Keep Inflexible Technophobes Out of the Online Classroom

When I read the Chronicle piece, “I’ll Never Do it Again“—about one professor’s experiences teaching online—I thought to myself, “Great! Don’t. More work for the rest of us.” I hope there’s a Chronicle piece in the works by someone who enjoys teaching online and whose students perform well. I could name at least fifteen people without even trying who could write such commentary—including myself although my sample size is (admittedly) in the single digits. Are there problems with purely online courses? Sure. Are there problems with purely face-to-face courses? Sure. Are there problems with hybrid courses? Sure. Conclusion? Teaching and learning are challenges faced by all instructors and students everywhere. This isn’t news.

I don’t know if I lucked into having the best graduate faculty ever, but since day one in my MA and PhD programs I’ve had one word drilled into my brain: FLEXIBILITY. To that, I’ve added the following on my own: SELFLESSNESS. My classes—virtual or otherwise—aren’t about me. In every class there are goals for the students to achieve, and readings and activities and assignments that I believe will help them meet those goals, but gosh darn it if the class goes in a different direction on any given day, so be it as long as the students learn something. We regroup the next time, and I keep on listening to them (virtually or otherwise) and watch how they working with the material, and together we find a way for them to achieve those course goals. [Now, I’m no pollyanna—I know sometimes things just don’t work, and only brute force will get people back on track. So be it.]

When I read Clift’s five points about how teaching online “doesn’t compare” to teaching in the classroom, my first thought was that Clift had a negative experience because she went into it not understanding the platform and not understanding online interactions. My second thought was that the negative outcome was shaped by a fundamentally inflexible pedagogy. I’m not saying Clift is a bad instructor, because I don’t know her at all and it would be completely unfair to say such things with her essay as my only evidence. But I do know that just as many institutions provide checklists for students about expectations before taking an online class, instructors should have a similar expectations document regarding teaching an online class.

I agree that teaching online doesn’t compare to teaching in the physical classroom. But I don’t see online/offline in binary opposition. I see “online: potentially good or bad” and “offline: potentially good or bad.” My own personal experience with online courses started in 2004 or so [I got my BA in 1992 but went back to school for another set of degrees starting in 2003], when I took Janet Stemwedel’s Philosophy of Science course at San Jose State University. Janet designed a great course with a lot of content and which required a lot of student interaction. After I took the course, I TA’d for it (twice, in fact). I also took the SJSU Business Administration capstone course online, and again the professor set up the course so that students had to be engaged with the material and with each other. A few years later I wrote all the content and managed all the students in two asynchronous courses (students started and finished at their own pace when given a 6-month block of time to complete the lessons) for I haven’t had the opportunity to teach courses online at WSU, but we do a lot of hybrid work in my courses even though they aren’t billed as such. I will have the opportunity to teach online at WSU; several of my fellow graduate students teach writing or literature courses online for the department and it’s fair to say that people fight over those slots.

Specifically addressing the five points in Clift’s essay, I should note that she lost me at the first one. I was willing to give her the benefit of the doubt—online courses aren’t for everyone—until she fired the “‘Virtual community’ is the ultimate oxymoron” salvo. This statement is so untrue for me that I almost don’t know how to respond. But I will endeavor to do so, for all you nameless, faceless masses who come by and read this.

Clift first assumes that the virtual community is anonymous and we are all bonding over “true confessions.” Given that I know the real names of almost all of the people in my “cybergroup” and am positive that precious few know my personal secrets, this anonymity claim is bogus. Also, how could the virtual community of her classroom be anonymous? Surely people were registered for the class, and even if they used logins or nicks of their own choosing, these names had to be associated with actual student records for the purpose of grading. This opening statement marks Clift as someone who is disinclined to spend any time learning about and experiencing online interaction, and is inflexible in her position that “online” == “bad”.

She goes on to say that she finds it “extraordinarily difficult to communicate with people for whom I have no face, no persona, no body language, no in-the-moment exchange.” Ok, fair enough, but anyone who spends time interacting online knows how to replace those physical needs with virtual expressions of the same—even something simple as emoticons or other forms of expressions for emphasis, joy, displeasure, and so on will allow you to “read” a person online, often better than in the classroom (because at least they’re saying something). Again, not something you’d know if you spend little time in that world, and when she says that the virtual classroom is “a substitute for an actual space in which people physically gather to explore, discuss, grapple, and grow together in the true spirit of learning and meaningful exchange” she implies that none of those things can happen in a virtual classroom. When applied broadly, this statement is patently false. It might have been true in her experience, but nothing inherent in the virtual classroom keeps instructors and students from exploring, discussing, and grappling with ideas, growing together, or having meaningful exchanges. Nothing. No.thing.

Clift’s second point is her perceived “lack of immediacy in communication,” by which she means that in her asynchronous classroom she worried “that [her] feedback might be misinterpreted and thus hurtful or confusing” and she lamented what she perceived as and inability “to probe, clarify, comment in the moment.” Although the sentiment is laudable, it confuses me. When she hands back student papers in the physical classroom, does she stand at each student’s chair and “probe, clarify, comment in the moment”? Or does she have that magical group of students who come to her office hours regularly and for long periods of probing, clarifying, and commenting time? To me, this sounds like a person who doesn’t use e-mail, or know that you can actually have prolonged discussions via e-mail.

