Each day, I try to post something on Twitter about what I'm working on. Typically it centers around my work within a virtual classroom, but every once in awhile, the tweet reflects the challenges I find in writing online classes. Today's tweet was one of those.
Today's Online Teaching Challenge: Working with the realization that learning online is not the same as learning onsite.
This isn't a surprising tweet or even a surprising thought. And it's one I've wrestled with as both an online student and online faculty member. But it hit me as a surprise today because many of the changes we've been working to implement within our LMS—changes aimed at assuring student success—are falling short. And I need to figure out why.
The New Class—Nothing Like the Old Class
As an online instructor, former online student, and current class coordinator (meaning, I'm "there" for online course authors as they build content for our department), I'm frequently asked for advice on how to develop online learning materials. And because it's always easier to give analogies than specifics in defining how to do anything even remotely creative (such as writing a class), I tend to respond pretty much the same way. "Think of it like you might a flipped classroom. The students will read all of the content you write, much like they might read a reading assignment assigned in an onsite class before any discussion opens up. What will they need to prepare them for that discussion or any assignments you plan to give them?"
Simple, right? And for years, I thought it was really the right answer. But this week, after some feedback from both faculty and students, I'm beginning to wonder if it might be far more complicated than anyone originally thought it was.
Recently, we'd rewritten two of our foundation design courses—one is steeped in software tutorials with very little design work involved, and the other is steeped in defining design terminology with a lot of design work involved. They were originally designed, oh so many years ago, to work hand in hand. The software course would feed the design course by providing the needed skills at the needed time. But over the years, this relationship has broken down as materials adjusted to meet the needs of the students and faculty, as well as changes in the software covered. In other words, the two classes, typically taken together, now have little or nothing to do with each other.
As we rewrote the courses, we looked at the objectives, the existing materials, and the complaints from previous students and faculty. We revised each syllabus, keeping in mind each of these things, and asked ourselves how we could adjust the assignments to (1) teach the appropriate skills and (2) retain our students beyond these two very challenging courses.
We tore apart the objectives, rethinking how we could achieve each one in more engaging ways. We reconsidered how the assignments were handled. We revised how we taught the skills needed to complete those assignments. We wrote, rewrote, recorded, edited, cried, and laughed our way through two of the most challenging rebuilds to date. And in the end, we had (what we thought were) two amazing, engaging courses that could only lead to informed, successful students.
We launched the design course last spring. We launched the software course this fall. And both have seen continued attrition, confusion, complaints, and frustration from students and faculty alike. Though the faculty does tend to agree that what we have now is significantly better than what was there before. So score one for team rebuild. But the complaints remain. And now, we're asking ourselves "WTF?" with serious concern and no real clue as to how to proceed.
One possible issue in this whole process might be that we've forgotten our audience. Yes, we're trying to write to assure greater student success. But we're also writing to make sure all of the content, and each of the "cool" assignments, make it into the class. We're holding onto our darlings because we love them so and because we've convinced ourselves they must remain in the class.
Additionally, we're writing the classes as we might write for an onsite lecture. We're prepping slides and notes to present to our students, hoping to answer all questions in one go (since the online students can't interrupt us during our "lecture" to ask the questions they need clarification on). This becomes problematic in that the students (1) may have questions we've never considered, or (2) just might gloss over the copious amounts of content we're presenting, coming out the other side of our lecture less informed than they were going in. In our efforts to provide all of the answers, we might actually be giving students too much to think about, which might be causing them to forget their actual questions. Which probably leaves those questions unasked. Which means there are no questions. Which leads us to pat ourselves on the backs for a job-well-done in covering all of the materials in a method to eliminates student questions.
Except we haven't. So what do (can) we do?
Maybe we need to rethink things from the ground up.
Learning Online is Nothing Like Learning Onsite
Let's start there—online learning isn't the same as onsite learning. In a classroom with a live teacher, students confusion or understanding is clear. An instructor can look upon any student in the room and gain immediate feedback on whether the content was helpful or confusing. We can read the expressions and know whether the student "got it" without uttering a word. And more often than not, even the timid students will ask questions if they just don't understand the problem. Which means any confusion can be addressed before the end of the day, assuring greater opportunities for success for all participants.
But online, things don't work that way. Online students need to be more self-determined and self-disciplined overall. They need to recognize when things are confusing and have the strength of character needed to ask the questions in a completely public forum. More often, rather than stick out their virtual necks, they remain quiet and try to finish the assignment without the needed information. Naturally, this leads to weaker solutions, more critical feedback, and frustration all around. But why do they insist on suffering in silence? Why not just ask the question they need answered to better help themselves (and probably their classmates)?
Maybe they see posting questions in the instructor's office as intimidating—even more intimidating than posting a personal comment on Facebook. Yes, more people will see that Facebook comment than will see a question for clarification in an online instructor's office. But most of those people are not their career peers. Most of those Facebook friends are just that; friends, family, and others who already accept the student for who they are. The perceived judgment isn't as prevalent as it might be in a classroom, surrounded by faceless classmates who probably have the same question, but also don't want to be perceived as dim. This means online instructors are tasked with an enormous challenge—eeking out questions from an audience who wants anonymity and answers.
Beyond this, onsite classrooms benefit from a more flexible schedule across the semester than the typical online class can. Yes, the onsite class schedule—when the class meets—is pretty much set in stone, while the online schedule fluctuates to meet the needs of each student. But the structure of the syllabus, or what gets covered when within the semester, is more concrete in an online class (since all materials are written beforehand and presented on a very set schedule) than it might be onsite.
When confusion reigns in regards to specific topics, onsite instructors can flex the schedule to permit more in-depth coverage of certain topics. Don't understand grids? No problem—we can spend all of this week covering grids before we move on to applying those to our project. Need more information on how to integrate type and imagery? Let's cover that a bit longer. Already know way too much about basic typesetting? Great! Let's move on to more complex issues of typographic hierarchy! The onsite schedule lives and breathes based on the needs of each class section. So long as the objectives are met, no one questions what gets covered on a day to day basis.
But in the online world, content is concrete. So spending more time on grids comes at the expense of integrating type and imagery. And it doesn't matter if you're comfortable with basic typesetting; you will have to wait until the end of this lesson to get into more complex ideas.
While this concrete schedule is really what makes the online class work, it's also the Achille's heel of the online class environment. And it's a difficult challenge to address. Potential solutions might be found in the setting up each online studio as a blended class, provided you can overcome issues of a global audience and the fact that your lectures may need to happen at 2am local time. Or perhaps it's better to approach online classes as a set of Legos, with topic "bricks" that instructors can pull, mix, and match as needed to address the needs of each class.
So what's the magic bullet? I have no idea. The last time I attacked the online teaching challenge, I lost months of sleep and gained minimal retention in each class. But, as with anything, we won't know until we tear it all apart, find the darlings worth killing, and rebuild it with the realization that learning online is nothing like learning onsite—but maybe it can be.