Monday, August 26, 2013

Rome Online Course*: Re-imagining my Presence (and Planning for my Absence)

As I begin to think seriously about the design for the online version of my Intro to Ancient Rome class, which we are planning to launch on Canvas in Summer 2014, I find myself thinking a lot about my own role.  The MOOC mania gave rise to what Jonathan Rhees has aptly termed a class of Super Professors--professors who were suddenly performing in front of audiences in the tens of thousands instead of the usual few hundred.  Oftentimes, these mostly (though not always) very senior faculty were well-known for their academic achievements and, because of the nature of the MOOC Incs, taught at very prestigious institutions.  They were front and center of their courses, as much because the main pedagogical format was content deliver via pre-recorded lecture.  That is to say, a student wasn't just learning about the ethics of justice; he was learning Michael Sandel's version of that content.  In courses like coding, calculus, or even physics, the outsized presence of the instructor was lessened by the nature of the content; but especially in liberal arts topics, the course could be as much about the instructor as the content.  Of course, this is also true for traditional lecture courses taught in a campus classroom.

As a sometime student of MOOCs and other types of online courses, it seems to me that this model, this emphasis on the instructor, gets it exactly backwards.  While it makes some kind of sense for an instructor to rely on the personal charisma generated by their presence in a face-to-face class or even a blended class, it makes little sense to do it in a purely online class.  The absent-presence of the instructor speaking at the student through a computer is a constant reminder of the distance that separates instructor from student.  It is a constant reminder that, however accessible the professor seems, s/he is ultimately inaccessible.  People will argue that this is no different than the experience of sitting in a 500-student classroom, but I'm not so sure.  The more I teach a very large (400 student) class, the more convinced I am that a good design for an online course will move away from being an imperfect substitute for an interactive lecture course; and move towards something entirely different.

My own sense is that this different thing needs to have a place for the instructor to construct and practice his/her authority; but that, in some real sense, it's important to concede the point that no amount of fancy computer mediation, not even live streaming, can replicate the experience of being in a classroom with us.  I;m not sure I'd have believed this until I taught a pure flipped class last fall.  The students watched all the lectures outside of class; and class time was devoted to practicing the content.  About 30% thought this was great.  Those are the ones who would be a natural audience for an online class, I think.  But the other 70% were somewhere between hated it and "meh".  Those are the students who need us to take seriously the differences of online vs f2f course delivery.  There is already a rich body of research on this topic, and those of us who are or are planning to teach online courses need to know it and take account of it in our course design.

The other important thing that our course design needs to take account of is the possibility that we might not be the instructor.  In my own case, for instance, I plan to teach a few iterations of the course but then, most likely, will hand it off to others to teach most of the time.  Planning for this is extremely important and, again, suggests that less reliance on pre-recorded lectures from a single instructor is the way to go.  As I begin to make concrete plans, I am thinking hard about a. how to deliver content in ways other than lecture; and b. how to involve a number of voices in the content delivery, so that it doesn't seem to students like I am somehow "MIA" if I am not the instructor.  Having students construct and master content through modules and reserving lecture only for very difficult or amusing topics is one clear answer. I am also thinking about how to build into the design places for other instructors to incorporate their own material.  I am thinking about how to balance synchronous and asychronous elements of the course.

Part of the sustainability of my course depends on design decisions made at the start; and it depends on the recognition that student learning nearly always requires some sort of relationship between instructor and student--a relationship that is impeded if someone else is always appearing on the screen as the sage on the stage.  For this same reason, I am extremely skeptical that licensed MOOCs will be all that effective in the long run for subjects like mine.  Students don't put nearly as much weight on an instructor's professorial rank and status as most faculty and administrators do.  Most of them don't know the difference between a lecturer and a full professor, nor do they care.  They care that their course is taught in a way that facilitates their learning and, hopefully, provides an enjoyable experience.  Part of this experience is the connection they forge with the course instructor, whether during office hours on campus or via email and discussion boards and Google Hangouts in an online course.  It is essential than any online course design provide space for a new instructor to put their own imprimatur on a course, establish their authority, without the constant distraction of an absent, inaccessible sage on the stage.

*ROC (Rome Online Course).  I am planning to write regularly about my plans for developing my Intro to Rome class for an online audience, including the particular challenges of planning from the start for multi-modal delivery; and for handing the instruction over to others on a regular basis.

1 comment:

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