Wednesday, May 30, 2018

How well do we know them?

How well will we know the students in our online and hybrid courses?

Teachers often express this concern to me. Will they be able to achieve the same level of community, perceived or real, as they do with students in onsite courses? Will students' interactions with them feel the same? How about students' interactions with each other? In the future, will they recognize and remember these students? What replaces the experience of knowing that takes shape when students sit in front of them day after day?

At the end of my hybrid FYW course last term, one of the course's solid students, Gabriella, made this provocative comment on the course discussion boards: "After this term I feel like I know people's names, values & viewpoints but I truly do not know them because of our 'cyber-interactions.'"

As I mentioned in a subsequent exchange on the boards, this fascinating comment prompted some serious thinking and reflection on my part.

On the one hand, the trifecta of "names, values & viewpoints" seemed to represent a very successful construction of a learning community in the course.

After all, in most onsite classes, students only know a few of their classmates' names -- in fact, I'm struck by how many students come to our writing center and can't even provide their professor's name! Add to this the knowing of "values & viewpoints," and it would seem that our course developed a level of intellectual familiarity that surpasses onsite learning, except perhaps in small, advanced seminars.

However, Gabriella's comment demonstrates that despite how well she felt she became acquainted with her classmates, she still did not "know them because of our 'cyber-interactions.'"

So, at the end of the term, she was torn: She had, in a hybrid modality, interacted with students both in class and in tiered, rich discussion boards. She knew important things about their thinking. She knew what they stood for. But, for her, "cyber-interactions" still got in the way.
I mean, how well do I know them? I feel I do know my OWC students well. I even glanced at the folder containing the scores of recommendation letters I've written, and I notice that I have written many letters for students I encountered only in hybrid and fully online settings.

Yet, this brief, provocative comment by this smart student makes me realize we must continue to overcome the barriers that digital learning poses for our students. Part of that, perhaps, is that we must find ways to help students and teachers recognize that they are in fact already seeing around those barriers.

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