The Only Thing to Fear

I was in an interesting exchange today across multiple levels of the web on which I would like to reflect further.

It started when my friend Eduardo Peirano tweeted a link to me and two others about an article in the May 29th edition of The Chronicle of Higher Education.  In “I’ll Never Do It Again,” Elayne Clift laid out her reasons for never teaching online again.  Her five reasons included:

  1. “Virtual community” is the ultimate oxymoron.
  2. The lack of immediacy in communication is maddening.
  3. The quality of education is compromised in online learning.
  4. Show the money (more work for the same pay)
  5. Online teaching can be very punishing (requires more time)

She wrapped up her comments with:

“Weary and obsessed, I began to feel that, despite my best efforts, I was not up to the task, not in control, not meeting my own standards. On top of that, I suspected my students didn’t like me very much. That hurt. I began to break out in rashes and suffer sleepless nights.

That’s when I knew that I would not do it again and would chalk it up to experience — even if that decision meant hanging up my chalk altogether. Try to talk me down. Tell me I didn’t give it enough time. Call me old-fashioned and out-of-date. Just don’t call me to teach online.

I’ll leave that to (younger?) teachers who like living in a virtual world of virtual students with virtual goals, capacities, and ideas. Me? I’ll stick to the virtues of live human interaction — in the classroom and elsewhere — in a world rapidly becoming, as some of my students might say, “totally unreal!”

Eduardo knew that this 59-year-old (younger?) faculty would rise to the bait!  He had started a discussion forum around this article in his Ning site for Higher Education – College 2.0.  In his post, he noted:

“Aren’t online teachers complicating themselves. At the face to face classes there is nothing similar to forum discussions. So the discussions between the students should be very important for their grade!! They should be allowed to help each other and the teacher’s role is to point them to good resources and to support and facilitate the discussions and learning. If the homework is a collaborative paper each student should be responsible to contribute with some paragraphs (Michael Wesch: A Cultural Anthropologist Looks at Digital Technolog…) or presentation.”

I posted a reply on the College 2.0 forum, but I was fairly certain that Elayne Clift or folks that agreed with her would never see it there.  So I posted the same comments in a Chronicle Forum for article discussion (as well as linking this comment out on Twitter).  Jon Becker was more eloquent in 140 characters but summed up my feelings pretty well:

My more lengthy comment was:

Elayne Clift certainly had issues with teaching online, but it appeared to me that she attempted this course without changing any of her practices, and teaching online is fundamentally different than teaching face-to-face.  I am as old-dog as Clift, but I also have been teaching online for 14 years at a variety of institutions, and see things a little different than she does.

A “virtual community” is only an oxymoron if the faculty does not instill a sense of community through her or his own social presence in the class.  Using social media and collaborative activities, a community can not only form but be very strong.  Social networking tools can lead to a rich communication not only within just the course but with discipline experts worldwide.  We recently held a webconference with our class and guest speakers, and we also opened it up to the world through Twitter.  Others in the field from around the country joined the webconference and began interacting with our students in the chat box.  You could not duplicate that in a physical classroom.

As to lack of quality, that is more an indictment on the institution and the faculty than on online learning.  In my most recent class that I co-taught with another, several students used the term “life-altering” to express their appreciation for the quality of learning they found in our class.

The comments about money and time suggest to me again that Clift attempted to be the single expert on the stage rather than co-opting her students into the learning process.  I find the time distributed nature of online learning works well for me, but much of my focus is on helping students learn how to learn and teach each other.

I was lead author of a white paper published by our Center for Teaching Excellence on online teaching> It focuses on the practice of teaching online, and may offer an alternative view to the one espoused by Clift.  Please add to the conversation – we would be interested in your thoughts.

Danger Students Working Online

That was near 1pm today.  Another person had started a similar forum called “Teaching Online.”  By dinner time, these two comments had been read over three hundred and two-fifty times respectively, and a lengthy exchange was developing in the forum.  What I found fascinating was that our comments evoked such strong reaction from two faculty who had never taught online. I respect more the comments from those who had taught online.  My Twitter network is biased towards technology but was much more aligned with my own comments.

In several Chronicle comments, there was a note of fear that the “good old days” were gone and that because of online learning, higher education was going to hell in a handbasket.  “Beatitude” noted “I hope to God this isn’t the future for all of higher education…”

“Beatitude” raised a number of interesting points.  He or she noted that online courses were fine in the summer as long as they did not take resources away from [real] courses in the academic year.  (My interpretation).  There was a bit of fear about potential loss of jobs due to outsourcing.  And a note that many students currently taking online courses live on campus and take these courses from their dorms.

All true.

Yet, there is no real discussion about “learning” or academic success.  My simplistic view is that online is simply a mode of delivery, as are large lectures, small classrooms, and even tele-delivery to remote satellite settings.  We do not burn down large lecture halls because significant numbers of students fail those classes.  We instead look at best means of delivery given the context of large lecture halls.  Online should be no different.  Castigating online as something to fear for the future seems narrow-sighted.

Recent polls suggest almost 100% of entering students already own a laptop.  Given wireless connectivity, there really is no course anymore in which some online learning does not occur.  Our students are using Google and Wikipedia, either in class or outside it (not to mention Facebook!).  The question is not whether students are online or not but rather whether we faculty are guiding their online lives towards learning that matters.

Lisa Lane had a more positive note in her posting in College 2.0 on this matter:

“Faculty who’ve been teaching online awhile have a responsibility to share their experiences, tips and tricks with those just starting out. Mechanisms need to be in place for them to do that, whether it’s professional development programs, training seminars, or social interaction (online or in person). I could, and have, provided many, many solutions to the overload so many new online instructors experience trying to make their online class as much like their on-site classes as possible. There are indeed ways to design the experience to be easier and better for all.”

I agree with Lisa (and I think our White Paper was an attempt to do just the type of sharing she suggests).

Eduardo hit my hot button today (or more correctly, Elayne did).  What are your thoughts?  Have we not reached the point where the debate over the efficacy of online learning is past and where we should instead be focusing on the new practices needed to make online learning the success many of us have already seen it to be?  As always, I would be interested in your comments and reaction.

{Photo Remixed from Gill Wildman}

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6 thoughts on “The Only Thing to Fear

  1. Britt thank you very much for the post. It was a fun day!

    It started with the tweet, from @eRomanMe, who alerted me about the article. I saved it to Delicious and Gabriela Grosseck, then tweeted about it, It was RT several times,

    Britt, students also feel overloaded in online courses,

    I also agree with Lisa Lane; “There are indeed ways to design the experience to be easier and better for all.”

  2. What is critical is that we understand how students think and build from there, stressing basic principles. Online teaching makes it more difficult to understand how students think. See “Teaching and Helping Students Think and Do Better” on amazon.

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