Tag Archives: virtual education

The Philosophy of Fear, or, San Jose State needs to get a grip.

Most of the conversation about online learning right now is centered around the MOOC.  No relation to the Moog synthesizer, and as Wikipedia helpfully points out, “not to be confused with mook,” MOOC stands for massive online open course.  Basically, what this means is that a college professor somewhere records all of his or her lectures and notes and makes them available for free to the public.  Awesome, right?  The tricky part is that students tend to drop out before completing their first assignment, which is not too surprising given the low buy-in of 0 dollars and the fact that most of these courses, in the current arrangement, do not provide for much teacher-student interaction or support.

Dave Cormier at Skolforum 2012-10-30.JPG

This is what a MOOC might look like.

This is a Moog synthesizer.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Recently, despite these criticisms, the California State University system has started to seriously consider adding online options in order to provide access to courses to students who would otherwise be shut out due to budget cuts.  San Jose State is leading the fray, partnering with the local tech start-up Udacity and the educational technology nonprofit edX (the same one whose essay-grading software I criticized last month) to start providing some remedial courses as MOOCs on an experimental basis.  According to The New York Times, these courses will be provided to students at a cost well below the in-state tuition fee and will involve the direct participation of the on-campus professor of record.

And yet, the San Jose State Philosophy Department recently unleashed a scathing diatribe against the idea of offering these online courses, stating that this move was tantamount to “the dismantling of public universities” (New York Times 5/2/13).  Hyperbole aside, I do appreciate their concern.  I see major problems with privatizing public education, or rather privatizing it further than it is already (fodder for another post, another day).  But in this case, the Philosophy department should have recognized its own straw man fallacy.

One of the main criticisms being lobbed is that the course would require professors to provide someone else’s lectures, and thus teach someone else’s viewpoint.  And yet, again according to this article, professors are not required to use the edX materials, which just so happen to have been created by a well-known Harvard professor.  The State professors are free to create and use their own materials, recording their own lectures for students to watch on their own time.  So the issue they are clamoring about does not actually exist.  Straw Man, meet Aunt Sally.

Instead, what is really happening is that a top professor from a top university is offering his lectures, for free, to students and professors at San Jose State.  These lectures are theirs to use, or not use, as they see fit — a gift from one of the nation’s wealthiest universities to one of its poorest.  How is this different from using a chapter of a textbook written by another professor, or even providing an article written by another as required reading?  Can a professor not show a lecture, or segment of a lecture, and ask their students to debate its contents, to discuss the extent to which they agree or disagree with this individual’s view?  What I see here is not a legitimate fear that online teaching might undermine quality education, but rather a resistance on the part of traditional education to adapt to a changing world and a changing student body.  This is a resistance of fear, not of legitimate concern for educational priorities.

And then comes my favorite moment of the article, when I realized that this group of professors is engaging in a spot of academic doublespeak:

“(San Jose State Provost) Dr. Junn said she had e-mailed the philosophy department on Wednesday, the day she learned of the letter, to ask whether anyone wanted to discuss it, but was told there was no need, since the letter was mainly meant to raise the level of discussion” (New York Times 5/2/13) (emphasis added).

There was no need to discuss the letter, as it was mainly meant to raise the level of discussion.  Said the San Jose State Philosophy Department.  Circular argument, meet begging the question.

In all seriousness — the move into for-credit, public online education, is one that must be made cautiously.  There must be careful attention paid to the quality of instruction and participation, the protection of academic and intellectual freedoms, and student outcomes above all else.  But fear-mongering and hyperbole will not further the conversation.  Unless, that is, this was all meant as a high-concept educational activity in which students are intended to identify the various logical fallacies being employed by both parties.  A “teaching moment,” you might call it.  And yet, I have a feeling this letter was written in earnest, a cri de coeur from a group of educators who fear to tread in the future.  And yet, ready or not, here it comes — our state universities can either compete with the private, online schools on their own turf, or they can continue to resist change and allow themselves to lose the race.  I suppose you know by now which side I fall on.

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Making Connections in the Virtual Classroom

Telephone

Once upon a time, people also feared this new technology would destroy our capacity for interpersonal communication.

Last week I happened to be speaking to the parents of a friend, one of whom is a lifetime educator.  As inevitably happens, the conversation turned to my job.  The conversation went something like this:

Traditional Educator: Are you able to see your students, and can they see you?

