Lessons from an Online Summer Course (The “Big Picture” #4-#5)

This is part of a series of posts on what I learned from teaching an online summer course for the first time.  (See the first post for context.)  

This pair of lessons deals with “big picture” issues regarding online learning, namely what you can and can’t do online.

Lesson #4: There Are Things You Can’t Do Online

Let’s get this out of the way: asynchronous online courses are not the equivalent of face-to-face classes.  In particular, I’ve never seen really robust discussions taking place in such courses.  I’m referring to the dynamic give-and-take of a great classroom discussion that is partially planned, partially spontaneous.  I’m thinking of the sort of discussion that goes places you had not anticipated and yet circles back around to where you started and creates a memorable learning experience.  Those discussions leave you feeling great about teaching and have students continuing the exchange in the hall after class. Those social experiences are the height of face-to-face classes and their unique sense of in-the-moment engagement doesn’t reproduce in online discussions.

I experimented a bit with discussions, using a discussion forum and posing some fairly open-ended prompts.  I’m sure the prompts could have been stronger (something I’d like to learn more about) but the experience seemed to confirm what I’d suspected: The online environment enables serial comments and feedback but those are different beasts than a dynamic discussion.  If a class with great face-to-face discussions is like a fast-paced basketball game with the ball moving quickly from player to player, an asynchronous online course discussion is more like a game of correspondence chess.  It’s fast-paced, fluid, sustained, spontaneity versus slow, irregular–and often awkward–fits and starts.

But let’s be real; great, participatory discussions don’t happen that often in face-to-face classes, either.  They’re so memorable because they’re so rare.  In large lecture halls, they never happen.  There, even good discussions end up involving only a small percentage of the students.  Most students watch.  “Clickers” and variations on “think/pair/share” exercises help keep students engaged in these large environments but these pale in comparison to a vibrant class discussion.  So let’s fess up: as I learned, there are some things you can do in a smaller classroom that you can’t do online…or in a big lecture hall.

Less predictably, I also learned that truly collaborative group work online is very difficult and something I may not try again. That’s a big deal for me.  I’ve long used small learning groups in most of my face-to-face classes and have found them to be a valuable pedagogical strategy.  I assign students to groups of 5 or 6 students for the entire semester and ask them to complete in-class exercises and outside projects of growing complexity as the semester progresses.  Students resist at first (who likes group work?) but learn to appreciate and rely upon their group over time.  They only work outside of class after having met together a number of times in-class.  They start to bond as a group and develop a sense of mutual obligation that helps mitigate the “free rider” problem.

Online–and especially in a brief 8-week courses–there wasn’t time for students to develop a good group dynamic. The short course period may be a confounding variable here but students reported being frustrated by trying to communicate asynchronously with other group members to work on group projects, a problem that would likely persist even in a longer course.  The asynchronous nature of the interaction made it tedious and slow-moving; not good for getting group work done efficiently.  Varied work and class schedules in busy lives seemed to make synchronous online communication in small groups untenable–though that is something I believe is worth exploring more.  As I note below, asynchronous online communication is great for connecting students to comment, provide feedback, and foster mutual support.  But, in the span of a course, I don’t see an easy way to have truly collaborative projects online (not merely splitting up portions of a single project into smaller parts).

Some folks see such limitations in online courses and conclude: Face-to-face = good;  online = bad.  But that’s too facile and it misses the fact that plenty of face-to-face classes are bad and that online classes can be good.  But they are not the equivalent of face-to-face classes.  Nor should they be.  Which brings me to…

Lesson #5: There are Things You Can Only Do Online

This vast topic is way beyond the scope of this post but I’ll make a few comments with a couple of modest examples.  (This is part of a much larger discussion about “connected learning,” among other things.)

a. Connect to Outside Content.

Back in the late 1990s, I’d started putting course material on a crude website I’d created, with links to outside resources.  In a social movements class, for example, we studied some historical movements and then I’d have students visit the web sites of some contemporary social movement organizations to analyze their apparent message, audience, tactics, and so on.  In a media class, we looked at the web sites of news organizations, comparing and contrasting story choices, sourcing, and framing issues.  Connecting to outside, live, content helped to illustrate how course concepts were useful in analyzing contemporary “real-world” events and issues.

Two decades later, this ability to connect to a universe of content is one of things that still makes the Internet so valuable for teaching.  Except that now the content has grown exponentially in quantity, variety, and type, and the ways to connect to it have expanded as well.

The Internet is a cornucopia of useful information and examples in text, audio, image, and video formats.  With minimal effort, an instructor can find interesting readings and examples relevant to any course topic and link to it  It’s one way to connect outward from a class.  I certainly did that in this course, linking to news accounts and pop culture examples to show connections.  In a more advanced class I could easily link to Census Bureau or GSS data, Pew surveys, and more.

Or, as I did here, you can simply set up a stream of relevant blogs (or a Twitter feed) that will deliver fresh content.  That’s especially useful in a field like sociology where current events lend themselves to quick commentary and analysis.  By vetting some trusted blogs you can show your students how people in your field think and work.  I could easily see building an assignment around monitoring the blog stream and picking some content to critique, praise, or analyze.  Even though I had no assignments pegged to this stream, several students used material from these blog posts in their own posts.

Back in the day, I did all the searching and connecting.  Now, students can also bring Internet-based content to class, while also creating their own content.  Student blogs create a space for them to work, including a way to link, comment on, and analyze outside content, making both that content and their analyses available to the class (and anyone with the URL).  Course web sites can serve as a “mother blog,” using the FeedWordPress plug-in to aggregate the content produced by students.  Students get to see and potentially comment on the work being created by their colleagues.  I tread very lightly this first time out, encouraging but not requiring commenting, with mixed results.  There wasn’t a lot of commenting but often students would mention another student’s blog post, so clearly some of them were reading each other’s work.

