The Modality Myth

Imagine a study that examined faculty attitudes towards the quality of learning in different classes.  Such a study might ask these sorts of questions:

  • Can large courses achieve learning outcomes that are equivalent to small seminars?
  • What are the most important quality indicators of a lecture-based education?
  • How does the quality of large courses compare with the quality of small seminars?
  • How supportive are institutions of small seminars?
  • Which should cost the student more — large lecture-based degree programs or those delivered in small seminars?
  • Are institutions expanding large lecture-based courses? Should they do so? To what extent do faculty feel that they are appropriately consulted in this decision-making process?

These questions are taken from a recent Inside Higher Ed promotion of a survey that examined faculty attitudes–not toward class size but toward online learning.  I’ve mostly replaced the words “in-person” and “online” with “small” or “large.”

The survey is an example of a common implied assumption: that “modality”–whether a course will be conducted face-to-face or online–is the most important variable influencing the quality of education.  This is the modality myth.

By focusing exclusively on modality, other crucial variables get obscured. For example, anyone who’s ever taught large and small classes knows they are different animals. But questions about class size seem more likely to be raised in debates about academic labor issues (faculty-student ratios and over-reliance on adjuncts and contract faculty, etc.), than in discussions of learning quality.

Similarly, instructors matter as much or more then modality.  Lecturing full-time in a 20-student class wastes the opportunities afforded by a small class.  Using the Internet to simply “push” content in an online class wastes the affordances of that environment.  A creative instructor can help both those environments come to life.

My point is a simple one.  Modality matters but it is just one of several major variables that impact the learning experience.  Back in the day when online education was new, perhaps it made sense to pay special attention to the novel issues modality raised.  But now, online education has expanded into many different forms.  It makes no more sense to think of “online courses” as a monolithic entity than it does to think of the 300-seat lecture hall and 10-seat seminar room as the the same, simply because they share the same modality.

So the next time you see a discussion focusing exclusively on online versus in-person courses, try plugging in other variables (large vs. small, active-learning vs. passive lecture) to get a much better sense of the range of relevant issues that may be influencing quality.

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.


Lessons from an Online Summer Course (#1-#3)

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.)  With just one course under my belt, my takeaway lessons are tentative, of course, and will be familiar to experienced online teachers.  Still, perhaps they can be of some use to other first-time teachers.

This first group of three lessons focuses on the challenges of technology.

Lesson #1. Learn By Doing

There’s no way to really get a feel for teaching online until you do it.  I tried to be as prepared as I could in advance of this course.  I talked with people who were more experienced. I read a bit.  I played around with some ideas.  But in the end, it was only through the process of doing it that I really began learning about teaching online.

By doing my course, I learned more about what worked and what didn’t for me.  I identified some of the details of technology that I needed to learn–and the many parts I didn’t need to bother with.  I realized things I’d want to do next time around, as well as things I’d drop after having tried them.  I learned that I over-thought some issues and neglected to anticipate others.  (Along the way I was reminded of the wisdom of epistemological pragmatism.)

Yes, we can and should prepare well.  But we learn by doing.  Jump in; get started.  Perhaps start small to better manage the messiness but just start.

Lesson #2: Teacher, Teach Thyself, Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying Even Though I Still Don’t Love the Technology

Teaching online for the first time means dealing with the technology that enables you to do so. Ed-tech enthusiasts can tell you about the wonders of this technology…and they’re right to a degree.  But the immediate experience as a first-time teacher is that learning and working with this tech is a time-consuming pain.  Period.  I’m not surprised that many faculty shy away from it entirely.

To me, ed-tech is a lot like my car.  I value being able to get from one place to another and sometimes I even enjoy the journey along the way.  But I’ve never been a car guy and I have no interest in ever being one.  I want to use the technology for my purposes, not learn the details of how it works.  In some ways, I think that’s what distinguishes most faculty from many ed-tech folks.  The latter are interested in the tech itself; what it can do and how it might be adapted for learning.  They get their hands greasy messing around under the hood.  Faculty want their cars to work when they turn the key. End of story.

I’m no different.  I’m not a Luddite by any means but my first instinct is not right-click “view page source” to figure out how someone created something. But working on this course reminded me of the importance of stretching and teaching myself new things, however modest. If we are to innovate, we need to have some understanding of the capacities of the tools with which we work.

I had the luxury of great support if I needed it but I tried as much as I could to answer my own questions, many of which eventually could be answered by Googling a topic or searching in the extensive WordPress Codex or support pages for help.  Instead of asking them, I started keeping a file of running questions and would try to answer them myself when I had a chance.

