Teaching the art of e-surreality

February 14, 1997

Kate O'Neill describes her email classroom experience in New York.

I began teaching a course last year on global environmental politics through the Dial (Distance Instruction for Adult Learners) programme at the New School for Social Research in New York. The class was taught entirely via email as part of a programme aimed at continuing students who, through locatiuon or work commitments could not take a conventional class.

As an academic used to traditional classroom, I found teaching, the course involved much rethinking of standard teaching methods and class management techniques. Throughout the nine weeks of the course, I existed in a mild state of surreality, trying to balance the demands of getting information to the students and helping them find their way around a medium that most of us were not that comfortable with, except as a means of chatting with friends.

I started with a fairly conventional course outline: a syllabus outlined week by-week topics, assignments and reading. Eight students signed up for the class, six of whom were based in or around New York, one in Las Vegas, and one in Uruguay. Most also worked full-time. I ran the class on a seminar basis, each week posting an introductory lecture, along with questions to which students could respond either by posting to the conference or by emailing me.

One of the main reasons why I accepted the job was the attraction of teaching a class at any hour of night or day without worrying about what I was wearing, eating or drinking at the time, let alone about commuting. Beyond the glamour of it all, though, making the mental adjustment from real time to cyberspace threw up a number of challenges. I found it frustrating being unable to gauge student reactions and, particularly given their varied backgrounds, knowing if I had hit the right level. In front of a class, you can always tell whether silence means busy note-taking or total incomprehension.

It's very easy to lose track of time: the linear structure of a traditional course does not hold, and I got very behind at one point, waiting for students to respond before moving on to the next topic. Breaking free of this structure, on the other hand, made it possible to keep several separate conversations going at once. Discussions were not curtailed by the need to move on to other topics, and students were free to add comments to earlier postings.

I quickly realised that online lectures have to be a lot shorter than those delivered in front of a class. Scrolling through a text that would take an hour, or even 20 minutes to deliver is not very feasible. I broke up lectures into several postings over a couple of days; this gave the students something to log on for, as well as making it easier for them to read and digest the material. It is a good format for encouraging student presentations; this forces them to "speak", but without the nervousness this sometimes entails.

Hardest of all was establishing an online presence or personality, and creating a class dynamic. As we all logged on at different times, the give and take of a good face-to-face classroom debate was absent. Rather than entering my academic mode, I made a conscious effort to retain my "emailing to friends" voice. For the students, it depended on how experienced they were with this method of communication, and getting them to engage with each other was difficult.

Unexpectedly, as with a regular class there were two or three who "stayed quiet at the back". I wasn't sure whether that was due to the material, or to other commitments, or to email shyness. It's hard to remember to log on frequently, and sometimes even I forgot for a day or so that I was supposed to say something - rather like stepping in front of a class and simply forgetting to open your mouth!

We all experienced technical difficulties. For example,I posted a lecture that, owing to a single non-ASCII character, turned to garbage on the screen. It took an afternoon to sort out, and my interaction with one student was entirely by phone. Without the technical training and back-up offered by the Dial office, it would have been impossible to run this sort of course.

For me one of the most valuable parts of the experience was the two-month training programme run by the New School prior to the semester.

Distance learning has a long history, from the Australian School of the Outback through the Open University, to the more sophisticated Web-based systems emerging. Several of my colleagues here in graduate school gloomily predict that in ten years we will be replaced by computer systems, where only the most well-known professors get to teach, while the rest of us serve as grading-slaves. Given some of the challenges I have mentioned, this is an unlikely prospect.

However, the opportunity to bring together a group of people, who would never be together in the same classroom or even the same continent, to share our various experiences was immensely exciting, and an opportunity I would jump at again.

Kate O'Neill is completing a PhD in political science at Columbia University, New York.

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