I’m teaching my first online course beginning this week and I’m already getting an education. The course is structured to include individual work, encourage some student collaboration, and use Internet resources. It’s been wonderful to “see” students arrive and set up their blogs and get their Twitter account–many for the first time with both. I’m looking forward to working with them and I’m sure I’ll learn as much as they will.
But my education about online courses is initially coming from the students who have dropped the class before it’s started. It’s no surprise to me that some students who enrolled in a summertime online course were perhaps looking for some easy credits and decided to drop the class after seeing the syllabus.
What I didn’t expect was the student who emailed to tell me she’d be travelling abroad throughout the entire course and would likely not have Internet access much of that time. Could she still take the online course without Internet access, she asked? She was serious, noting that she’d taken an online class in the past and was able to do all the work at the end.
Reading between the lines of several other emails, I got a definite whiff of: “I wasn’t expecting real work in an online course.”
Which may explain another odd incident. A student enrolled in an elite liberal arts college wanted to take the class. She diligently informed her institution of her plans and was met with skepticism about an online course. Would there be verifiable exams? No, but there was a detailed multi-page syllabus outlining course assignments and expectations, which includes considerable writing, group projects, discussion forums, and more. Pretty substantial for a 100-level course. After some delay, word came back: the school would not approve the course. The kicker is they were happy to approve a face-to-face lecture class where the syllabus is less than a page long and course requirements are 4-6 pop quizzes and a midterm and final taken via “blue books.”
In some ways, this is a classic case of a lack of intersubjectivity; that is, we don’t yet have a widely shared understanding or common expectation about what, exactly, an online course is. People who already have taken an online course likely overgeneralize that experience, assuming all such courses are more or less the same. Those of us experimenting with different ways of teaching online face that legacy.
My takeaway here is that it will be awhile before people understand that an “online” course can mean many different things, just as a “face-to-face” class is an umbrella term at best. Over time we’ll develop new norms and expectations for taking an online class but, for now, those are still largely unformed. This presents us with an opportunity to influence the nature of those expectations. In this sense, we have collective agency and we get to help build this future.