Speaking from personal experience, some of the most positive exchanges I’ve had with students about their work has come via e-mail or IM—and those exchanges are from students in my face-to-face classes. So, I have two issues with her statement: first, I reject the notion that you can’t have meaningful discussions via e-mail or message boards or IM, and second, I don’t understand how she doesn’t understand the inherent asynchronicity of online courses. Students are flexible enough to work with comments via an electronic medium, so why can’t she be similarly flexible and give comments that way? I get an inkling of control issues here, or power through physical presence that she cannot duplicate online (perhaps because her students are more comfortable with the platform and technology than she is).

As to her point regarding the quality of education being compromised in the online classroom, that is an individual matter—design a bad class and virtual classroom elements and of course the quality of education is going to suffer. She notes that she “was only able to introduce students to a limited amount of material outside of the textbook readings; it is simply impossible to replicate a lecture online.” Has Clift ever heard of a podcast, I wonder? If there is something so valuable in a true lecture—note she didn’t say “discussion”—then record the lecture and put it in the classroom space for the students to download. In the Philosophy of Science course that I mentioned earlier, Janet Stemwedel pre-recorded a video for each week/lesson with the help of the University’s media services department. Perhaps an audio-only lecture is all the students need, perhaps audio plus video if you are especially engaging or need them to see you, perhaps audio synced with a slideshow—these are not out of the ordinary, and many free solutions requiring little technical knowledge exist for just these purposes. So again, systematic course planning and creation of multimedia assets are up to the individual instructor; there’s nothing inherent in online coursers that compromises anyone’s education.

Money (not earned) and time spent were Clift’s final two points. She states she “devoted at least three times as many hours and triple the energy to online teaching than was necessary for traditional courses” and wasn’t paid extra for it. To this I would simply say, “ur doin it wrong.” Yes, developing an online course takes time. It may or may not take more time than a new prep for an offline course. The difference is that everything has to be planned and made available (give or take a few weeks) at the beginning and therefore it may seem like an extra burden. It is also true that some institutions give course releases or extra financial incentive to develop new online courses—understanding that once created, the content and structure would be available for future implementations with little effort. Her “triple the energy” claim makes sense to me, as the rest of her essay paints a picture of an online instructor who doesn’t know how “online” works. Of course her interactions with the class and the platform would be inefficient. She says “it would have been nice to feel that I had some down time and a day off occasionally, as I did with classroom teaching.” Want downtime? Plan for it. Set boundaries. The world won’t end. Part of learning how to exist in the virtual world (and teaching in it) is learning how to manage the always-on information stream. It can be done. But everyone has to learn that one for themselves.

Clift’s five reasons for never teaching online again are fair—for her. Probably for many others. They’re not for me, and for many people I know. That’s fine. But the third-to-last paragraph of her essay bothered me the most. I quote it in its entirity:

Then there were all the e-mail messages that I received from students. This one didn’t understand the assignment. That one wanted to tell me why her assignment was late. Another felt that my feedback was too negative. Yet another wanted to apologize for the way she had stated her position, and on and on. Weary and obsessed, I began to feel that, despite my best efforts, I was not up to the task, not in control, not meeting my own standards. On top of that, I suspected my students didn’t like me very much. That hurt. I began to break out in rashes and suffer sleepless nights.

So, all that talk about the virtual classroom not working because she couldn’t probe or clarify or comment…isn’t that what the students mentioned above were doing? A student didn’t understand the assignment and asked for clarification. THANK GOD. The student used the proper tool, asked a question so they could—one would hope—complete the assignment to the best of their ability. Another student felt that feedback was too negative; Clift previously said that she spent a great deal of time “worrying that my feedback might be misinterpreted and thus hurtful or confusing,” here we have an instance of the student communicating this to the instructor and said instructor now sees that as a negative. You can’t have it both ways. You can’t worry that your communications are unclear or that your students aren’t learning the material and then complain when they take the responsibility to ask for clarity.

From her ivory tower, Clift disparages those who “like living in a virtual world of virtual students with virtual goals, capacities, and ideas” and informs us all that she will “stick to the virtues of live human interaction” and eschew any requests to teach online. I think that’s a spectacular idea. In my classroom, virtual or otherwise, we have real goals, real capacities, and real ideas. We have no battle between “virtual” and “real” and instead we try to embrace and interact Everyware. In short, Clift’s essay does not expose any flaws with online education. Clift’s essay simply brings to light a textbook case of PEBKAC: “Problem Exists Between Keyboard And Chair.”

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9 Comments on “Keep Inflexible Technophobes Out of the Online Classroom

  1. I find it so very mindboggling that these discussions are even still taking place at this point. It’s true that I’ve always been a fairly early adopter when it comes to technology, so it was only a little surprising when some of my daughters’ friends – in a fairly affluent community – still didn’t have computers in their homes during the early 90s while we had 3.

