Professor: My biggest problem with online teaching

Depending on where I am teaching, I have varying levels of input and control over online course design. In a face-to-face classroom, I have complete control over material and the setting of learning. I am confident about information the students receive and the structure they receive it in. Essentially, I know what they should know because I know what I’ve emphasized. But the online classroom structure challenges that.

With online learning, I know the material they know, but I am always a bit unsure if they know the emphasis of it. Online learning removes my ability to frame conversations, to reinforce important ideas; it takes away my stamp on the classroom.

At times, I am simultaneously a learner and instructor within a course. This gives me some sensitivity to student discombobulation in the online classroom and allowed the article “5 Techniques To Help You Step Inside The Shoes Of Your Online Learners” by Nipun Sharma to ring true with me.…Read More

As technologies progress, an old higher ed focus continues

The beginning of fall semester is always the most intellectual fertile time in my academic year.  I approach the classroom from a rested viewpoint.  I am able to think in more big-picture terms, to apply a theoretical lens to my works that sometimes gets lost in the daily grind of the academic year.  I feel a sense of true purpose that gives me great hope and grand ambition.

This mindset matched well with an article published on LinkedIn by Jeff Selingo titled “Why Are So Many New College Graduates Such Bad Writers?” Though it leads to a discouraging first conclusion, Selingo’s thesis gives the work English instructors do distinct importance in today’s modern world.

Over my career, I have been told on separate occasions that students don’t necessarily need to read or write anymore. Friends in other industries tell me they never wrote a paper longer than three pages in their undergraduate studies. Even some of my colleagues have directed our curriculum towards short, impromptu written responses because they don’t see any need to write longer texts.…Read More

Is the joy of learning gone from online education?

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.…Read More

A teacher’s perspective on a first-time blended class

For the first time ever, I am instructing a blended class.  My expectations were nothing short of idealized excitement.  Students would be laser-focused during our face-to-face time, and the freedom to complete work on their own time would encourage ownership and agency.  In addition, by removing some basic skills study from the classroom, we could focus on more dynamic learning activities.  This dynamism would feed the desire to be in class and, ultimately, produce better writing.

Unfortunately, the course has fallen short of my expectations.  Students have been discombobulated by the shared format.  The discombobulation has stunted our class and led to low engagement.  In addition, they have struggled to use the online interface.  Our class time has been plagued by failure to produce drafts and questions about missing assignments.  This frustration pervades the atmosphere of our face-to-face time.

As a teacher, and true believer in the blended format, this has been disheartening.  Without having a control group alongside these classes, it’s been hard to identify the specific causes of struggle.  It’s challenging to evaluate how different I am within these blended classes as well; the problems may ultimately revolve around me as much as them.…Read More

Are education and opportunity at odds in higher education today?

College and opportunity have always been intertwined, yet the relationship can be paradoxical.  Education has been called the silver bullet to poverty.  As an extension of that, higher education can be assumed to offer egalitarian opportunity.  David Leonhardt’s article titled “America’s Great Working-Class Colleges” gives me pause about this relationship, and, as always, technology both solves and exacerbates the problem.

Leonhardt recently wrote about schools he deemed “working class colleges” and laments the decline of these institutions in the higher education landscape.   He discusses research that shows these colleges, like City College of New York or University of Texas El Paso, play a huge role in pushing the bottom of the socio-economic class into a middle class existence.  Leonhardt cites statistics on the make-up of the student body and how, “these students entered college poor. They left on their way to the middle class and often the upper middle class.”

Later, he points out that so many colleges fail to live up to the ideal of truly serving all students.  He cites the well-known ails of for-profit colleges, but also points to an unlikely culprit of the problem: elite colleges.  Leonhardt does not say that elite colleges are not producing good students or that they are short changing the poor students they do serve; but he does make the point that they are not serving a representative sample of the country.  In short, elite colleges mostly serve upper-class individuals.  Elite institutions do not set out to discriminate, but the selective nature of entry turns away, either explicitly or implicitly, the majority of the population.…Read More

The Business of College

I recently attended a winter meeting for a small, private college.  As with most institutions, the school is continuously reassessing its programming to maximize financial viability.  Currently, It offers a healthy amount of online coursework.  The school articulated a vision of technology and their future that was both ironic and refreshing.

