Experience says that the chance to teach particular concepts most successfully often occurs when students ask questions from the floor. Their questions reflect what many other students are thinking as well. So far, this is not happening. Sure, I can assign students to ask questions. But then they see the process as geared toward earning a grade. It’s when the questions suddenly well up in students that they are most genuinely wondering about the material.
But Beaver tells me that once teachers learn all the ins and outs of Blackboard’s Discussion Board, they can often engender better discussions than in classrooms. “There’s not the shyness factor that often discourages students from participating,” he says. “And with the computer, they have more time to think through what they want to say.”
The designer of my course told me by phone to make sure I insist on the Discussion Board deadlines especially. Otherwise, he said, the work will back up and snowball on me. There will be students, he also observed, who by email try to talk you out of the deadlines (nothing new here). Then, as though on cue, a student emailed an appeal a week into the class that, as a working student, she needed sometimes to skip tasks and do them all at once.
Online classes are not for everyone, Beaver tells me, but they will continue to grow in popularity as colleges search for ways to make education available to populations that cannot or wish not to come to a campus. “But there’s no danger of them eliminating the traditional classroom experience,” he says. “There are different learning styles, and we are trying to deliver education in ways that accommodate them. Some people learn better by hearing, others by seeing. An approach that’s becoming ever more popular is the hybrid class, which combines elements of the classroom and online approaches.”
In the meantime, I’m still trying to coordinate all the bells and whistles with philosophical content. “Instructors used to worry,” says Beaver, “whether online classes might be less rigorous than those in the classroom. It doesn’t have to be that way. If a class is designed properly by a subject-area specialist, it can be just as rigorous. One thing, though, that’s still a legitimate concern is cheating at the other end. There is even federal legislation now in development to deal with it. Solutions range from the use of fingerprints for logging into exams to setting up special proctoring rooms on campus.” In my course, at least, exams are designed as “take-homes,” which presuppose that students can use textbooks.
Now, as completion of this, my first online class, approaches, I’m so used to manipulating the Blackboard software that, even though there is still clumsiness, it doesn’t bother me anymore. There has been so much electronic interaction with the students that each one seems to appear in pictures before me. There have been moments of personal disclosure. The students’ work has been good.
An embarrassing question emerges. Would the students have learned the course material any better by facing my dour mug every day? A philosophy teacher I had years ago comes to mind. His idiosyncrasy was to pace back and forth before the class, all the while staring at the floor as he dredged up his lecture. He seemed to be trying to work out philosophical solutions on the spot. We undergraduates were enthralled that original thinking was unfolding before us. But the reasoning was so abstruse that we could not have explained much of what we heard. Our learning came from going home and reading.