Making online teaching click

Why classroom veteran Dale Salwak waited 17 years to join the digital pedagogues

Source: Ian Whadcock

I needed to set aside my prejudices, ignore the naysayers and find out the real story about online learning. I could only do that from the inside

The time comes for most teachers to face something they think they cannot do. Such a time came for me in 1993, when a guest speaker at the college where I had been teaching for 20 years invited the faculty to prepare courses for our then-developing online education programme. Given the enormous advances in technology and the internet, he explained, digital culture would soon reshape and revitalise higher education.

Students would have open access to scholarship. Discussion boards would simulate classroom conversations. Lecture videos would enable students to watch and listen from home, as often as necessary, to absorb, understand and review material. Overcrowding and high costs would no longer prevent access to classes that students required or desired. Everyone, he promised, would connect with teachers through the power of technology. A new day was dawning.

As I listened to the presentation, I began to feel instead the dark night of uncertainty closing in. It seemed as if I were being invited to descend into a deepening pit where all that I knew about the art and lore of my profession would be swallowed up by pixels and bytes. The visibility and accessibility he touted as a boon for students seemed to me, as a faculty member, a bane to everything I did as a teacher. Every interaction with students, every lesson plan, every idea or topic for discussion would come under scrutiny. I questioned the programme’s legitimacy and wondered about my own adaptability.

If I cannot see my students, how will I maintain and gauge their interest and involvement? How will I authenticate their work? How will they learn what they need to know? How will I sense their mood and be aware of whether they are engaged? What will I do to reconnect us all?

I have always flourished in the conventional classroom with its rhythm of questions and responses, dutiful note taking and writing of essays. I love the mutual joy of discovery, what George Steiner has called the “raw vehemence” of debate, and the face-to-face interaction with 30 or more talented and challenging students as we explore and analyse a difficult or fascinating text. All this dynamism makes my job fulfilling and, in most cases, my students’ educational experience rewarding, challenging and enlightening.

But if my students and I are sitting at home in front of computers, without the immediacy of contact, how would we replicate the collaborative, even magical spirit, the reciprocal trust and the enthusiasm for learning that has been, since the 6th century BC, the lifeblood of education?

The speaker had pricked my pedagogical conscience. And so, admittedly sceptical and yet urged forward with intense, if anxious interest, I watched and listened over the next 17 years as a growing number of my colleagues went online to teach.

I read whatever I could lay my eyes on in the increasing number of articles about online learning. I attended workshops on the subject. I observed students who seemed to benefit from the “flipped classroom” in which online lectures supplemented their interactive onsite learning in mathematics, history and the sciences. And I waited.

Then, to the surprise of many people, including myself, I signed up to teach my first six-week online course in the study of poetry, short fiction and drama during the summer of 2011. What I learned from that experience, and the four classes that followed, quite simply changed my perceptions and upended my assumptions about this new approach to higher education.

I took this step partly because I was curious. I had heard the moans from many critics that the retention rate for such classes is abysmally low (“first to add, first to drop”), that to teach well in this format is colossally difficult and that the system does not allow for flexibility but instead pushes us towards a rigid and standardised approach. I needed to set aside my prejudices, ignore the naysayers and find out for myself the real story about online learning. I could only do that from the inside.

I also signed up because I recognised that after 38 years this was a good opportunity to rethink my teaching strategies and what my students require to progress and succeed. I was up for some challenges.

There were many. The few students who were organised, focused and motivated adapted well to the demands of the programme. The majority, however, who were perhaps spurred on by the false assumption that showing up for class by powering up their laptop would be easy, required daily intervention far beyond anything I provided in the classroom.

Through emailed messages and announcements and other incentives I had to work, almost like a parent, to keep them engaged with feedback on their progress and reminders of deadlines. This became a seven-day-a-week responsibility. By the end of the semester I had retained 33 of the original 35 students, but I was emotionally and intellectually drained.

I also had to find new ways to connect with my students. In the traditional classroom, I knew how to read their reactions from their facial expressions, gestures, postures and verbal cues. Through daily questions and responses I discovered by observing and listening what I had to do to help them learn. But with online education, there were far fewer options for establishing this level of awareness.

Some colleagues suggested that I turn to the abundance of web links, graphics and videos, but I declined. It is easy to become so distracted by the lure of technology that there’s little time left for reading, study and keeping abreast of developments in our academic discipline.

Ian Whadcock illustration (13 February 2014)

Every day I wrote to them using the same voice I use in the classroom, with a reasonable, moderate and commonsensical tone

I wouldn’t risk neglecting the primary reason I became an educator: to study and disseminate from my classroom the best that is known and thought and discovered in the world. Every hour working on technology issues would mean an hour away from my own study and deepening of expertise.

