joy online learning

Is the joy of learning gone from online education?

And if so, what does a lack of joy mean for students and their place in the workforce?

In a recent discussion about a job offering, I was asked a series of questions about how I conduct myself in a classroom. One question focused on how I engage students, so I shared my experience about working with students in night classes.

These students typically work all day and then come to a 2-3 hour class session; they need that engagement. Another question asked me about how I employ technology in my classroom. Again, I answered with some of my experience using technology in my current jobs.  Most of my answer focused on using tools to help students complete work efficiently.

It was only after I finished the discussion that I realized how divorced my two answers were. None of my engagement strategies connected with my use of technology; all of my engagement involved connecting students with each other and the material in a personal manner. I saw the technology as a separate system.

Writing this monthly column gives me a chance to put my focus on some of the larger issues involving the union of technology and education. I keep an eye on new programs and new approaches to online learning. I get to investigate different agendas of companies and colleges as each institution tries to fully understand how this new paradigm will work.

Occasionally, my gaze is so outward that I forget the real focus of all of this activity is students. The shiny new toys are a means to an end. The end is students. And, the more I listen to students, the more I think our work is far from done.

“Fine” Indicates Something is Missing

This semester I am teaching online composition. Every few weeks, a reflective prompt is given to the students about their progress in the class. These same prompts in a face-to-face class usually yield stock answers of “fine.” The online format consistently yields more explanation and honesty. The responses mostly tell me something may be missing in our offering.

Almost every student, even those who are achieving high grades in the course, acknowledges the challenging nature of the format. They acknowledge the class exceeding their expectations in difficulty, the schedule being hard to manage, and the feeling of disconnect from being online rather than being face-to-face.

Not one, as of yet, has mentioned enjoying the course. I certainly hope they feel it, but the subject has not come up.

(Next page: A disconnect between joy and online learning)

What Does a Lack of Joy Mean for Online Students?

This brings up a couple points of interest to me: one good and one bad.

First, students are cognizant of the difficulty of the course. Too often, I find student apathy in the face-to-face classroom. Even when those students don’t know anything, they feel like they do because they are carried by their attendance in an environment of learners. The online classroom removes that and, therefore, removes the comfort. That’s good. It’s good to acknowledge the difficulty of academic work.

Yet, my second observation feels more significant. As a teacher and lifelong learner, I would hate to see joy sacrificed for the acknowledgement of difficulty. Most online platforms, as currently constructed, don’t include any of the engagement that a teacher brings to a room. Even with the best video and audio resources, online classes don’t prompt connection to the class. This is bad.

As a society, we are encouraging all citizens to seek more education. The professional world is demanding more educated and vibrant thinkers. It feels counter-productive to encourage more education, market it as a path to vibrant opportunities, and then present it in a manner that removes vibrancy from the process.

My own answers about my classroom, and my student responses, reflect a hurdle in the industry. How can we utilize technology as more than a delivery system? How can teachers trained to be engaging figures of knowledge relinquish that identity and rely on tools to do the engagement? How can schools prepare students for the reality of a technology centered classroom? Is the answer to lower their expectations for traditional engagement, or to raise our content to meet a higher standard?

As our industry shifts away from being people centered, critical design questions must be considered.  I was not ready to answer those questions.  Is anybody else?

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