putting a face with the name, seeing a classmate articulate an idea, watching her face as she talks, and finding out if this is the kind of person who lets his cats crawl on the desk takes the distance out of distance ed. If seeing people didn’t matter to us, we would all still be listening to the radio and televisions would be a novelty.

Even so, students express some hesitation about creating a video. While we often think of college-age kids as digital natives, around my office we call them digital zombies. They aren’t afraid of technology, but they don’t really understand it. They’re more than happy to punch buttons, swipe screens, and type commands, but if it involves more than two steps they are looking for a new app.

So we become movie stars. I record my lectures, sit at my desk, pull books off my shelf, stand up, get interrupted by the phone when I forget to turn it off, but most of all I try to look human. And I ask them to do so also. Their short, 5 minute videos turn us into a class of people. It’s like online dating, only for a grade.

And if my students express some doubts about making videos, I tell them if a porn star can make videos, so can you. (Although, I should probably apologize to any porn stars out there. Evidently, I’m guilty of stereotyping and in light of the Journal of Sex Research article–why didn’t I choose that major in college–I might have to change my “So Easy”statement.) Just remember, I add, the video is for learning; it’s not a career choice.

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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.

One Response to So Easy Even A Porn Star Can Do It

  1. Your simple sentence, “they need to hear other people’s questions,” is spot-on. I went through most of my classes like that, a thousand years ago – I knew the people in the room that I could depend on to ask the question that I was afraid would make me look stupid to ask.

    I got over it. (At some point I discovered that my questions were actually pretty incisive.)

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