Spoc: to boldly go where no course has gone before

To aid non-traditional students, David Burns built a ‘Spoc’, a digital course where an academic is always on call

April 28, 2016
David Humphries illustration (28 April 2016)
Source: David Humphries

For those of us whose classes largely consist of non-traditional students, the lure of the digital is obvious.

I teach a first-year course that addresses the knowledge, skills and attitudes that university students need to succeed. Like lots of students at many regional US universities, my students are unlikely to be on campus full-time. They are managers of businesses, parents, interns and much more. It was natural, then, that when the opportunity arose to teach this course digitally I was both excited and sceptical. Such a course could reach more people and be more flexible for the people I was already reaching. Wouldn’t such busy people prefer to watch a lecture on a smartphone during a long bus ride rather than having to come all the way to campus?

But when I ran this by colleagues and the students themselves, I always received the same response: isn’t the personal nature of your course its greatest strength? My aim is to encourage them both to be better students and to better understand the possible roles a university education can play in a person’s life. This, combined with the open-access mandate of my institution, makes for a very personal and intimate kind of scholarly discussion – ranging from Aristotle to the process of selecting a major.

A more personal concern was that teaching online would involve my spending the entire semester answering emails and creating PowerPoint presentations. The solution to both these issues was to rethink both my course and my working life. I quickly concluded that I couldn’t offer a massive open online course (Mooc). My course had to be well produced and easily accessible, but also tailored to the contexts my students inhabit. I therefore set out to build something more responsive – what one might call a Spoc (small private online course) – and transformed my educational practice in two important ways.

First, I needed to stop thinking of my working life through the lens of class blocks. My students would be consuming the course content, interacting with me and with each other, on many different platforms and at many different times. My daily life became a series of opportunities to capture ideas and make connections. Struck by a new idea while walking my dog, I put my smartphone down on a tree stump and recorded a quick discussion of a recent class concept. Sitting on a commuter train reminded me of another lesson – so I opened up my tablet and drew a model using a train metaphor. These could both be posted without going to my office or going home.

In this way, I started to balance formal, recorded lectures (which are the same every semester) with more informal and personal material that I can create in the moment and use for particular groups (video blogs, in essence). I bought a tripod, with an attachment for my smartphone, and I started recording all over the university and beyond. The old style of preparing and delivering lessons gave way to a more fluid and continuous process of creation and interaction. I am now always both teaching and preparing to teach.

Second, I wanted to counter the assumption that online learning is somehow impersonal or detached. If one of my students wanted to complete the course from another country – as several did – I wanted that to be fully possible. However, I also wanted to make sure that students viewed me as a source of reliable in-person support. I removed the old, restrictive furniture from my office, replaced it with a used meeting table and put an extra computer monitor (with a series of adaptors) at the centre. I then increased my usual three office hours per week to 30, and told my students that I would be there, on Skype and available by telephone every weekday of the semester (and some evenings and weekends as well). They now come with their phones, tablets and computers and plug into my monitor so that we can edit and consider their work. I help small groups with their research, record extra explanations of key ideas and field phone calls, tweets and emails dozens of times a day. I have been able to tell students: “If you need to talk to me every day, we can do that.” I get calls from students on their lunch breaks at work, tweets to check if I am in my office and even a few scheduled weekly appointments.

Students don’t always adapt to the interface of our learning management software, of course, and coordinating collective work through digital platforms can be very difficult. There are times when I am at home with my family and need to remind myself to disconnect from the constant stream of communication this approach encourages. But these costs make possible a level of support I have never been able to offer before. When a student emails me and says, “I’m sorry, I am completely lost with this work,” it feels tremendously liberating to be able to say, “I’m here – let’s sort this out.”

My teaching and my digital course material are surely imperfect. But every time I am able to drop what I am doing and focus on an individual, I feel like my work is moving in the right direction.

David Burns is chair of the arts curriculum committee at Kwantlen Polytechnic University in British Columbia, Canada.

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