When is Online Appropriate?

I have here this giant ethernet cable, but I can't find a giant outlet around here. Who uses wired connections anymore, anyway?

My skepticism surrounding online education stems from a belief that the two much can go wrong when the teacher and student are separated. As a “people person” (who also happens to be an avid introvert — still figuring that one out), I cherish the interactions among members of the classroom more than any other element of our education system. The opportunity to work with students brings me back to the classroom year after year, and the curiosity and openness of young students brings joy to my teaching. (It certainly isn’t the grading.) When I learned about classes moving online around the turn of the millennium, I immediately wondered about the point of such an exercise. Why would anyone want to separate the interactions of teaching from the activities of learning … or even worse, the tedium of schooling?

The only kind of online education I accept as beneficial is that which enhances the connection between teacher and student, that which enhances a student’s ability to learn, or that which utilizes online tools as a key curricular component. The more those factors contribute to a class’s design, the more I support its existence as an online-only class. Without those three factors, I see no reason to use online education and believe that in-person construction holds too many benefits to be abandoned.

After my involvement with three of Hybrid Pedagogy’s experiments in massive open online education, it may sound odd for me to confess a distrust of online learning. But I am very enthusiastic about the MOOC MOOC series specifically because it embraces the three factors listed in the paragraph above. MOOC MOOC existed, plain and simple, to establish connections among its participants. The designers of the original MOOC MOOC, Jesse Stommel and Sean Michael Morris, wanted a playground in which participants could experiment with distributed and massive approaches to learning, but they also wanted to build a gathering place for people interested in learning more about MOOCs. Indeed, I developed many professional connections in that course that have since expanded into rewarding collaborative projects. In addition to enhancing the connection between teacher and student, the online delivery mode of MOOC MOOC also enhanced my ability to learn, specifically because I was learning about online learning. By positioning the course online, the creators of MOOC MOOC allowed students to experience the concepts they were learning, rather than simply talk about. MOOC MOOC provides an excellent example of how to use online education to improve online education.

But if we shift our focus to the content I typically teach, first-year writing, my skepticism returns full force. I have taught eighth-, ninth-, and tenth-grade online English courses, and in every case, my inability to directly interact with my students frustrated me. I often felt like I was talking into a vacuum, and grading student work resembled the worst of online collaboration: I would read something, make a comment on it, send it back, and hope that the original writer would read and even respond to my comment. In person, I could simply chat with my students about their writing and understand their thinking and how it possibly differed from my expectations. If my writing courses are about writing, and not about anything specific to online environments, what benefit would be served by moving my courses online?

Recently, I wrote a post asking what kinds of writing technology should be part of our instruction in first-year writing courses. It’s probably a safe bet to say that no productive writer these days composes without some form of electronic device. (If you know a novelist or other author who still writes first drafts with pen and paper, please correct me.) Given the popularity of blogs and other online distribution channels, I think that making a writing class about online writing is not that far of a stretch, particularly because the difference between online writing and electronic writing blurs more every day. If we want to teach our students how to write electronically, why not hold our class in an electronic environment to make electronic writing a natural fit?

For my dissertation, I have examined first-year writing courses taught by two instructors, who each had both traditional, face-to-face classes and at least one hybrid course, which met part of the time online, rather than in the classroom. For both of these teachers, the hybrid environment was a new experience, and for many of their students (primarily freshman), the hybrid environment was new, as well. This newness provided an opportunity to examine adaptation in action. I interviewed both teachers and several students from both types of classes to see what trends developed in their thinking regarding delivery mode. Interestingly, I believe the students I interviewed would have a much different answer to the question posed at the end of my previous paragraph than the teachers would. Many of the students I spoke with strongly believed that there is a connection between a student’s existing skill in a subject area and that student’s ability to succeed in an online course in that subject area. In other words, students consistently said that if they were less-than-confident in their writing abilities, they wanted in-person instruction. The in-person interaction of a traditional classroom provides a sense of support, if not nurturing, that students believe is absent from online delivery.

In my next post, I’ll dive in to the preliminary findings of my study and share what we learned from the different approaches the instructors took.