I expected to hear all sorts of rhetoric about maximizing the use of online course work.  The internet offers economies of scale that have never existed before.  It can reduce overhead for a college and allow them to offer appealing, flexible classes to students across the country.

Yet, this institution is pursuing a different mission.  There is no question they plan to continue their online offerings.  Yet, they are concurrently seeking to establish a stronger campus identity.  They have recently built dorms, offered more classes on campus, and held events which attempt to unite the student population in a physical meeting space.  These decisions felt antiquated until they explained the rationale.…Read More

Does a larger mallet actually change the game?

Whack-a-mole: the classic arcade game where a player is faced with a never-ending stream of moles popping up from the ground. When a player hit one in the right corner of the board, one pops up on the left side. Reforming education is a lot like Whack-a-Mole; the industry has so many interconnected issues and contradictory problems that no solution can cover every need. Technology promises to change this by providing educators with a larger mallet. Instead of whacking one mole, we can get three; it almost feels like we can get the whole board. Unfortunately, this is not the case.

Recently, Charlotte Kent wrote a piece for The Chronicle of Higher Education that discusses how focus on technical skills in education has lessened emphasis of soft skills like attendance and work ethic. She cites an employer survey from 2009 which states, “the most serious gaps [in employees] are believed to be ‘soft skills’ such as work ethic, accountability and self-motivation.” The study highlights a significant gap between skill level and performance level and attributes it to the lack of soft skills. Kent sums up the findings by saying, “people know how to do jobs; they just don’t act like it.” She emphasizes soft skills in her classroom as a means of preparing students for the professional world. Her article laments how students disregard these regulations and expresses concerns for how education is shaping its learners.

How does this play out in our application of technology? My online classes are all structured to be completed over various weeks. Theoretically, I could open up all of the material at the start of the semester, grade work as students see fit to complete it, and then close the course at the end of the semester. Students could complete all of their work in Week One or complete it all in Week Fifteen.…Read More

MOOC: the most seductive phrase in education

The idea that high quality coursework can be taken online from the best professors from anywhere in the world is revolutionary. The promise is endless: a leveling of opportunity, an elimination of privilege; MOOCs represent the internet’s promise of an egalitarian utopia.

It’s hard not to have MOOCs on the mind as I approach my classes. In any class, students fall onto a spectrum. At one end are those who are truly engaged in what is happening in the room. They see the value of immersing themselves in the classroom experience and they are better for it. On the other end of the spectrum, there are students who want nothing to do with the classroom. They may or may not have the requisite skills, but they bring nothing to each meeting. They struggle to stay focused and engage with those around them. They may be disruptive, or their lethargy may just bring others down through osmosis.

I think of MOOCs when I see this second group. Not just because it sounds like a name I may call them when relaying classroom tales, but because, in my moments of greatest frustration, I wonder why they can’t just take the course in that format. They give nothing to the face-to-face classroom experience and seemingly get nothing from it; let’s get them in a MOOC.…Read More

What is our norm?

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.…Read More

Online Composition or Composition Online

As I prepare for the fall semester, the impact of technology is more present than ever in my approach. This past year, multiple opportunities engaged me in online course design and adaptation. During these experiences, a core question continually presented itself: are we, as composition educators, changing as the nature of composition changes?

Technology is driving dramatic transformation in writing and publication. The production of content is growing exponentially. In addition, rate of publication is faster than ever. Being the first to say something is vital to ensure being heard. Grammar and style is valued less; sourcing is valued less. Furthermore, unique content is still important, but commentary and opinion have risen to prominence. Articles are a more collaborative process than in the past. Pieces will have multiple authors bouncing ideas off several other formal and informal works. This changes composition at its core.

Recently, my institution was looking to update a composition course. It was already offered online, so the format reflected that. As I was updating the course, I added a lesson where students learn how to use online review tools to peer edit. With these tools, students can send papers to one another, mark and respond to them, and then return the paper. I was excited to add this lesson and felt it really engaged the students in the idea of online writing and editing.…Read More