Me: Yes, we do have webcam capability, but I find it tends to be more distracting than useful so I tend not to use it.

Traditional Educator: How are you able to teach without seeing each other?  How do you know if they’re working if you can’t see what they’re doing?

Me: Well, I am able to interact with my students in our live sessions through a virtual whiteboard and application sharing, and I get a pretty good idea of who is working and learning by assessing their work, just like in a traditional classroom.

Traditional Educator: But, how are you able to make connections with your students?  It’s impossible to make real, meaningful connections over the Internet where you can’t even look someone in the eye.

Me: You’re right, it’s harder to connect online, but it’s not impossible.  You have to be creative and flexible in order to create connections in online teaching, but I find some students actually find it easier to connect and relate with adults from a distance without the social context which they can sometimes find overwhelming.

Traditional Educator: I don’t think it’s healthy, being on the computer all day long.

Me:  I agree, I think it works best for students who have something else that they are involved in outside, such as sports, the arts or a group activity.  I do worry about the ones who say all they do other than school is play World of Warcraft.  But the truth is that many of these students are going to be sitting at computers all day in their future careers, and learning to communicate and make connections in an online setting is going to be an essential skill.

Tradtional Educator: Harumphgmwhmorecoffee.

OK, so, this was the fantasy version of the conversation, but it is pretty close to the real thing that plays out every time I feel I have to defend what I do to someone who is unfamiliar with, and perhaps suspicious of, the idea of online education.  And I must admit to seeing a great deal of validity in their concerns, enough so that these are the very issues I am personally grappling with as an online educator.  How do we make meaningful connections in an online setting?  How do we motivate students to participate and engage in learning?  How do we make sure students are getting adequate socialization and learning skills like cooperation and teamwork?  What do we do to re-engage those students who are tuning out and likely to drop out (with nothing to “turn on” to besides the TV or video games)?

With some students, it’s easy.  There are those students who show up for the live sessions, do their work independently, and seek help when they need it.  They tend to have supportive, involved Learning Coaches (typically a parent, most often a mom) who are able to be active partners in their education.  They tell me about themselves, about their lives, and seek out connections with their teachers.  These students inevitably succeed, even when they are challenged, because they are able to maneuver the system and use the resources available — they are able to “play school.”

But then there are far more students who come to the table with far less.  They are academically unprepared, perhaps years behind grade level in basic skills.  Their parents want them to succeed but are unable to provide the support they need for various reasons: working two jobs, family chaos, personal issues…Online school, by its nature, attracts those students who are not being served by a traditional public school, and so a large number of our students are under-served and under-prepared.  They do not know how to access the systems and they are afraid to ask for help, or they don’t know they need help.  They don’t attend the live sessions, or they do but don’t participate.  The work doesn’t get turned in, even after the student has *promised* that this time, they will get it done.  Emails, phone calls, text messages go unanswered (anyone know where you get a carrier pigeon?).

I ask myself, in a traditional school, would it be any different?  There would still be those students who wouldn’t show up for class, who wouldn’t do their work, and who would fail out.  So perhaps, as I have said before, the problems we see in the online school are no different from the ones that exist in the traditional school, just amplified by our particular setting and its challenges.  What I do know for sure is that online school isn’t going to go away — in fact, our enrollment skyrocketed this year and will likely continue to do so.  We are a school setting under construction, trying to find our way.  But in the meantime, there are real, live students learning online, and they do want to make meaningful connections with their teachers — they just need teachers who are willing to learn how to connect and communicate in the way that works for the student, not just for the teacher.

How to make someone’s day in 30 seconds: The power of positive feedback

Yesterday I spent an hour or two doing one of the more monotonous parts of my job: calling and leaving messages for students who are not doing their work and are therefore failing their classes.  This is monotonous mainly because the vast majority of phone calls I make go straight to voicemail, if they get through at all — a lot of our families use pay-as-you-go phones that get cut off frequently, or they never set up the voicemail, etc.  And even when the call does get through, it gets exhausting being the bearer of bad news over and over.

So yesterday after a few dozen of these frustrating calls, I sent out a simple email to all my students who are passing my classes — just a few words saying, hey, good job, I know it’s not easy, keep up the good work.  It made me feel a little better just delivering that positive message, but I didn’t think much of it at the time.

