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.
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
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.
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.