Earlier this week, for the fourteenth time, I began a new semester of teaching. Like thirteen times before, I experienced the usual amounts of excitement, anticipation, nervousness, and about 37 hundred other emotions –- many of them conflicting -- that the start of a new class entails. But unlike most of those other times, I didn’t walk into a classroom full of new faces who would become very familiar to me as we spent hours together, puzzling through the wonders of the English language.
This semester, chances are, I’ll never even know what my students look like. Instead of gathering together approximately ten miles from my house for an hour and fifteen minutes at a time, twice a week, my students will only know me, and my class, through the wonders of the internet. From all over the world, they’ll log onto our designated website at 2 in the afternoon or 2 in the morning, and I will know them only through the words that they type and post on our discussion threads and in their email messages.
This may be the future of higher education: the online model has sprung up everywhere, and universities are offering classes like the one I’m teaching in almost every major, every specialty, at every level of study. The technology is already expanding to include more audio and visual options. Several of my colleagues use a series of iTunes podcasts to supplement their online classrooms; others have incorporated web-cameras and chat-rooms to emulate the in-person environment. In comparison, I’m probably a bit of a luddite: my classroom is a series of discussion boards, a list of handouts, announcements and assignments, and a handful of stories and poems in PDF form.
There are definitely huge upsides to the online classroom: when I was a GW student, if I wanted to take a summer class, I had to either stick around Washington, DC for an extra few months, or go through the hassle of transferring credits from a local school. My students this summer, in contrast, can be in Boston or California or Singapore or traveling around Europe, as long as they have a reliable internet connection.
As their professor, I love the flexibility of the online schedule: no commute, no designated hours that require me to be anywhere at any one time, which means that I can still work my summer office job four days a week, and then devote evenings or weekends or those hours I cannot sleep to reading and responding to my students’ work.
The online atmosphere, however, takes adjusting to: because we don’t have a set meeting time, my students come and go as they please, and my quick questions that could be answered in five minutes in a classroom setting can often take two days, as my students occupy roughly seven different time zones. Reading comprehension takes on whole new levels of importance, both on their part and mine. Without the signals that I’ve come to depend upon –- facial expressions, body language, tone of voice, eye contact –- I am forced to rely solely on only their words, and whether those words are properly spelled, capitalized, and punctuated.
A friend of mine teaches for an online program that encourages their instructors to use emoticons and netspeak like “LOL” in order to connect better with their students. Within that realm, it’s important for her to establish a rapport, to encourage from a place that is more inviting, more familiar.
With my class, however, I’m dealing with upper-level students who are taking a required course for full credit at a top-ranked university, and somehow, I don’t believe that smiley faces are going to cut it... particularly not during the first week of class. I also find myself avoiding the type of flip responses I usually give verbally in my classrooms. For the first reading assignment, a student posted a detailed, analytical response to a line of poetry; in a traditional classroom, I would have tossed back, “or maybe the poet is just talking about sex.” However, I’ve found myself editing my responses to my online students: without hearing the joking nature of my voice, it would be difficult for the student to know if I were shooting down his theory (I wasn’t), or just being me.
But who is me? I’m reminded of an episode of the television show “Everwood,” where one character, in describing his tempered excitement for his online summer courses, stated that he wished the teachers were robots, and not real people, because robots would be cool.
For the thirteen new students who comprise of my online class this summer, I might as well be a robot. They really don’t know much about me, other than what’s available in my online bio, and they are forced to form their opinions based upon the stories and poems I’ve assigned, or that I open my posts to them as “Hi All,” or the fact that our textbook order got screwed up at the University bookstore. Chances are, they’ve signed onto to spending the next six weeks, molding to my every whim in pursuit of the perfect grade, knowing less about me than you probably do.
No smirking face marching them through the semester’s requirements. No interjected comments about the details they choose to share with me during our first week game of “two truths, one lie.” No asides about my love for the Boston Red Sox and "Battlestar Galactica."
Instead, it’s all just words on a screen.
Originally from Boston, Michelle is a writer, editor, instructor, obsessive sports fan, loud talker, quick laugher, new mom, and chances are, she watches more television than you do. Follow her on Twitter at michellevoneuw
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7.11.08 @ 12:58p
I think something is lost in the on-line classroom. I can't imagine taking a painting class, a creative writing class, or other class, where personal feedback is so important, on line.
I did take a beginning computer programming (Java language) course on line and did well. I learned more than I expected, but programming is very structured with a limited number of "right answers."
In a course where creativity or critical thinking is involved, be it visual art, music, writing, analysis of literature, philosophy, political science, etc., something is lost when you can't interact with the professor and with other students. For me, the interaction with other students in my university classes was very important.
As you noted, the Internet is a cold medium; the warmth and nuance of body language and facial expression are lost. I'd like to hear you this class goes for you. I'd like to know if the advantages (flexible hours, etc.) you cited outweigh the disadvantages.
7.11.08 @ 4:21p
Are you using Blackboard CE? I just put together a student handbook, trying to demonstrate the nuances of Blackboard in one fracking page. I love the Internet for many things, but nothing can take the place of impromptu, off-the-cuff interaction, particularly in a writing environment.
7.12.08 @ 7:48a
Back in 1953, as a sophmore at the University of Florida, I signed up for Andrew Nelson Lytle's creative writing course in short story. I had to have an interview to get permission since it was considered an upper division course. I explained to Dr. Lytle that I was in the middle of writing a novel, and would it be all right to submit chapters of the novel instead of short stories for the writing assignments. He said, "Of course." So I did just that. I never got less than an A on any wiritng, or any test, and he read every single one of my submissions to the class with flowering compliments. Thus I was a bit nonplussed when I received a B as my course grade. I flounced up to his office on the second floor of Anderson Hall, and said, "There must be some mistake."
He replied, "No, there's no mistake. You never did turn in a short story."
"Yes, I know," I responded, "but you said I could turn in chapters of my novel."
"That's true," he said, "but I never said you'd get an A for it."
I immediately began to refine all questions to professors from that moment forward.
michelle von euw
7.12.08 @ 11:24a
Lucy, my actual-classroom students had the same reaction when I told them that I'd be teaching their creative writing class online. I should say that I did teach a version last summer, and I was surprised at the really positive response those students had to it: I think there are some benefits of the virtual workshop (not seeing the writer's face tense up when you critique his/her work, for example), that may allow for more thoughtful feedback.
Russ, yup, I'm using Blackboard. It's OK-- not very exciting, but it gets the job done. I'd love to see your handbook.
7.12.08 @ 1:35p
Yes, I guess you can be more honest in giving feedback if you don't see the immediate reaction. Also, the written feedback gives students an opportunity to mull over and digest the criticism, rather than going with the first, possibly emotional reaction. I wish you well in this endeavor. Clearly, it's the way university education is going. And, with energy costs so high, more and more students are going to choose long-distance learning. I've considered it myself for obtaining a long overdue master's degree when I retire in 18 months. I no longer want to deal with the hassles of driving, parking, and hiking across campus that are required at major universities here in SoCal.
7.14.08 @ 7:25a
I love the campus environment, and I'd hate to see students lose that experience completely. But online learning is helpful in so many ways.