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Personal connection in a person-less classroom

By Jeremy Cunningham
July 8th, 2015

After taking a workshop on online course design, I was asked to reflect on what I learned. Issues that are bantered about in institutions across the country were covered: different e-learning platforms, transitioning classes from on-campus to online, and facilitating peer interaction. Yet, what struck me most is not the change in content, but the change in instructor that this future paradigm demands.

A large part of why I became a teacher was to interact with people. I think that is an unstated prerequisite for the job. You have to enjoy people, or, at least, enjoy the challenge of reaching them. I relish the performance aspect of the classroom as I present new material and try to motivate students to not only complete the work, but to do so with vigor. It’s only with this vigor that they will press on and develop as writers and thinkers. The online course challenges this dynamic.

Voice is a critical issue in the classroom. Playful sarcasm, witty banter, and serious, down to earth discussions all drive learning. This is especially important in a writing course where a goal is for the student to establish and convey their own voice. In a face-to-face setting, it is pretty clear who responds to sarcasm and who needs straight-talk.   An instructor can personalize their comments and feedback to help the individual grow. An online classroom does not afford this opportunity because an instructor’s ability to know their students is limited. Ironically, one benefit of the online classroom, personalized learning, fosters generic teaching.

Video and audio recordings can partially solve this problem, but they are inherently planned and scripted. The most teachable moments come from organic conversation when you sit with a student and go back and forth over ideas. Real-time response engages a student’s senses over more than just content. They join the learning experience because they see you, an individual, working through it with them.

Some would argue removing the relational element is a benefit of online coursework. Clashing personalities can get in the way of content. If a student does not interact well with their teacher or peers, then their work correspondingly becomes more difficult. This is a valid point. My professional rebuttal would be something along the lines of “But, it’s good for students to be forced to interact with other individuals,” or “The learning experience requires both personal and academic growth.” But, my immediate response is more self-centered.

I approach the classroom for my students and myself. I feed off each successful course and struggle and grow through the unsuccessful ones. I remember specific names and faces of students who have improved as writers. On my way home from class, I replay those moments where the student really “got it” and started to slowly nod in understanding. These moments of personal connection drive my practice. While the loss in learning is a subjective discussion, my loss is an objective reality.

As learning and content delivery fundamentally change, an obvious truth has escaped me until now: teachers have to fundamentally change. Not just teaching, but teachers.  Perhaps my next workshop should be Designing the Online Instructor.

About the Author:

Jeremy Cunningham

Jeremy Cunningham is a part-time instructor at Washtenaw Community College and Cleary University where he teaches composition and communication coursework. He also teaches English at Mason High School. He holds degrees in literature and education from Miami University, Eastern Michigan University, and Michigan State University. Outside of work, Jeremy dedicates his time to his wife, Darcie, and daughter, Ruby.


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