On teaching and learning, part 2

I may have mentioned that I’m teaching a “blended” course this summer.  It meets for fifteen weeks, with seven face-to-face sessions broken up by an array of online weeks (not even online synchronous class sessions; just online assignments).

I’m pretty unhappy about this.

You see, I believe that good teaching can happen in all kinds of ways.  And I believe that there is much good to be gained from online teaching and learning, in some forms, for some people.  But the folks I know who are really gung-ho about online learning believe that the problems of education are, at bottom, problems of access, whereas I believe that they are, at bottom, problems of motivation.

I’ll use myself as an example, though it’s totally not just me.  I’ve set up assignments that are clear as day, and at least a third of the class doesn’t do them.  Not the SAME third all the time — so I know people can access the assignments and understand how to do them — but lacking (I posit) the motivation of feeling ashamed in class, they are simply willing to eat the lower grade.  That disappoints me mightily.

There are any number of factors that make the proverbial horse thirsty: desire for good grades; tendency toward people-pleasing; intellectual curiosity; fascination with the subject matter; desire to make a difference through the work; ambition for mastery; avoidance of embarrassment; refusal to rock the boat…but most of these depend in some way upon a present community of peers and authority.  If the space of the course shrinks to a faceless, mediated exchange of edited sentences, we’ve lost a great deal of the human drama that constitutes and contrives learning.  Online learning SOUNDS like it expands the dimensions of our classroom, but for me, when you take the course away from the seminar table and toss it into the ether, you’re actually shrinking the possibilities for meaningful interaction.  (With some exceptions, I’m sure…but this is a senior thesis seminar, which is a deeply traditional, scholarly exercise, and I’m just not seeing good methods for meeting these goals with these tools.)

Embedded in this complaint is another: teaching, at its best, invites transformational learning.  In a “traditional” classroom, a conversation can be pushed and pulled, ideas can be stretched and shaped, students can be challenged, comforted, confronted as need be.  They learn from each other through the whole range of interactions they participate in and witness.  I had a student nearly break down once in class because he finally realized that an argument didn’t have to mean winning and losing or shouting someone down: it could mean quietly and logically framing a position of justice and reason.  He was so relieved his whole body dropped back into his chair at the end of his tirade, and he picked up his pen, a little ashamed of his passion but eager to get back to the work that would now be transformed.  HE was transformed, as a scholar and a person. I’m just not seeing that, nor seeing how that might happen, in the online environment.

But what do you think?  What are your stories?

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