Direct Teacher/Student interactions in the digital classroom

Between Clark and Warnock’s advocacy for the digital classroom and my own experiences, counting iLearn, Elluminate, etc., I must say that I’m totally convinced of the utilitarian benefits and think we should all switch immediately. There’s just one problem: that last clause was sarcastic. Here, let’s try it again: “I must say that I’m TOTALLY convinced of the utilitarian benefits, and think we should ALL switch IMMEDIATELY.” Catch the sarcasm that time? It’s ok if you didn’t; you’re not alone.

Embodied in that sarcasm is my overall issue with the digital classroom; while it offers many obvious benefits in both education and cost, it also has significant problems in terms of direct human interaction. First and foremost is the communication problem inherent in text-only conversation. Many studies have purported to tell how much of our communication occurs through non-verbal channels. One which said that only 7% of the message is carried by words is exaggerated by most who reference it, but even follow-up studies with more robust methodologies still state that nonverbal cues are somewhere between 20% and 80% of the message when we talk to each other.

While that’s a pretty big range, it is still helpful in that it’s very clearly not zero. The above sarcasm demonstration is just one small example in a very big problem. Even the perennially sarcastic RFC guidelines warn that sarcasm in text form “doesn’t travel well.” It’s taken us nearly 50 years of AI research to teach a computer to understand sarcasm sometimes, and if we can’t even expect a computer to always understand the intent of a message in text, how can we expect students to do better?

This simple problem has knock-on effects: studies have shown that if the primary mode of communication is text-only, authority figures appear more intimidating. For teachers and students alike, dealing with another human through text alone dehumanizes them. With students already in a position where they must appeal to an authority figure – say they’re behind on homework, or not understanding a key concept – might this additional hurdle of having to do so through a digital-only medium with all the potential for misunderstanding that brings be the straw the breaks the student’s back?

One final example: a longitudinal study once showed that after you normalize everything else about students, including their socioeconomic class, race, family history, literacy, grades in high school, and so on, after correcting for all those factors, the biggest single difference between college freshmen who graduated and college freshmen who dropped out was a single interaction with a teacher, usually outside of class. It could be office hours, or a brief chat before or after class, or even a chance meeting on campus between classes. If we remove the teacher and the student from sharing a campus – or even sharing a zip code – how will they have these interactions that save college careers? And if they don’t have them, is the digital classroom with all the benefits and savings worth all the students who might have had a degree if we hadn’t economized?

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Giving Students Time and Space: Asynchronous Conversations

Warnock’s points about how effective asynchronous posting can be, as a tool for enabling student conversations, match up very closely with my experiences of using iLearn forums for classes I’ve taught here at SFSU.  For privacy reasons I can’t quote those fourms, but I will try to describe one such thread in an effort to illustrate what Warnock was talking about.

For one of the discussion threads, my students were reading about genetic screening for various traits (things like sports aptitude and propensity for disease) and had just finished watching the movie Gattaca.  So in this thread, I wanted them to continue and expand upon the discussion we’d been having in class, and I hoped that the forum would allow some of the students who didn’t normally talk much in class to participate more fully.

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Collaboration and Negotiations

After reading Scott Warnock’s Chapters 10-18, I found myself drawn to two main ideas: collaboration and assessment. They may seem like two separate topics, but I am thinking about them in terms of collaborative assignments and how we would go about grading/assessing such assignments. Scott Warnock’s chapter on “Collaboration” is short, but when read in conjunction with the other chapters on “Assignments,” “Peer Review,” and “Grading,” it is clear that collaboration, cooperation, and the shared nature of knowledge are pivotal elements in Warnock’s ideas about an online class.

In Chapter 10, Warnock says, “If instead we see knowledge as being created by a community of knowledgeable peers and that learning is social, then peer review makes sense” (115). Continue reading

Elluminate Impressions

This past week we held our seminar online using Elluminate, which is sort of a virtual classroom system that uses an array of features like audio (via voice over internet protocol), text chat, a whiteboard, on-the-fly polling, and application sharing. Since this was really my first time using an application like this, I haven’t really decided whether it was a positive experience or not. However, I thought I’d share some of my impressions from the virtual meeting:

  • I found that having both VOIP audio and a text chat window going at the same time was unnerving. Maybe this is more about me than anything else, but it felt like two channels competing for my attention. One of the course students mentioned (in the chat window) that she could tell when I was distracted by something in the chat window — apparently I paused while speaking. I may just be really bad at multitasking (although I contend that *everybody* is bad at multitasking, but most don’t realize it).
  • At the same time, I kind of liked the backchannel quality of the chat window. It reminded me a bit of that Pop Up Video thing they used to do on VH1. Maybe it would be possible to lay down some ground rules for using the chat window that would make it more productive than distracting.
  • It took us a little while to work out the audio (VOIP) procedures. Apparently, it is possible to allow up to six different people to have their microphones open at a time, but doing so caused serious chaos. Some participants were using speakers, so when their mics were open, we got bizarre echoes and feedback. The psychedelic quality of this had only limited charm. What we eventually settled into was having only two mics open — one for me as the moderator of discussion, and one for whoever else was talking. By the end, I thought this part was working pretty well.

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Instructors modeling student writing

After reading Warnock’s Teaching Writing Online: How & Why, I ponder the traditional experience of a writing classroom where the only instructor generated writing students see are either directive instructions in the form of their class syllabus or writing prompts or the short criticism, compliments, or commentary on paper feedback. Neither of which place the instructor in the role of co-learner or writing model. And, I strongly believe that modeling writing should be a primary task for writing instructors.

I know some instructors here at SFSU do model writing. Joan Wong bravely sits in front of her class with an overhead projector and illustrates the messy, struggling process of writing that very first draft to the writing prompt. And I have heard that Mark Roberge writes papers to his own writing prompts, participating in the writing process alongside his student writers. Both of these give students a first hand experience into how their instructors write. But, this is limited to the essay and draft-writing.

The message board Warnock gushes over, gives a  wonderful opportunity for instructors to model the kind of written brainstorming/dialogue that’s preparatory to any critically thoughtful writing. Continue reading