Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Dealing with Weather

Buried under a mountain of snow, I've spent the morning revising (for the second time) my syllabus for my Tuesday/Thursday class. Between my grandmother's funeral, a sick day, and two snow days, well, as you might imagine, the schedule has had to change. I was able to shift things around in such a way that I haven't cut any material (yet - one more closing and we're fucked and that's when I'll have to just eliminate something), but the whole thing sucks. This class hasn't exactly been the most dynamic I've ever taught, and these cancellations are not helping to change the vibe in there. At this point, I think I may just need to accept that this class is not going to set the world on fire this semester. The time for me to change the vibe may have passed, if that time ever existed.

I posted a status update on Fb about the uncoolness of this latest cancellation, and a friend commented that this is the sort of situation where having part of the work of a course - if not the entire course - online can be helpful. I know that's the back-up plan our university pushed with fears about a massive flu outbreak, and as you guys might suspect, I'm comfortable with online stuff so my resistance to that as a solution doesn't come from some anti-technology stance. But I really don't think that the Internet solves the problems that I've got with this class, or could.

Because here's the thing: the issue is not actually about the material of the course not being able to be covered. I mean, it's a literature course: if you can't read when you're snowed in, then when can you read? The issue is more about getting students to dig deeply into the material, and in a F2F class, the place where that gets modeled is in the classroom. While in the online class I teach I've tried to find ways (and I think have somewhat succeeded) to produce a similar sort of active engagement and deep digging, what I've found in that environment is that it takes me about two weeks of the semester just to address the technology learning curve with those students, as well as to get them used to being active in an online environment. And this is with students who signed up for an online course.

And this is why I feel like the whole "but teh Internets are the future! No more changing of course schedules due to snow or the flu or whatever!" thing isn't realistic, at least for the students that I teach. Because in a F2F class, I don't take the time up front to acculturate students to working in an online environment, and so to spring that on them when the world becomes a snow globe wouldn't really be a reasonable substitute for what I'd have them do in class. In addition, there are two major impediments to the whole "let's move it online!" thing with my students:

  • Most of my students don't really know how to use much of Blackboard. Sure, they can find course documents or they can check their grades. But they don't know how to use the discussion board, they don't know how to participate effectively in an online discussion, they don't know how to use the "online classroom" function.
  • Many of my students don't actually have internet access at home. I know, right? But seriously: they don't. And it's unreasonable to expect that they should when they are not enrolled in an online course.
The fact of the matter is, if I've learned anything from developing and teaching an online course, I've learned that teaching effectively in an online environment requires different teaching practices than teaching in a F2F classroom. One has to rethink everything, including how one "lectures," generates and leads discussion, designs assignments, and gives feedback. I imagine that a similar rethinking would really need to happen if one were going to do the hybrid F2F/online thing effectively, too. And so the whole, "hey, just move it all online if there are too many cancellations" thing strikes me as really bad pedagogy and as a failure to acknowledge how much thought and care good teaching requires.

Now, some might say that I'm just being contrary, that nobody thinks "moving it online" is going to be as effective as teaching the course as designed but that it's the way to make the best of a bad situation. Well, ok. I guess. Maybe. But in what way is that better than shifting the course schedule around? I don't really think it is. And actually, doing it right would be a ton more work than just shifting the course schedule around, both for students and for faculty, a ton of work that would produce really weak results. I'm not into things that are more work when the results aren't worth it.

But I'm willing to entertain the notion that I'm being closed-minded here. So have you "moved it online" as a back-up plan? If so, how has that worked for you?


Inside the Philosophy Factory said...

I'm doing a hybrid class right now -- and I'm finding that I need help constructing and moderating on-line discussions.

I've decided that hybrid courses are a good option to reduce the impact of our large philosophy courses, but the downside is that the discussions need to be more robust...

Caution Flag said...

I decided to move toward a web-enhanced structure this term and was really excited about it until the first day when a student announced that she would be visiting my boss because she didn't have internet access. I did understand her point that she enrolled in a F2F class, but the web-enhanced part was only for essay submissions and not even for discussion boards. I'll admit that each day when class starts and that student is still there (and always with a new threat of needing to visit my boss)my enthusiasm deflates a bit more.

TiredProf said...

It truly depends on the group of students, I've found (I've used some sort of online enhancement of my classes since 1997). I moved a good portion of one of my classes online a few years ago (sophomores, mostly) and automated assessment and some discussion but came back to a more traditional approach, as I found many of the students weren't disciplined enough to get the work done (at least when they're sitting in your class you can engage them).

