Developing teaching materials for an online environment can be incredibly challenging. Materials in an online class tend to be developed well in advance, and are used over the course of years with little or no alterations. This includes lessons or lectures, but in many cases, also assignments.
As with onsite courses, individual assignment statements are developed alongside course materials to assure that both the lessons and the projects are properly applied to meet the course objectives. Projects become a means of assessing a student’s understanding of the course material more than anything, just as they would in an onsite program. The problem, however, is that these projects (and the course material in general) must assume that all students are starting from the same point of understanding and skill, which is rarely, if ever, the case, even with rigid prerequisites and grading scales in place.
In an onsite situation, instructors can assess the strengths of the class through previous experience with them, but also through a series of small exercises aimed at understanding the abilities of each student. These might be something as simple as a series of software exercises that run the students through basic to advanced tool usage within a single class meeting. Or they can be as complex as “design an identity system for yourself,” completed over the course of a couple of classes. The objective, however, remains the same—define the knowledge-base and potential weaknesses of each class as a group. That way, instructors can craft assignment expectations and support content to help assure success in meeting class and program objectives for that level.
In an online education, things are significantly different. Here, materials are presented to each class equally, regardless of the needs of the individual group. Instructors become more project critics than educators or education partners. And students run the risk of feeling isolated and standardized, working on the same projects everyone else has already done, trying to achieve goals that are defined as generically as possible in order to assure higher rates of relevance (and success) across the board.
Many instructors are excellent at helping students overcome these issues. However, the structure of online education as it exists in the pre-developed classroom, tends to stifle the creative freedom of the instructor to teach in their own way, or share their own experiences beyond their objectively-subjective opinion of each students’ work.
That isn't to say, however, that there are not strengths in online education that we should play off of. Because online education is built up front, all learning content becomes available to the student 24 hours a day, seven days a week, including all lectures, instructor comments, and the like. This means if the students have outside responsibilities, such as work or family, they can meet the requirements of those life-responsibilities and still find time (somehow) to work on their education.
It also means that faculty tends to be more available than they would in an onsite class environment. Onsite, classes are held for a given time each week, be that time one day for a few hours or frequently during the week for smaller chunks of time. Students and faculty must assure that their schedules permit time to be available during these prescribed times. Any questions should be presented during these meetings, as there are fewer opportunities for face-to-face interaction otherwise. Yes, office hours are designed to increase discussion opportunities. But frequently these fall outside of the available schedules for many students for better or worse. All of this means the classroom is where the mentorship opportunities happen.
Online education, however, assumes that instructors will check in on their classes for a few minutes daily during the week, providing more chances for students to raise questions, express concerns, or otherwise engage actively in their own education. Additionally, because all lessons and materials are presented before the instructor becomes involved in the discussion, the online classroom works more as a flipped classroom structure, where the instructor is freed to answer questions and address confusion over materials, rather than remain the central point of focus for the duration of the class. The opportunities opened within this structure hold the power to change education on the whole, if we can just harness the strengths more systematically and holistically.
How do we do this? At the moment, there is no consensus. Many online universities seek to provide students with maximum flexibility, meaning they do not encourage set online meeting times or forums in which more organic conversations can occur. On the other hand, other online universities or workshops offer only specific meeting times, which eliminates the benefit of schedule flexibility that attracts (and retains) many working students. Many are beginning to explore ideas of blended learning—a mixture of online and onsite interaction. But logistical challenges, such as how to incorporate the needed online flexibility, have yet to be worked out in a manner that affords scalability.
There’s an answer out there somewhere. Or there will be soon. For now, I’ll continue reading, evaluating, and posting what I find.