Moreover, the material we teach in the humanities is charged with emotion. The canned and artificial videoed lectures I previewed lacked spontaneity, verve and life. Some seemed to be addressed to no one in particular. At times I referred my students to online links – so they could listen to T. S. Eliot reading The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock or Philip Larkin reading Church Going – but only as a supplement to what I was writing to them and never as the primary tool for educating them.

Also, to stay fresh, I decided not to recycle my material for later semesters. For those who teach in the fact-based sciences, archiving serves a worthwhile purpose. In our courses on planetary astronomy, for instance, a husband and wife team has developed interactive, current video and textual links that lead the students, step-by-step, through this complex field.

But in the humanities where so much of our approach is qualitative, not quantitative, I knew that if I reused what I had written during the previous semester, then there would be little opportunity for up-to-date, fresh ideas to emerge and little incentive to shape the messages to fit a different audience with different needs. Each group has its own pace and mood. Students expect a robust approach. They are as sensitive to – and as stimulated by – the spontaneity of discovery as their professors are.

So how did I connect? Through the power of the written word – theirs and mine. Each day I wrote to them using the same voice I use in the classroom, always with a tone of what I deemed to be reasonable, moderate and commonsensical, and invited them to reply in kind. I posted provocative questions along with shared responses from their peers. Then I listened and I commented.

On the first day, for example, I asked students to answer in writing three questions: (1) What do you perceive to be the purpose of this course? (2) What is the value and validity of the subject? (3) What confuses you about it? I also asked them to list at least five questions about the subject that they would like to have answered during the semester. The results helped me to clarify the course objectives and persuade students that what they would be studying does indeed matter. Many weeks later as part of the final exam, I returned their questionnaire and asked them to answer it by affirming what they’d learned and why they’d learned it.

I also administered only essay assignments, believing that peppering students with company-produced, multiple-choice, computer-graded examinations not only encourages surface learning based on short-term memorisation but also feeds the West’s growing mania for teaching to the test. I never want to transfer the sanctity of the learning process to outsiders for whom my students are only a faceless mass.

At the end of my first semester, one student wrote to say that she had taken a similar course at a different school where it was obvious that the professor didn’t take the class seriously. “This made it nearly impossible to stay on track,” the student observed. “But you worked with each of us,” she wrote, “kept us engaged, gave us valuable feedback, and helped us keep deadlines in mind. You kept everything really interesting and I actually learned quite a bit. Thank you for taking our course and your students seriously.”

Whether onsite or online, success comes down to taking the courses we teach seriously and respecting the students. From the standards we set and maintain, to our personal interest in students as individuals, to the feedback we offer and the preparation we bring to each session, the participants in our classes know instantly how much we care about the subject and how important it is that each student is willing to master the material.

To those who are teaching online for the first time, the best advice came from a colleague: begin six months in advance to prepare written lectures, assignments and discussion topics; find what works for you and your students, and avoid the “herd mentality” of teaching as others do; add 20 per cent more students beyond the capacity of the class because many will drop out during the first week; and reach across the academic disciplines for help from those who might know a lot more about what works, what doesn’t work, and why.

I also suggest that teachers new to the profession wait at least five years before taking on such an assignment. It took me at least that long as a novice before I began to find my voice, develop my style and started to understand who I was in the classroom. Online courses are intense, demanding and time-consuming. Teachers have to know their subjects, their craft and themselves very well before entering this domain. There’s no time for on-the-job training.

In 1993, when I first listened to the presentation about online education, the new modality was far from having the broad reach it has today. Through online courses, single parents or full-time workers who don’t have the time to come to campus, the disabled who face mobility and transportation problems, low-income students who are disproportionately burdened by college costs, and members of the armed forces stationed in faraway places are finding that the doors to higher education have opened wide.

But are we helping them to prepare for their chosen career? Are they learning what they need to learn? Are they graduating and able to get a job? At this time, these questions along with many others defy definitive answers and continue to leave me uneasy.

Although I see the potential value of the virtual campus, and will continue with great enthusiasm to teach at least one online course per semester, I am persuaded that for the time being the place where I do my best work is in the traditional classroom. For me, there remains no substitute for the force and beauty of the feelings I experience within its familiar confines. I also know that the real joy of education for teachers and students alike lies in its ongoing, expansive character. Whatever the format that inspires it, finding ways to broaden and refine our vision of the world will always be the truest gift of learning.

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