Making online teaching click

Why classroom veteran Dale Salwak waited 17 years to join the digital pedagogues

Ian Whadcock illustration (13 February 2014)

Source: Ian Whadcock

I needed to set aside my prejudices, ignore the naysayers and find out the real story about online learning. I could only do that from the inside

The time comes for most teachers to face something they think they cannot do. Such a time came for me in 1993, when a guest speaker at the college where I had been teaching for 20 years invited the faculty to prepare courses for our then-developing online education programme. Given the enormous advances in technology and the internet, he explained, digital culture would soon reshape and revitalise higher education.

Students would have open access to scholarship. Discussion boards would simulate classroom conversations. Lecture videos would enable students to watch and listen from home, as often as necessary, to absorb, understand and review material. Overcrowding and high costs would no longer prevent access to classes that students required or desired. Everyone, he promised, would connect with teachers through the power of technology. A new day was dawning.

As I listened to the presentation, I began to feel instead the dark night of uncertainty closing in. It seemed as if I were being invited to descend into a deepening pit where all that I knew about the art and lore of my profession would be swallowed up by pixels and bytes. The visibility and accessibility he touted as a boon for students seemed to me, as a faculty member, a bane to everything I did as a teacher. Every interaction with students, every lesson plan, every idea or topic for discussion would come under scrutiny. I questioned the programme’s legitimacy and wondered about my own adaptability.

If I cannot see my students, how will I maintain and gauge their interest and involvement? How will I authenticate their work? How will they learn what they need to know? How will I sense their mood and be aware of whether they are engaged? What will I do to reconnect us all?

I have always flourished in the conventional classroom with its rhythm of questions and responses, dutiful note taking and writing of essays. I love the mutual joy of discovery, what George Steiner has called the “raw vehemence” of debate, and the face-to-face interaction with 30 or more talented and challenging students as we explore and analyse a difficult or fascinating text. All this dynamism makes my job fulfilling and, in most cases, my students’ educational experience rewarding, challenging and enlightening.

But if my students and I are sitting at home in front of computers, without the immediacy of contact, how would we replicate the collaborative, even magical spirit, the reciprocal trust and the enthusiasm for learning that has been, since the 6th century BC, the lifeblood of education?

The speaker had pricked my pedagogical conscience. And so, admittedly sceptical and yet urged forward with intense, if anxious interest, I watched and listened over the next 17 years as a growing number of my colleagues went online to teach.

I read whatever I could lay my eyes on in the increasing number of articles about online learning. I attended workshops on the subject. I observed students who seemed to benefit from the “flipped classroom” in which online lectures supplemented their interactive onsite learning in mathematics, history and the sciences. And I waited.

Then, to the surprise of many people, including myself, I signed up to teach my first six-week online course in the study of poetry, short fiction and drama during the summer of 2011. What I learned from that experience, and the four classes that followed, quite simply changed my perceptions and upended my assumptions about this new approach to higher education.

I took this step partly because I was curious. I had heard the moans from many critics that the retention rate for such classes is abysmally low (“first to add, first to drop”), that to teach well in this format is colossally difficult and that the system does not allow for flexibility but instead pushes us towards a rigid and standardised approach. I needed to set aside my prejudices, ignore the naysayers and find out for myself the real story about online learning. I could only do that from the inside.

I also signed up because I recognised that after 38 years this was a good opportunity to rethink my teaching strategies and what my students require to progress and succeed. I was up for some challenges.

There were many. The few students who were organised, focused and motivated adapted well to the demands of the programme. The majority, however, who were perhaps spurred on by the false assumption that showing up for class by powering up their laptop would be easy, required daily intervention far beyond anything I provided in the classroom.

Through emailed messages and announcements and other incentives I had to work, almost like a parent, to keep them engaged with feedback on their progress and reminders of deadlines. This became a seven-day-a-week responsibility. By the end of the semester I had retained 33 of the original 35 students, but I was emotionally and intellectually drained.

I also had to find new ways to connect with my students. In the traditional classroom, I knew how to read their reactions from their facial expressions, gestures, postures and verbal cues. Through daily questions and responses I discovered by observing and listening what I had to do to help them learn. But with online education, there were far fewer options for establishing this level of awareness.

Some colleagues suggested that I turn to the abundance of web links, graphics and videos, but I declined. It is easy to become so distracted by the lure of technology that there’s little time left for reading, study and keeping abreast of developments in our academic discipline.

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