The fine art of educational conversation.

5 03 2010

I was about to send this link over to UD, but then I decided I’d like to handle a piece of it myself first. The story is a New York Times “Room for Debate” feature on getting college degrees online. I hope UD sees fit to take on the essays by the obvious hucksters there [DIY U? Oh please spare me!], but it’s something from a critic with whom I agree that’s inspired my post.

This is Mark Bauerlein from Emory:

In one area, however, instruction works more effectively the old-fashioned way through face-to-face exchanges between teacher and student: writing. Writing classes don’t involve a body of knowledge, and lessons there aren’t easily standardized. You respond to each class differently, recognizing strengths and weaknesses and blocks and deficiencies in unique combination from student to student.

The best occasions happen in the office. A student brings in a rough draft, hands you a copy, and the session begins.

“Look at that verb in your opening,” I say. “What do you think?”

“Passive?” student mumbles.

“How about an active verb, one that lets us drop that preposition, too?”

Student ponders, tries out a few, then we settle on a better choice.

I move on. “How about that phrase at the end, ‘gets his message across’— a little commonplace, no?”

“Yeah,” student agrees.

“Let’s find something more precise, more vivid.” Three minutes later, student has worked it out. The session continues for another 20 minutes, tackling diction, transitions, modifiers, etc.

The problem is obvious. To do the same thing online would take two hours! Each query, comment, suggestion, and rejoinder would have to go into print and travel from screen to screen.

I actually do teaching writing online in the sense that I require draft papers to be submitted via e-mail so that I can mark them up electronically and send them back to students faster. If I only had paper copies, it would take two class periods before the paper is due to suggest revisions and get the papers back to the students. Super-dedicated me, this way I get to go back and forth with students as many as six times (which I think was my record) before the final paper is due.

That said, I agree with Bauerlein, sometimes you just have to tell them to come into the office and talk to you (particularly that student whose draft I read six times). These are the instances when you need to respond instantly and incessantly to get your point across and you can’t do that in an online chat room. Indeed, I’ll usually dedicate a whole session to workshop everybody’s paper in class so that they all end learning from each other’s example.

I’ve always said that my favorite part of teaching is when I can shut up and the students teach themselves. I admit to never having taught an online course myself, but how often can you get them all in the same virtual room at the same time? And even if you can, how can you be sure they’re not watching “American Idol” during class time?

Online education mostly makes me sad for reasons of quality control, but now that I think of it it also makes me sad because virtual students miss moments like that and all sorts of other things that make actual teaching and learning loads of fun.




2 responses

5 03 2010

“Online education mostly makes me sad for reasons of quality control, but now that I think of it it also makes me sad because virtual students miss moments like that and all sorts of other things that make actual teaching and learning loads of fun.”

But, as a few commenters note over at the NYT, quality control, missed moments, and vacant (aka virtual in another sense) students are also problems in meatspace classrooms too.

I think a few of the commenters really hit the note by remarking on the cash-cow nature of online courses that have too many students with too little attention span and too little talent for the educational enterprise. All made worse by the abysmal pay most faculty get paid, especially adjuncts who often get rooked into designed these time-sink online courses from scratch.

And seriously…how is a pre-recorded lecture followed by a multiple choice test scored by a computer any different from an in-class course that does the same (sans recording)? I mean, other than the fact that the student can re-play the lecture over-and-over-and-over again…and still miss all the main points in the lecture (and the book…and the now-mandatory lecture notes/powerpoint slides, etc.).

On a different point, I think I disagree with Bauerlein: I once taught a writing class where the students refused to write (also noted by a commenter on the NYT site). It was impossible to do in-class exercises because the students who wouldn’t write either never brought work to class for critique or refused to do the work when I assigned them to write in the room. It was me and about 50% of the class learning something, but all the others were there to poison the room. I really think that course would have worked better with me reading their submissions and offering personal critique for review via e-mail or chat (along the lines of what you describe you do).

But, that was a sophomore level class. And many of those sophomore-through-seniors really shouldn’t have passed freshman comp. How’s that for quality control offline?


29 03 2010
Why not just go read a bunch of books and skip paying tuition? « More or Less Bunk

[…] aren’t bothering to ask that question either. Here’s the author of the book (mentioned in this space before) DIY U (the name just gives me hives) writing in Inside Higher Education: Open educational content […]

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