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What is a course?

Preparing to teach an online course next year, I find myself examining many assumptions about education.  The online course will never meet, i.e. there will be no “class time” in which the 15 or so students and I engage synchronously as a group.  We’ll have conference calls in twos or threes or fours, but we’ll never all be awake at the same time.  The ethos of the class will have to develop out of discussion forums, wikis, and many bilateral exchanges.

Fortunately, there will be some common elements: all students speak English and attend an independent school in the Global Online Academy consortium.  I think students at Durham Academy, Sidwell Friends (Washington, DC),  Punahou (Hawaii), and King’s Academy (Jordan) share similar assumptions about the purpose and structure of education.

GOA schools

Schools in the Global Online Academy consortium

One of the challenges I’m facing is to imagine teaching without my favorite tool for building understanding: face to face discussion.   Amy Hollinger, the director of professional development at GOA, addresses this issue by asking  “What is the goal of the discussion”?  She offers eight tech tools for interaction across distance and time zones.  I’m familiar with the tools and enthusiastic about using them in blended learning environments (face-to-face + digital).    The prospect of relying on them entirely, though, is a bit unnerving.  Perhaps that’s because I don’t have the clearest of answers to Amy’s question.  I’ll work on that another time.

For now, though, I’ll pivot to a bigger, related set of questions:  what, exactly, is a high school or college course?  What purpose does it serve?  Can a series of YouTube videos or writing exercises accomplish the same purpose?   Here are some thoughts in progress.

A course is first of all a topic artificially carved out of the world’s conceptual jungle.  It’s artificial because in this world ideas and skills do not have clear boundaries.  Buying a house, for example, involves social skills and numerical knowledge and self-understanding and organization and the ability to communicate in a variety of ways.  Academia organizes the vast complexity of the world into departments and levels and courses to make the world more manageable.

A teacher or professor then selects content to include in the course.   There are many arbitrary choices involved: which poets and which critics will be included in a unit on Modernism?  Should the World War II course open with the end of World War I?  Should introductory Geology include units on oceans and atmospheres?  Such choices are difficult, but they get made and a syllabus gets organized.  Content is delivered to students through readings, lectures, films, etc.; sometimes it is discovered through experimentation or questioning.

Students in a course don’t just encounter content, however.  They develop understanding through dynamic processes such as discussion, problem-solving, and writing.  They personalize the content by forging connections to their own knowledge and experience.  They are changed in some way.

Students create products such as essays and lab reports that both generate understanding and form the basis for evaluation. And finally, they receive feedback on their work.  Ideally, this feedback is more than just a grade–it deepens their understanding and improves their skills for the next unit or the next course.

As students go through this fairly standardized process, their learning styles and life experience generate quite different outcomes.  We tend to reduce those outcomes to a linear scale (grades) or a paragraph of description, but of course learning is extremely complex and hard to describe. Furthermore, the impact of a course on a given student changes over time.  Teachers often think of intellectual processes as more important than course content.  As I tell my students, in ten years they are unlikely to remember the plot or themes of a novel that we study, but they’re quite likely to be thinking analytically and articulating their thoughts in writing or speech.

So these are my current thoughts about this key building block of our educational system.  What have I missed?  What have I gotten right or wrong here?  It has been a long time since I posted to this blog, but I anticipate doing more in the coming weeks.  Comments are always welcome.

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  1. Deborah Marion
    January 2, 2014 at 1:45 pm

    Tina, I like what you wrote.
    When I conceptualize an online course, as opposed to one that meets face to face, I think there are more requirements on the students for independence, self-knowledge, and initiation. The students in an online course, if they are to gain understanding by the end, usually must put something more “out there” than they would in a typical classroom, because they’re receiving less “input.”
    In a typical classroom, students receive visual as well as aural input. There might be words on a white board in addition to discussion. They also have the benefit of hearing inflection and seeing facial expression during communication; also, research indicates that timing is hugely influential in comprehension. Finally, students are also ostensibly in an upright position, which lends itself to alertness. So they have many sensory stimuli face to face that aren’t present in an online classroom.
    In an online classroom, students receive written stimuli only, which might not even be accurate or particularly well-timed, as there can be typos, as well as misunderstandings when students respond and shift topics within one utterance. Likewise, feedback loses most of its personal connection if one can’t see the teacher’s face (or other students’ faces) and hear inflections, when utterances are posted. How satisfied can I feel with a “job well done” if I have to pat myself on the back to supplement written input from afar? I”m not saying it doesn’t work well for some people–just that it might not work as well as a more personal touch for some.
    It all comes back to that question “How does a student learn best?” They are unique!
    In a face to face classroom, teachers can utilize multiple forms of input to reach more students. In an online classroom, in becomes incumbent on the student to realize what he or she needs to do in order to gain understanding and to somehow supplement written input with whatever other inputs he/she needs to maintain interest and comprehension.
    So I think students who take online courses need those three characteristics–independence, self-knowledge, and initiation–if they are to thrive in an online setting. And they need to KNOW that they need those characteristics at the outset, or they risk being unsatisfied with, or discouraged by, the experience.

  2. January 3, 2014 at 9:49 am

    Thanks for these thoughts, Debbie. Timing is an inherent challenge in the standardized, face-to-face course, but as you point out, it’s a different kind of challenge in an online course. It’s also interesting to identify the sensory stimuli at play in a classroom–all those bodies responding in various nonverbal as well as verbal ways. And yes, those bodies are reasonably upright. What a good point (she writes from a semi-reclined position on the sofa)!

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