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What is our norm?

By Jeremy Cunningham
October 15th, 2015

The question stopped me in my tracks. I was speaking with a student after class about his struggle to keep up with our material. The usual topics came up: staying organized, keeping on task, coming to class and paying attention. Then he said, “Do you have a unit plan?” I responded, “A unit plan?” “Yeah. My online classes have unit plans. It has all of our assignments and directions in it.” I told him no, we introduce assignments and work each week in class. He shrugged. In the moment, I heard his question as an excuse in a long list of excuses. But, as I considered it, a larger issue became apparent.

Online classes have long been the substitute to face-to-face classes. They were the alternative to the norm. What students understood a class to be had to be adjusted when they took a course online. Students had to deal with never meeting their professor, reading all the content themselves, and gaining a full understanding of the expectations and assignments on their own.

As an online learner and teacher, I always struggled with that final component: assignment expectations. In a face-to-face classroom, the teacher presents the assignments and is able to articulate what they want students to do. They rephrase directions, respond to questions, and personalize the document. Even if the student themselves doesn’t ask a question, he/she gets to hear this classroom dialogue. Individuals come away with a better sense of how to succeed. When I was expected to read through pages of assignment directions, I usually found myself skimming to topic sentences. Often, once I finished, I would realize I had missed a key expectation. Or, if the assignment was shared with the class, I would notice a gap between my work and my classmates’. Sometimes that gap was quality, sometimes it was approach, and sometimes it was both. When I started teaching online, these some issues occurred with my own students. I always viewed teacher-centeredness as an asset to the face-to-face experience and something that would be a permanent disadvantage of the online platform.

My conversation with this student brought me to the jarring reality that maybe this has changed. As online learning, both formal and informal, has become ubiquitous for students, perhaps they see it as the primary educational venue. They don’t need to sit in a room and hear the assignment sheet read aloud, paraphrased, and reinterpreted by the instructor and their classmates. They are used to reading text and content online, finding the core expectations, and moving forward. In fact, they may find the discourse about an assignment more confusing, or it may cause them to feel constrained and less invested in the work.

Perhaps education is no longer about creating a single, fixed expectation that each student strives for. Our culture enables and encourages individuality more than ever, and our students are products of that culture. In addition, the professional world demands more adaptability from its employees. Variability is more natural in an online space because all content is interpreted by the reader; it requires intentionality in a face-to-face classroom.

Are we, as educators, ready to start viewing the online space as the norm for our students? How prepared am I as an instructor to give up my role, and power, to present an assignment and mold the way students complete it? Does my entire practice change if I adopt this mindset? All of these questions continue to run through my mind as a result of one simple question: do you have a unit plan?

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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