But the initial skepticism gave way to the compelling importance and reality of online teaching: its accessibility, and the opportunity it provides both students and teachers. As one to whom questions of access and mobility became more of a concern some years ago as I adjusted to a pesky medical condition, online teaching had a particular attraction, even as I struggled to learn it, for its potential and future applications.
Matter of Access
The connections between this relatively new technological innovation--for educators and students alike--has huge implications, for the immediate and distant future, and for the potential positive impact on our lives. Yes, it makes learning more accessible for students, and it enables me – as well as a rapidly growing numbers of others -- to share my knowledge far, far beyond the traditional classroom. It will also make teaching easier for me, especially should my own mobility issue become more of a concern in the future.
But what a thing for our students! It was something last year to have a student in my first online course (HIS 296V: The Vietnam War) able to attend while pursuing an internship at Walt Disney World in Florida. There was also the stay-at-home mom with a newborn child, also able to fully participate in the course. I thought that was definitely cool. And of course there were the students attending Pace in New York City who, for the first time, attended my course as I sat before a computer screen in Pleasantville, or from home in White Plains!
The long-distance record however—what we do online is called “distance learning” for good reason—went to Deepak last Summer in HIS 131: The Asian World, another course I’ve begun teaching online. He was not only able to take the course at home in Japan, but while in India for a while to attend his brother’s wedding! This was good for him, and certainly for the rest of us as we learned first-hand of his life in East Asia, the geographical focus of the course.
The Fear Factor
Then there was the fear factor to consider. If I haven’t exactly been pulled “kicking and screaming” into this brave new world of computers and the internet, I also haven’t been entirely confidant of my own ability to make, shall we say, an easy transition into that world. That’s where commiserative and more knowledgeable colleagues, and the excellent staff at Pace’s Center for Teaching, Learning and Technology (CTLT) came into the picture.
The fear factor has been reduced considerably with support and excellent instruction from the CTLT staff. Change and technological innovation continues to take place—at a rapid pace—so a healthy amount of fear, if you will, remains. I know, however, that should questions or problems arise, the CTLT is there to provide answers. One thing I’ve come to appreciate about them is that, in addition to their technical expertise, they are good—and very patient--teachers too!
Mixing It Up
Perhaps my first reaction years ago to the suggestion that I –or anyone else--might some day teach totally online, was: “What, are you kidding? What about that face-to-face experience? What about eye contact? What about the millennia-old methods, and the dynamic of people being together, engaging in the process of education, in the same place at the same time?”
And how could I possibly duplicate online, for example, the heated debates (which never seem to go away) that invariably accompany the subject of the Vietnam War, a course about which I have been teaching for many years? Can such things take place online as well?
Believe me, they do. The emotions, passions—the ideological and philosophical divisions—transcend the change in venue. They easily make the transition to cyberspace, finding their way (and spoken now by the sons and daughters of those who lived through the tumultuous sixties) into the discussion board online. I needn’t have worried about that.
In the classroom, a guest speaker has always lent an element of realness to the course. How, you might ask, can that be duplicated online? My combat medic friend Marc, who always added that special element, that realness from having been there, to the traditional classroom experience—has also joined the class in cyberspace, quite effectively. For three days, at whichever hours he chose, and without having to leave his living room in Gloucester, Massachusetts, he did his thing, sharing his experiences, his poetry, and responding to the usual comments and questions. And, as usual, when it came time to assess the class, his “visit” stood out as a memorable highlight, one which I know the students will remember for a long time to come, much as before in that other format.
Then there are the images, and sounds I’d otherwise work into the class, in keeping with my usual practice of “mixing it up” to convey, other than with my own words, the “Vietnam experience”.
The images and sounds can be brought into the online course, using the “streaming” technique. Songs, such as Country Joe’s “Feel Like I’m Fixin’ to Die Rag” or Phil Och’s “Draft Dodger Rag”, amongst others—were all played in their entirety, with the usual reactions, though admittedly the sound left something to be desired. Images—still photographs, and moving images in short video clips—can definitely be brought into course documents each week. So, yes, though full-length documentaries are not appropriate in the online venue, I can still “mix it up” quite well online too!
No sitting in back row!
Here again, I have come to understand that while the online experience is certainly different, in some ways it is actually an improvement over the traditional classroom experience, especially if you consider the numbers of students who typically participate in class discussion.
In the online experience all must participate. There is no hiding in the back row. I tell my students at the outset that if they are not willing to contribute regularly each week to class discussion, their grades will suffer significantly. Participation will factor into grading differently from instructor to instructor, but 40 to 50 percent is not unusual. That is not usually the case in the traditional classroom experience.
Frankly, I see this level of participation as a big plus when comparing online with the traditional way of doing things.
No, I’ve had to accept that the eye contact is not there, though that too could change with technological innovation. I concede that. However, what can be achieved—even what surpasses, in my opinion, the usual classroom experience—makes not for necessarily a better educational experience, but a different and quite effective one.
I’ve taken the show on the
cyber road, no longer a skeptic, much less fearful, and now there’s no
"The emotions, passions—the ideological and philosophical divisions—transcend the change in venue."
"The images and sounds can be brought into the online course, using the “streaming” technique."