In January, I began teaching two philosophy classes, one in the classroom and the other online. “The thing I don’t like about online classes,” says one of my classroom students, “is that you can’t see what’s on other students’ faces.” So, I’m not the only one. In the classroom, my gaze finds facial expressions saying the following: scared, ridiculous, unbelievable, angry, agreed, hilarious, no way, what does that mean, and why would anyone say something like that? A face in the back right corner screams anonymity; another near the door anticipates outa-here; the eager one front and center says she’ll ace the class.
And let’s not forget student observations and humor. Comments from the gallery can sometimes turn on a new light and change the direction of the pedagogy. They can make everyone laugh uproariously too. Those moments are some of the most enjoyable experiences of the job.
Among my online-class participants, I am the only San Diego resident. Not that online teaching is rare in San Diego. A little checking reveals that at Mesa College, to take one local school, 84 out of nearly 200 full-time instructors currently teach at least some of their classes online.
My new online students live 2000 miles away. As far as my spatial sense goes, they are anywhere or nowhere. They start out only as names on a list. But suddenly we are communicating — electronically.
And, no surprise, an old troglodyte is what I am. I taught classroom philosophy and religious studies for 25 years before this first online gig. Let me start right in on Blackboard, one of the most common software programs (I have an early version) that allow these far-flung communities of scholars to assemble. In the beginning, especially, Blackboard drove me nuts. It made me think I was doing anything but teaching, performing old-fashioned data entry, for instance. For each lesson to begin on Blackboard, I learned, the instructor has to activate it and end it at the right times.
Lessons include a lecture, the weekly reading assignments, Discussion Board directions, a short reading quiz, and sometimes case study, research paper, or midterm and final exam notices. These are supposed to become inaccessible at the end of the week so the class will move on to new topics. Opening and closing the lesson requires me to properly enter dates and hours of the day. Just when I think I’ve done it correctly, emails start arriving from students who say they can’t get into the activity. What it likely means is that, of the five routines I was supposed to run through on my computer, say, I completed only four. So I visit each again to see which one I forgot.
I don’t want my online adventures to reflect badly on a nicely designed class offered by a fine university in the Midwest. That’s why I’m not naming the school. A little background is in order. After my application papers had rustled around a number of offices at the university in question, they turned up haphazardly in December on the distance-education director’s desk. She had expected, starting this January, to offer a junior-level philosophy class that had run for several previous semesters. A popular teacher at the school had designed the course, and he taught it online and in the classroom simultaneously. I would later learn that he had taken on more school responsibilities for this term and gave up the class at the last minute. But suddenly, our distance-education director asked me to help out in the lurch. It was an opportunity to learn something, so I agreed.
An anxious question arose upon first opening a few of the windows on the course home page. What will the students see? The same items I’m looking at? Or things designed only for them? My librarian friend Patti smiled knowingly and suggested that the students are not likely capable of using functions named Edit, Modify, Manage, or Remove. Nor did it seem likely that they could enter the Control Panel, where, among other things, grades are recorded and exams written or modified. “Otherwise, the students are seeing the same things you are,” said Patti.
When I entered Modify, I realized that I could change the course designer’s written lectures, even delete them and write my own. As the course’s opening day got closer, less than a month after my agreement to teach the class, I counted it a good idea not to reinvent the wheel. True, my predecessor’s style is more prescriptive than I like to be. He tends to argue the superiority and inferiority of theories, principles, and other positions. All these views he explains thoroughly in written lectures. It’s certainly a valid way to proceed, especially if a teacher feels obliged to guide young minds toward approved points of view. Since there are partisans of all the theories still teaching today, my approach has always been more noncommittal. I try to encourage students, after thinking it through, to make the decision about the inferior and superior for themselves. In one of the first Discussion Boards, a student has written in to comment on this approach. He doesn’t understand how anyone can objectively teach something like ethics, for instance. He says he’d have to rely on his opinions all along the way.
“One thing I guarantee,” Hank Beaver tells me by phone, “is that however you teach your online class, you’ll do it differently the second time.” Beaver, who is an “instructional systems specialist” at Mesa College, is not totally sympathetic toward my having to learn Blackboard in a short time. He has heard of teachers suddenly being required to design the course in that time as well. “That’s virtually impossible,” he says.
But Beaver, who teaches Mesa’s instructors how to use Blackboard and design online classes, does understand my current frustrations. I am still a klutz, for instance, in using Blackboard’s Discussion Board. Every week, students must explain one technical term, answer one discussion question, and reply to another student’s explanations. I see and can grade student responses to written questions but am still searching for the most effective way to inject my responses to the fits and starts of student conversations. In a classroom, it feels instantaneously obvious which way a conversation should develop to clarify concepts. Everyone else in the room can hear what both instructor and students are saying. But online, students can submit their assigned responses and then log out. There is no “meeting” time. Students may submit their entries at any time during the week.
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.