(A)Syncronicty and Online Learning

Image from Wikimedia Commons
Image from Wikimedia Commons

While the semester officially starts tomorrow, I had scheduled an online session with my EDU 807 students tonight via Zoom as a kick-off to the semester. As it happens, this first week of class also coincides with a trip to Austin for a meeting of the National Writing Project for the “New Pathways to Leadership” retreat. So, when I originally sent out a call to the doctoral students in the course to plan for the best time for meeting, I knew that it would be a challenge to get a mutually agreeable time in early this week, preferably Sunday, Monday, or Tuesday, so I had picked tonight when I new.

Travel plans and Mother Nature didn’t cooperate,

One of the values I know that many teachers hold dear is the actual moment of educating — bringing forth new ideas, forging connections, asking questions — and that is, no doubt, difficult to do in an online environment. At best, we aim to do so with the occasional synchronous online event (like the webcast I had planned for tonight), sometimes simply through chat. More often than not, however, it seems that online learning comes in the form of “content” to be “delivered” by a teacher and, subsequently, “mastered” by a student. Either way, the online experience seems less than optimal, though I admit that I am fairly new to fully online teaching.

So, in my efforts to maintain consistency with the goals and aspirations of our doctoral program — and because those goals and aspirations such as a personalized experience, thoughtful relationships with peers and the instructor, and (to the extent possible) flexible models for participation — I wanted to host bi-weekly, whole-class conversations to review the main ideas of the module, have groups report out on their projects, and otherwise build and maintain a community. Even with this goal in mind, I know that I must be aware of the context that my students find themselves in as working adults, spread across time zones, so watching a recorded version of the session is always an option.

I know that this balance has been difficult for anyone teaching an online course — whether 20 students, 200, or in the case of some MOOCs, 2000 or more— yet it seems integral to the learning process. Even last fall when I taught an online writing course that was designed by someone else, when I saw no live interaction between teacher and student in the form of conferences scheduled in the semester, I made time. Even a 15-20 minute conversation with my writers made a big difference in their work, probably more than had I just written 15-20 minutes worth of comments on their papers and sent them back via email.

At any rate, syncronicity escaped me today. Screencasts, such as the one I was able to hack together while stranded in an airport on a weather delay, don’t seem to be a good substitution. And, even if it was a viable option, I simply can’t image that I would have recorded this screencast as “content” that could be made available in the course. I tried to personalize it with a bit of humor, poking a bit of fun at myself and the situation as a way to build rapport with my students.

Interestingly, I was planning to share the oft-cited French postcard above during my talk with them. Noting that it offered a vision of 21st century education from the turn of of the twentieth, it is worth seeing what the artists and futurists got right (and, of course, what they got wrong). While I was not just jamming whole books worth of information into my students’ heads today — and we will use collaborative conversations tools like NowComment and Acclaim later this week — it does echo some of the major concerns that those who resist technology can call on: isolation, memorization, and lack of authentic learning tasks.

My hope and expectation is to be more interactive as the semester wears on and, for that, I appreciate the flexibility that online learning offers.

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