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Class Participation and the Whites of Their Eyes

When students and faculty work together at a distance electronically there are some things that can happen that are practically impossible in a face-to-face classroom setting. Granted, there are things that can happen in a classroom that cannot happen electronically, such as full sensory exchanges, visual, aural, olfactory, etc. Some of those may be important, but I find it hard to understand arguments that they are critical to the teaching of new skills and information or to the assessment of a student's mastery of a subject.
A lot of work has been done over time on what is important to the learning process. One element that has been identified consistently is how engaged a student is with the material he or she is trying to master. In a recent forum I attended, John Stinson from Ohio University described a way he is assessing the engagement of his online students. John uses threaded discussion in his online classes. He requires students to participate in these discussions and evaluates their participation.
John has a written record of all his students' comments. He evaluates those comments on four levels. First he looks for the student's immediate personal reaction. Then he also checks for reports of some type of research (including informal discussions with experts). He says he always expects his students to comment at these first levels, but he also pushes them for even more engagement. John checks for evidence of synthesis and generalization of the material within the comments. His last level is my favorite. It is both practical to administer and seems valid. At the end of the term, John looks at the responses from other students that each student's comments generate. If the original comment was not very thought provoking, other students are not likely to react to it. He can actually count the number of responses. That is pretty hard to do in a classroom discussion unless the instructor uses outside observers.
A couple of weeks ago, I had dinner with two experienced members of the faculties of institutions on opposite sides of the country. Both these learned gentlemen still teach mostly in the classroom. It has been a while since I have taught undergraduates and what they told me about their experiences of the past few years was disturbing. They each told me similar stories regarding the lack of respect many of their students seem to have for them. They related tales of disruptive behavior and constant challenges to their assessments of students’ work, some even becoming litigious. I could not help but think of John and his online-enabled assessment scheme. My dinner companions could not have the physical evidence to show their students the quality of their classroom discussions. There may be forces greater than convenience that are driving higher education into more use of online classes.
These two professors do use online resources in their classes, but their direct work with their students is primarily face-to-face. While they both admitted that a growing number of students were tough to handle, they also relayed the joys of working closely with enthusiastic, engaged students. They shared with me the joy they feel seeing a student’s face change, as he or she finally understands some complex idea. This part of the conversation made me think nostalgically about the classes I used to teach. Then I remembered those early morning classes in summer, after most of my students had been 'partying' late into the night. There are some sensory elements to those encounters that I could easily have done without.

About the Author

Sally Johnstone is founding director of the Western Cooperative for Educational Telecommunications (WCET) and serves on advisory groups for state, national, and international organizations to help plan and evaluate eLearning projects.

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