All of this was a great reminder that learning new things outside of our areas of comfort and expertise is not always easy.  We ask students to do this all the time and we can get exasperated when they ask questions they should be able to answer for themselves.  Yet, I caught myself wanting to do the exact same thing.  I wasn’t an expert in WordPress (or whatever aspect of the course I was dealing with) so why shouldn’t I turn to the person who is more of an expert for a quick answer?  The reason, of course, is that I’d be missing an opportunity to grow and become more independent.

If we want to help students “learn how to learn”–to develop the skills to be lifelong learners–it’s useful to put ourselves in the position of being a student.  As teachers, we need to teach ourselves to be learners.

Lesson #3: Be Honest, Especially About Not Knowing

This wasn’t a new lesson; I’ve always been very comfortable in class acknowledging that I didn’t know something.  But teaching online gave me the opportunity to be ignorant about a whole set of new issues! I tried to be up front with students from start to finish.  I cautioned that this would be a different sort of class than they’d likely experienced before; that it would require the use of blogs; that their writing would be public; that we’d be doing group work; that I was experimenting with what for me were new technologies; and that there would inevitably be bumps in the road along the way.

Technology can be intimidating for both students and faculty.  But I’ve come to believe that faculty anxiety about technology is often tied to bigger issues of knowledge and expertise. As instructors, we are inevitably making a claim that we have something to offer students; that we can assist in their learning a subject and/or a skill.  We are often used to being the “experts” in the classroom.  Not knowing can make us uncomfortable. Trying something new in the class means we have to deal with uncertainty; with not knowing. Isn’t it our job to be the local expert?

Of course, after years of study,  I know many things that my students don’t about the subjects I teach. (And they bring knowledge about many things in which they are interested that I don’t know anything about.)  But I think that part of my job as a teacher is to model being a learner, not an expert.  And one of the things good learners know is how little they know!

I used a policy of honesty this summer, explaining that part of the learning process involves overcoming obstacles.  Here was part of my simple attempt (photo included):

“I’m trying some technologies in this course for the first time, so the road is bound to get a little rough.  This first week will be the toughest for learning new tech things.  Be persistent, take a deep breath, maintain a sense of humor, don’t drive into the side of a house, and we’ll work through this together. (Or maybe I’m the only one who’s a little anxious about this?)”

“Rough Road” by Curtis Perry CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

I find a little self-deprecating humor fits with my personality.  Being honest about working problems out as they arose became part of the course zeitgeist in which we were repeatedly experimenting with new things and turning to each other for assistance.

Next: “Big picture” lessons about online learning.

Lessons from an Online Summer Course (Introduction)

101 course header

I taught an experimental online introductory sociology course this summer  and I planned to write a blog post summarizing some of the things I learned from that experience.   As I drafted the post, it got longer and longer until it became clear that it was silly of me to try to tackle all of the issues raised by the class in a single post.  Instead, I’ll return to lessons learned in a series of posts in the coming days.

For now, let me set the stage and introduce what was a learning experience for me in a number of ways.  This was my first time:

  • teaching entirely online
  • teaching a summer course in a shortened 8-week session
  • using WordPress as a course platform
  • using student blogs as a major assignment

So the forthcoming series of “lessons learned” comes from both a long-time teacher but also a first-time newbie, reflecting on the challenges of this type of course, the opportunities it provides, and its connection to broader education issues.

Premise and Context

This course:

  • was during an 8-week summer semester
  • was capped at 50 students but after drop/add 42 remained
  • had no TAs
  • was supported by an ed-tech specialist (Thanks, Tom!) who assisted me in setting up the WordPress site
  • was the only class I was teaching this summer

I mention all of these details because they are important in considering whether or not this course model can realistically be adopted by faculty teaching with a regular course load (anywhere from 2 to 4 courses per semester here) with as large–and often much larger–class enrollment (the situation most faculty face).  I’ll return to this issue of transferability in a later post.

Finally, the primary goal of this introductory course was to familiarize students with the basic sociological perspective, including seeing connections between micro/meso/and macro level phenomena and understanding the role of culture/socialization, structure/agency, and power/inequality in social life.  Almost none of these students were sociology majors, so I was trying to help students see the relevance and applicability of sociology to better understanding everyday life, rather than focusing on detailed specialized knowledge of the field.  That, too, was an important feature of this class–and one that may not be transferable to courses that are unavoidably more content-driven.

So there there you have the basic premise.  What did I learn?  That comes next.

“Do I Need Internet Access for an Online Course?”

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.