Monday, May 30, 2011

Maybe f2f writing instruction is the real virtual education?

I often read (and hear from) critics of online learning who view that learning modality as being lesser, what they call a "a virtual experience," with a real pejorative sense to the word "virtual," along the lines of "less real."

But when it comes to teaching people how to write more effectively, isn't what we're doing in those "real" brick-and-mortar rooms often itself a kind of virtual education? If the goals are to help students learn to write and to use writing as a way to unlock critical thinking, how much of what goes on inside the walls of a composition classroom--for that hour or hour and twenty minutes--is actually geared toward those objectives?

Hey, I am not saying that what is going on a lot of the time is bad. Within those walls, seated at those desks, students talk. They listen to a professor talk, and sometimes that professor's topic is in fact writing. They laugh. They work together. Sometimes they read. Occasionally they write. Many of these activities--including the laughing--can help the students reach their goal of writing more effectively (if that is the goal, and not simply to move quickly through a no-doubt-required course). But what often takes place in that room is of questionable value to learning about writing. (My belief that the time spent in composition classrooms was not always productively geared toward writing prompted me to adopt a writing studies/writing about writing approach to writing instruction, in which writing as topic is placed at the center of the course.)

In other words, I wonder if in the thousands of writing courses across the country, most of the time what is going on is only loosely related to writing.

These students of ours are so busy, so overbooked. We have to jump on the time we have. In an asynchronous online (or hybrid) writing course, the hours students and I have together are largely spent on writing. Not only are students simply writing themselves, but they are working in a meta-way commenting on each others' written work and using writing to think through their composing and thinking processes. Almost all of their interactions in the course are written.

As I've mentioned here before, we at Drexel have reviewed some of our hybrid and online courses and quantified the amount of writing students created in these courses. The numbers were significant: Students are writing thousands of words in asynchronous environments each week, in addition to their major projects/papers in the course and to emails and other communications.

Without question, we need to know more about the effectiveness of online learning, especially when that learning modality is adopted purely for economic reasons, with pedagogy only a dim light of motivation. Rob Jenkins calls for such accountability in a recent The Chronicle of Higher Education article, saying that the low "success rates" in online courses should spur inquiry: "But isn't it time that we had an honest national conversation about online learning?" (1). (I won't wade into Jenkins' broader points, but I must say that "success rates" for online courses when compared to f2f courses may not take into account population: Some people in online courses may never, ever have even thought of taking a f2f course, let alone have the ability to get to that desk.)

Many teachers get into a style of teaching, and that's where they stay, but we might look outside our walls when it comes to teaching. As Dawn Hogue wrote recently about computer classrooms, "I've learned that when 28 students are typing it sounds like learning" (2). We have to listen for that "sound" of learning--regardless of modality.

1) In "Why Are So Many Students Still Failing Online?" The Chronicle of Higher Education. May 22, 2011.

2) In "Taking the Leap across the Digital Chasm." The Council Chronicle. September 2010. Page 29.