Friday, August 30, 2013

Rome Online Course: The Challenge of Connecting Students in an Online Environment

The building that houses my campus office also includes several classrooms.  Students like to congregate in the halls, waiting for the previous class to finish.  My first office was directly across from a classroom.  It was nearly impossible to get any real work done at work between 9 am-3 pm, between the chattering students and the sounds from the classroom.  At one point, our office manager put signs up, to limited effect, to remind students not to talk.

These days, it's pretty quiet in the halls, especially in the early days of the new semester.  Students are staring at the phones, not making conversation with those around them.  Two friends might be chatting, but otherwise, silence and intense focus on their smart phone.  This scene repeated itself as I arrived at the auditorium where I teach my Rome class.  As the students made their way into the room and found seats, I was heartened to hear them talking to one another--not everyone, but enough that it was pretty noisy.  There's something deeply interesting about the fact that, these days, we aren't worried about students talking to one another too much but, rather, too little.

In large enrollment courses, students will have a much easier time engaging in the course--and even showing up--if they feel a connection to their classmates.  Back in the olden days (i.e. when I was in college in the 90s), going to class was a social experience.  It was where we connected with friends, made plans for after class, and shared experiences that we then rehashed, parsed, and joked about--and continue to, even all these years later.  We walked around campus in packs, frequently stopping to chat with friends we encountered along the way.  Only the most anti-social of us walked around with a walkman and ear phones.  But times and social mores change.  Now, as instructors, we often have to actively work to encourage our students to see the classroom as a place for experiencing and benefiting from the social aspects of learning.  This is especially true on a very large campus like UT Austin, and in the very large courses on these campuses.  The default mode for students, unless they already know some of their classmates, is to isolate, be silent and passive.

By incorporating a student response system (i>clickers), peer instruction, class discussion and a discussion board; as well as encouraging group work on a wide range of other activities, I feel like I have done about as well as I can to push students to get to know their classmates, to take advantage of the power of distributed learning.  Some choose not to to engage, and I let them be.  But I make sure that they are deliberately choosing to opt out of an established norm rather than following the norm.  Certainly, it's possible to take my class without ever engaging much with classmates--or even showing up to class for more than the weekly quizzes.  But this means sitting along, watching videotapes of lectures, not sharing in the communal laughter.  Most students quickly realize that it's more fun to be there.

I am coming to see that a big--if not the biggest--challenge in developing an online version of my Rome class is finding a way for the students to feel connected to one another.  Sure, it helps a lot if they feel connected to the course instructor; but the real focus of the course design needs to be on finding ways to encourage the to connect to one another, and to facilitate that connection at the very start of the course.  Watching the "Doc on the Laptop" alone is isolating.  For anyone whose normative educational experience involves sitting in the same room as the instructor and their classmates, it's a constant reminder of distance, inaccessibility.  There is some thought that synchronous live streaming lectures help to lessen this perception of distance.  I'm not sure.  For many students, it might well heighten it.

The central challenge is overcoming the entropy of the massive (whether 400 or 10, 000 or 40,000).  In a large course, I think, it is realizing that the primal connection is that which exists between peers rather than student to instructor. Or, to put it a slightly different way, it's recognizing that the instructor is just another person.  It seems that, at least early on, a key element of any course platform has to be a well-conceived chat function, that can group students but also let each student know with whom they've been chatting and have a way for them to Direct Message one another.  In a synchronous class, perhaps it makes sense to group students before the class starts and ask them to introduce themselves to one another.  In an asychronous class, it probably makes sense to group students into discussion groups and have them respond to prompts, with an instructor or TA helping to guide the discussion.

I suspect it might also be easier for students to take advantage of the synchronous elements of a class if, first, they have done some form of asynchronous conversation with their peers.  That is to say, given the expense of producing a synchronous course, it probably makes sense to use that element sparingly and only when it is going to produce a lot of "bang for the buck."  From a pedagogical perspective, it's likely to be a lot more effective once the class is underway, once students have already had a chance to engage with one another (and the instructor) in various asynchronous formats.  For instance, I can imagine having steady groups for each unit of the Rome course.  And at the end of each unit, doing a synchronous broadcast that asked students to engage in polls, chat with one another, etc.  And then shuffling the groups for the next unit, with some people staying together.

The key, though, is a very sophisticated chat tool.  Discussion boards are useful, but as the size increases, the boards are populated by a lot of individuals posting their individual thoughts without much attention to engaging with the thoughts of their classmates.  This seems inevitable, and the only real solution is to break large classes into smaller groups.  This is also true for chat groups during a synchronous broadcast--any more than 4 or 5 people and it is a bunch of people typing, saying the same thing, not interacting with one another in any real way.  The time lag only exacerbates the problem.


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