    By the time both of them were in college in 2000, they were complaining because more online courses weren’t available. While I was working at a university in 2002, administrators were finally getting the message that they were going to have to seriously compete for dollars with places like the University of Phoenix. There was talk of Ivy League institutions collaborating to offer a joint online curriculum. What’s happened to all of that? What’s holding everything up? Is it because there are still too many holdovers from earlier generations on faculties nationwide? That just doesn’t seem possible.

    How can anyone today, seriously, be computer literate enough to teach an online course and have no experience with virtual community or understand the value of e-mail communication? That just doesn’t seem possible, either. Ur doing it wrong, indeed.

    With 2009 almost half over, online education should be a given. Courses like science labs would maybe be the exceptions and everything else just continuing to expand with potential/possibilities. All I can say is that it had better be in place by the time my grandchildren get to college.

    Of course, I’m still waiting to live like the Jetsons, so I’m pretty resigned to being disappointed.

  2. This is a great post! I had a similar reaction to Clift’s article in the CHE and was happy she wasn’t going to teach online anymore–we don’t need students having bad online experiences. She is a “sage on the stage” and will probably never be a “guide on the side”. Sad, really.

  3. Rebecca: I agree it’s difficult to fathom that these are even issues, but I find the attitude pervasive. People throw around terms like “digital divide” and “information literacy” like binaries — like you’re on one side or the other, or you have literacy or you don’t — and that’s just not true. The terms are highly nuanced, and technology is always changing such that an ubergeek in 1994 might be outdated now if they haven’t caught up. I see a lot of that, too — people who have been online for a long time, but only in their niche and aren’t familiarizing (or even wanting to familiarize) themselves with current trends, uses, etc. I think that’s doubly bad in teaching. Online education _should_ be a given, as there are so many potential benefits, but if the wrong people are in place then online education will never gain secure footing enough to move everyone forward.

    Jan: thanks! Yes, definitely the “sage on the stage” type. I agree — sad.

  4. You know how un-techy I am compared to the likes of you, but I still teach an online course and can understand the value of it and how to adapt to a different format. You also know how freaking long my commute is and I definitely understand the basic pragmatic value the online format offers our students. Not to mention the fact that our branch campus simply does not offer the courses our students need to complete their major and they have no choice but to take online courses.

    I have had conversations with my students in my online course that are just as valuable and insightful as those with my students in the classroom – I don’t understand the basic premise that if students are communicating electronically there is some inherent deficiency and their ideas are “virtual” rather than real and valuable. As a student myself, I often found myself leaving a seminar for my drive home and thinking of several things I wish I had said during class discussion and wishing there was an electronic forum where I could post my ideas and keep the conversation going – not everyone can be brilliant and insightful on the spot without some time to think.

    This is my very long way of saying I totally agree with you. I cannot understand someone who doesn’t understand the very real value of online courses, and if that is a hurdle that is too large to overcome then that person should definitely never teach online again. Our students deserve better.

  5. I’m glad you responded because I had you in mind when I wrote this. Something like “Michelle’s not nearly as technically inclined as I am but she does an awesome job and _gets it_ on multiple levels because she lives out in the boondocks.” Good to know I got the correct sense of things… 🙂 Also, what you said about leaving class and wanting to keep talking is precisely what blogs — when used well in the classroom — should be for. We’ve both been in seminars in which we were required to blog, but on specific things and at specific times, which tends to remove the serendipitous nature of blogging and just make it something that people do instead of handing in papers (which is ok, but misses the potential of the medium). But that’s a topic for another day…

  6. Just wanted to say hello. I saw your comment on Bardiac and saw that you’re at WSU. I graduated with my Ph.D. in English in ’05. Victor Villanueva rules!

    Good to meet a fellow coug.

    • Hi! Yep, Victor’s pretty great. He’s on Michelle’s (of the upthread comment) committee, and I get to talk with him during various dept. committee meetings…and we’re literature folks! 🙂

  7. Wonderful post! I read that piece and was reminded again why I usually find “Chronicleland” to be a place I wouldn’t want to live.

    My dad, who teaches in a business program at his local university, has been tapped to develop and teach an online course, and he is over the moon about it. Since he’s a guy who isn’t afraid of technology, is very organized, and good about setting boundaries (he used to be a manager of engineers), he is thrilled that he’ll be able to work from home, on his own time. I suspect he’ll get better responses from his students as well, partly because the format forces them to participate, and partly because the sorts of students who seek out online education (such as single parents in remote areas) are often highly motivated to do well – something he doesn’t see so much in his lecture courses.

    PEBKAC definitely describes what’s going on with that article (not unlike most hackle-raising articles at the Chron.).

  8. I will third the “Victor” is awesome commentary going on here – what a great addition to my committee!

    Also, forgot to mention in my previous post one of the most wonderful benefits of teaching an online course: I get to do it in my pajamas:)

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