This morning, I opened my inbox to find a sweet message from a mom of a student who got that email from me yesterday. She said that her son responds really well to praise and she thanked me for knowing how to motivate him.  It was a simple, earnest message, and I instantly felt what I hope my students felt when they got my email yesterday: a smile came over my early-morning un-caffeinated face, and I sat up a little straighter on my exercise ball/chair as I plowed on through the rest of my inbox.

That mom’s email probably took her just 30 seconds to write, but it made my morning and set me up to have a great rest of the day.  Words truly are powerful.  This is never more true than in the online school setting where our words are all we have to make a connection with our students.

How will you make someone’s day today?

And then there are times it doesn’t work….KCBS Cover Story: Online High School Classes Offer Dubious Results

KCBS Cover Story: Online High School Classes Offer Dubious Results « CBS San Francisco.

This article popped up on my reader this morning, in a perfect example of how and why my thoughts on online teaching continue to vary.  Reading the article, though, it was clear that this particular program is very different from the one I am part of.  From what I can tell, these credit-recovery courses are being used as completely independent-study programs, in which students are on their own with the curriculum without the guidance of a teacher.  For students who already struggle with academics, this is not a great solution.

At our online school, students have a state-certified teacher for each subject who they can meet with live at least twice per week, in class on in one-on-one live help sessions.  Teachers also reach out to struggling students through email and on the phone.  I even have students text messaging me — whatever works!  My goal is to keep each student as engaged as possible in learning, and to guide them through the learning process according to their individual needs.  Without this guidance, there are maybe 5-10% of students who could handle a completely independent setting.  The rest would struggle and possibly quit the program.

Now, that is not to say that we can get through to every student in this way.  There are students in our program, unfortunately, who have needs beyond what we can provide in this setting.  There are students who are already so far behind academically that I don’t even know where to begin.  So I am sensitive to the question this article raises: should we allow students who are academically unprepared to fail and drop out of high school, or should we push them along towards graduation, even if their skills are not at the college level?  What can we do to get these students up to speed before they are 16 or 17 and so far behind academically?  But that is a question for a whole other post!

In the meantime, I will be following this story and will be interested to see if it provides a complete view of virtual schooling rather than just focusing on one unsuccessful application.

The first question I always get about online teaching…

The first thing people ask when I tell them I teach online is, “Can the students see you?  Can you see them?”.  In fact, most of the time, the answer is no.  We could see each other using the technology we have, but most of the time, it’s not necessary.

I do meet “live” with my students in an interactive web platform (Blackboard), and we do have webcam capability.  However, in our initial new-teacher training, we were told that using the webcam could actually be more distracting than helpful, and this has been my own experience in the “student” role in our staff meetings and professional development, which are all conducted using the same platform that I use to teach my classes.

In our live sessions, my students hear my voice, interact with me and other students on a shared “whiteboard” space, chat live with other students, and can come over the microphone themselves (although most are shy about doing this).  Without the distraction of watching a face and focusing on what this other person in front of them is doing, the student’s focus is sharpened and directed at the material being presented rather than on a social context.  They’re not being distracted by my bad hair day or the spinach stuck in my teeth,not to mention by the social labyrinth of the classroom which is so all-important to a teenager.  Removing these distractions lets the student focus on what is truly essential, namely, the content of the lesson.

Now, an important question remains: what do we lose by removing this visual (and physical) interaction?  Is the presence of a live person, and the sight of a human face, actually necessary to create engagement, enthusiasm, or a sense of connection?  I know on a practical level, there are sometimes frustrating moments when I wish I could just see what my students are doing.  For example, I spent at least 15 minutes in a live session with a student the other day, trying to help him find the “tab” button on his laptop.  If I had been there with him, I would have found it in seconds; he eventually sent me a picture of his keyboard, but it was a perfect example of how physical presence can be necessary. Again, though, technology provided a work-around.

Another issue that is often raised with this setting is “How do you know if students are paying attention if you can’t see them?”.  As any teacher knows, you can tell if your students are paying attention through questioning, for which visual contact isn’t actually necessary at all.  And of course, even standing directly in front of a student who is disengaged from learning is not necessarily going to cause that student to become an active participant.  So basically, teaching online provides many of the same challenges as the traditional classroom, with the main difference that the physical presence of the teacher is replaced by an online presence, which forces the teacher to find new solutions to the same age-old dilemmas.