Responding to Faculty Anxiety about Online Learning

I came across this article at the Washington Post by way of Stephen Downes’ daily online newsletter.

The article was particularly compelling becuase the author, Susan Sharpe, is a teacher at our regional community college–where my husband also happens to teach. She expresses a lot of the frustrations and dissatisfacions with online teaching that I imagine many faculty share (or are suspicious of).

For example, I share Sharpe’s concerns about having to spell out course requirements so minutely in the syllabus:

So I built more requirements into the syllabus: You have to respond three times in this unit; your response must be at least 100 words long; and it must refer to some specific sentence in the story, or, perhaps, give the writer feedback as to whether you can “see” his character.

Her experiences have taught her that if she doesn’t provide this level of detail, students simply don’t know/understand what is required of them with regard to class participation in an online course. Having to exert this level of control over her class leaves her feeling like she’s micro-managing participation in a way that she would never do in a “live” class.

And I am also sensitive to her concern about missing out on the human element that face-to-face interaction affords her. I actually found her description of the disparate students in a typical class rather moving. She is obviously a teacher who cares about the character and humanity of the people who gather in her classes, and this probably shinces through in her teaching. It is certainly the case that technology can thwart our efforts to feel connected–it can but it doesn’t have to.

I think Downes is probably on to something in his short commentary that speculates the fault may have been more with the tools she was using than the inherent nature of online learning. I feel pretty strongly that our typical CMS’s make it difficult for teachers to connect with students on a personal level–and hard for them to create immersive, compelling online spaces for learning and thinking (spaces that might naturally prompt deeper interaction without a teacher having to “prompt” for it).

That said, I disagree with the general tenor of Downes’ comments and I find his reaction generally too dismissive (he also gets the gender of the author wrong):

I’m glad this professor enjoys himself so much [in the traditional f2f classroom]. But this professor’s pleasure is no reason to keep learning in the dark ages.

I’m not sure we are yet at the point where we can refer to the traditional, face-to-face classroom experience as the “dark ages.” And, as I’ve said, I think that the author raises some valid points, that we as instructional technologists need to be ready and able to respond to.

I would love to see this article as a jumpping off point for a larger, more in-depth conversation about how we address these real concerns, perhaps within my own organization or our upcoming Faculty Academy.