I also experimented with a prototype using a Gravity form (a WordPress plug-in) built by my colleague, Tom Woodward, to create what I called the “Imagination Gallery.” This first time out, I limited myself to running a test of this approach but I will definitely expand its use in future iterations of this course.   It produces a nice archive of material that can travel from course offering to course offering (and the sort feature creates some nice eye candy, too!).

Finally, I used these linking capacities to have students contribute to the course site itself.  Early on, I asked students to find and link to a picture they felt represented some aspect of course content and write a brief comment on their choice.  Some were predictable but others, including a photo of Rosalind Franklin (“the mother of DNA”) would have never occurred to me.  I then chose a number of these to load into the banner feature of the WordPress theme I was using, thereby randomly generating a new banner photo from the images they’d collected each time a page loaded.  I thought it would be a nice little symbolic way to signal their ownership of the course.  In retrospect, it also symbolizes the connections between the course, students, and broader Internet-based resources.

b. Post Your Own Content

The popularity of the flipped classroom model has raised awareness of the value of posting mini-lectures and other instructor-generated content online for students to access outside of class.  This obviously applies to online courses as well and I won’t dwell on this point.  I experimented with producing a few simple, low-tech videos (using Camtasia), posted to YouTube.  Students could use these–or not–as they wanted.  Unlike a live lecture, the ability to pause, replay, or skip portions of the videos puts students in control of this content’s use.  Some videos were lecture-like, summarizing key points or demonstrating some ideas.  But I also experimented with an introduction to the sociological perspective using the example of coffee and a simple video suggesting different models of education.  All of these seemed to be well received; a number of students mentioned them in the course evaluation and requested that I include more such videos.

Instructor-generated content need not be limited to videos.  I’d certainly like to experiment with other formats in the future.

c. Connect Students to Each Other

The biggest drawback of online courses is the potential for an impersonal experience that leaves students feeling isolated and unsupported.  Many online courses do just that.  A part of the goal in enlisting technology for this class was to use it to enable students to connect to each other.  Just because face-to-face style discussions don’t seem to work online, doesn’t mean that other types of communication can’t thrive.

I used a light touch on promoting student interaction.  I had a single assignment asking them to comment on other blogs just to make sure they knew how to do this and to show the possibility.  After that, though, I didn’t make this a requirement.  I also had students assigned to small groups, required self-introductions, and assigned a couple of group exercises.

I learned that using various platforms can enable much more communication among students than is possible in a face-to-face class.  Early in the course we were studying “culture” and I realized that we had some aspects of an organizational culture developing in our class.  I asked students to post about this.  Among the responses, were comments about student interaction:

  • “My first online course was an economics course. It was entirely based on readings and testing on those readings. Pretty straightforward, dull, and boring. However, this class allows room for engaging with other students, through group work and discussion forums. In my opinion this is what all online classes should do.” (Salma Omer)
  • “I have never experienced a class like this before . … this course has forced me to interact with students more than I have in my other classes. We are all interacting and staying connected daily through reading each other’s blogs/discussions and interacting with group members.” (Ashley Cimino)
  • “This class has been more interactive. At first, the idea of setting up a twitter account and posting profile pictures/avatars was not my favorite. At that time, I just wanted to complete my readings and post my assignments. But I see how these things enhance our learning experience even if it is done completely online. Many of my previous online learning experiences have been […] just posted syllabus, post your discussion, take test….that’s it. But we see that online classes are not created equal and in this case only, inequality is fine.” (Bryan Smith)
  • “I definitely enjoy this new style of learning. I think that this online course is different from the rest of my online classes because instead of just working on writing on my own I have to collaborate with other people in my group as well. It is a learning experience that teaches you how to better interact with others through the online world.” (Daniella Chinsammy)

One student summarized it more eloquently than I could have:

  • “There is something really fascinating about this culture of Sociology 101 that we are building here: by connecting on so many different platforms, so often, and by having many identifiers (avatars, little Twitter bios, etc) I am learning more about my fellows much faster than I would in a classroom environment. As an English major, my classes are largely discussion-based, so I am used to hearing from classmates regularly—but still not THIS regularly, and not quite this personally. Even if ‘online anonymity’ is dead in Socy101 due to all the aforementioned ways of connecting, there still is freedom behind a screen that helps people open up. Also, online culture, particularly in a class setting, it seems, promotes clarity of thought and intention that can be lacking in a classroom where you have no time to really formulate your reply and make it as concise and clear as possible. (Laura Seabourne)

So while the lack of synchronous spontaneity can be viewed as shortcoming of online learning, it can also be understood as an advantage, creating new opportunities for communication that are actually more personal and perhaps more thoughtful than in-class discussions.

These features applied to me as well.  I’m able to craft comments a bit more deliberately when I write them than I can in a spontaneous face-to-face discussion.  And in one of my favorite features of the course, I learned an enormous amount about students as people through their blog and discussion posts. I often learned about students’ hometowns or home countries, their hobbies, their studies in school, their hopes for a career, their anxieties and frustrations about education.  I even had some personal e-mail exchanges on completely non-course topics raised by their blogs, such as an interest in running a student and I shared.

So online learning is not the equivalent of a face-to-face class and it shouldn’t be thought of as such.  But it also offers unique opportunities that are we’re only beginning to explore.

Through all of this, I’ve developed a greater appreciation for the appeal of “hybrid” or “blended” courses.  Where feasible, why not take advantage of the best of both worlds?  Why not build-in dynamic social interactions in face-to-face settings through smaller group exercises, while simultaneously taking advantage of the unique features of the Internet?  Why not pull down the fences that separate face-to-face and online?

Next: Some “small” detailed takeaways that can matter.


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