I do teach my General Education Core course completely online in the summer (in 3 weeks) and actually like it much better, as I have a section of 35-40 instead of 90 and I am able to structure the class around core readings and discussions, something that's impossible in a sea of 90 freshmen. That said, many more students fall through the cracks because they lack the self-discipline necessary to complete the class (though non-traditional returning students and shy-but-super-bright folks seem to thrive there). Our campus has a "No computer access? Too bad" policy for students, as there are labs all over campus and access at public libraries in every small town around here.

I will say that in an emergency, having things available to put online is a godsend: when I lost a sibling a year ago and had to miss over a week of class, having a few lectures, powerpoint, online assessment, and discussion allowed the classes to continue. And in that situation, most students were nice and rose to the occasion.

Fretful Porpentine said...

Many of my students don't actually have internet access at home. I know, right? But seriously: they don't. And it's unreasonable to expect that they should when they are not enrolled in an online course.

Thank you for pointing this out. Honestly, I think my students are less likely to be able to access a computer regularly than I was when I started college in the mid-'90s -- I didn't have a computer of my own until senior year, but I lived on campus, there were tons of computer labs, and most of them were open until all hours. At my current school, there are fewer computers available on campus, the hours are shorter, and 75% of our students are commuters.

Janice said...

Caution Flag, that's too bad. It's not a complete barrier if they have internet access at the institution (and I know from looking at my own CMS data that some of my students only access it from on campus). Pointing it out as an opportunity (log into the system on Mondays when you come into campus, then you can download or read interesting material for the week's discussion if you wish) rather than as something that's an obligation is probably the best option.

My chair, for fear of such complaints, won't let me mandate electronic submission of assignments. Still, in a class of 83, I only received eight of the most recent assignment in print!

Back to Dr. Crazy's point, though, online additions, particularly at the last minute, rarely can save a course. If you've already got people who're comfortable on the platform and eager to share their insight, maybe you can shift some missed class materials online. Otherwise, it really won't sink in!

the rebel lettriste said...

I chime in with Fretful Porpentine, here. I think that my students do NOT have any kind of computer access, much less computer literacy.

I have to include a statement in my syllabus on proper email etiquette, too.

And still, my university thinks that "online education!!" is the way to go.

Ann said...

"a student announced that she would be visiting my boss because she didn't have internet access."

I'm still wondering at this. OK, so Prof. Caution Flag's teaching style and requirements are not to this student's liking. This student's options are either to drop the class, or suck it up. Maybe Prof. CF teaches a super-special course that all students in hir department or uni MUST take and there are no other options whatsoever, but those courses are few and far between. Most of us teach courses that are just one among many that will satisfy the same requirements. Some of us even teach courses that are offered by several other faculty as well--so even if one particular course is required, there are a variety of different teachers/styles/days and times fro which to choose.

Presumably, Prof. CF would be backed up by hir "boss," because the university uses the web to advertise their faculty, facilities, programs, and provides e-mail addresses, Blackboard or some other WebCT software, and internet acccess to all faculty, students, and staff. I don't get the combination of technophobia and entitlement that this student displayed, and I'm really sorry to hear that it's rattled Prof. CF so much.


Kris Peleg said...

I've had people drop when they see that my regular f2f (not hybrid) course includes online quizzes, dropbox submissions, all handouts online, etc. Seems fair to me that they opt out. Some of my students do not have internet access (but for the most part they do, and those who don't use the public library).

For me, now in Bangladesh, not having the backup of the online course management system is like having a usually working component gone missing.

So yes, not as an emergency, last minute function, but I use the online option much as I use the textbooks and expect my students to function there, as well as in the classroom.

k8 said...

I've only used it as a contingency plan in courses that were already hybrid courses. Students knew from the start that some aspects of the course would be conducted online. In those cases, since students expect some work to be online, moving some in-class discussion to the online side of the course isn't overly traumatic. I wouldn't do it randomly in a course w/o an online component. That wouldn't be fair.

I don't think you're being close-minded at all. You know your students and the context of their lives. It's totally situation-dependent. And, while I would like the option of taking some parts of class online (if the course is already a hybrid course or one that has online components), I'd also recognize that if school is canceled b/c of weather/snow, there's a good chance that some people might be w/o electricity and unable to go online.

Having said that, even though they are missing face-to-face time in class, I would hope that students could read the syllabus and keep up. I'm not naive enough to think that most of them will do that, but I dream that it could happen. :D