Morning Thanks

Garrison Keillor once said we'd all be better off if we all started the day by giving thanks for just one thing. I'll try.

Monday, March 03, 2014

On On-Line Teaching


And it is humble. And it is opinion. And it is mine. Take it with a whole blessed shaker full of salt.

With two semesters of on-line education behind me, almost, I don't have a ton of experience to bring to the discussion, but I'll tell you what I think I know.

First, on-line education drives me perfectly crazy because I am someone who taught eyes. If I didn't have them, if they seemed spacey, if it was obvious their gaze went elsewhere, or if--and when--they were closed, I knew I wasn't teaching effectively. Students' engagement is something you can see, I would have said, for all of my forty years in the classroom. You look into their eyes, which is to say, of course, their souls. If there's nothing there, then nothing's going on and nothing's going in.

There are no eyes on-line. If there can be, I don't know how to get them up on the screen; but even if I did I don't know that on-line eyes would be as readable. On-line, it's easy to believe you failed if you're an old prof, someone accustomed to evaluating your own success by a classroom full of eyes wide open. I did. I had to be told I hadn't failed. True story.

Teaching "by eyes" assumes authority that a ton of educationalists say is best displayed in some dusty teaching museum. If all the eyes are on the lecturer, none are on the work in front of them. If the teacher is the star, celebrity may feel good; but celebrity doesn't guarantee anything is being communicated. You want stares from 19-year olds?--show a whole gaggle of movie previews. But does a theater full of slack-jawed staring really mean learning is happening?

Still, I miss eyes.  I miss them big-time.  

Sightless though it is, on-line teaching still holds some startling possibilities. The greatest of these possibilities is dependent on numbers, as everything is in education. It's just plain easier to teach a class of 15 than it is a class of 55, and I've been blessed, both semesters, with very sweet and modest numbers. The claim I'm going to make is heavily dependent on numbers.

And, communication is a two-way thing, of course--there is no noise if no one hears a tree fall; but IMHO on-line education offers more opportunity for individual learning, more opportunity for close interaction, more opportunity for intimacy (may I use that word?) than does the classroom.  

I know teachers who went out of their way to schedule conferences with every one of their students--I wasn't one of them. I figured they were adults: if they needed me, they'd show up. I still feel that way.

But it's impossible not to talk to students one-on-one when you're on-line. You may be talking to a screen, but anybody who writes as much as I do knows that the letters marching out of my fingertips have effects. I wouldn't write if they didn't.  

It goes without saying that I'm never there in the room. None of my students visit my office. But I talk to my on-line students more individually and with more diligence--because I must--than I did individual students from those classrooms where once upon a time I held forth. 

IMHO, here's the bottom line.  After two semesters of teaching on this screen, it kills me not to see the students, not to see their eyes. At the same time, individually, I think each of them are getting more of their prof than the classroom, by itself, ever offered.

Whether that's good or bad is a question only they can answer.

One of my students this semester told me he was taking this on-line course because two of his siblings had taken the very same course from me in the recent past in a classroom, and they told him that taking Schaap is interesting not because you just learn about literature (neither are English majors) but you learn about life. That's why he signed up, he says--and I don't think he's just some charming brown-nose. 

The real question will be, I suppose, has that been true also for him?  

I don't have that answer.  What I'm saying is that I believe the chances for that happening are just as good on-line as they are in the classroom. Maybe even better.

My ex-peers are going to be meeting soon to chart out possibilities for more on-line education at the college where I held forth for most of my life. Quite frankly, I'm surprised that it took so long for the college to get serious about it.  There are all kinds of good bad reasons to do it, after all--money being one of them.

IMHO, there also some very good reasons. 

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