Log in, glaze over, tune out

One of the several bees who are long term residents in David Brooks’s bonnet is that a certain kind of love between teacher and student is what really spurs learning. Today’s iteration of the theme occurs when describing an experimental school called the New American Academy:

[I]t does a tremendous job of nurturing relationships. Since people learn from people they love, education is fundamentally about the relationship between a teacher and student. By insisting on constant informal contact and by preserving that contact year after year, The New American Academy has the potential to create richer, mentorlike or even familylike relationships for students who are not rich in those things.

This bee is an excellent one to have in his bonnet. It’s in mine, too. I know nothing about this specific school, and I’ve never taught younger kids. But in my experience, a great education indeed occurs with love between a teacher and student (not in the creepy Van Halen sort of way, which is, I hope, obvious).

When I think back on the teachers who genuinely changed the way I think, I loved them. Not in any intimate way. I never socialized with them. I knew next to nothing about their life outside the classroom, and they knew nothing of mine. But my feelings exceeded mere admiration – that these people could show me a world I didn’t know existed. I was excited to go to class. I wanted to learn how to think the way they thought and to know what they knew.

Another factor in a great learning experience that Brooks doesn’t focus on as much are the relationships that spring up between students. A few intellectually excited students can set a whole class on fire. My intro to philosophy class had 10 students, and my relationship with them, and an amazing teacher, is what got me into this lucrative business. It’s not coincidental that another of those 10 students from that class is now a philosophy professor.

And this is why I think the trend toward online college courses is seriously problematic.

I’ve taught many different types of classes, and have a lot of opinions about what makes for a good classroom environment. Over 200 students sucks. Teaching a class that meets a general freshman requirement is usually not pretty. Domineering students must be handled early. Having TAs is great come grading time but comes at the expense of an important connection with your students. Natural light and temperature control are actually quite relevant.

But nothing fundamentally alters the efficacy of education like online teaching. I’ve now taught two online classes (my university is encouraging them). While I absolutely love teaching in general, teaching online is a wretched experience which I pray never becomes the bulk of my job (should I be lucky enough to keep teaching philosophy).

I don’t know the students. As a result, I’m not nearly as motivated to do the grunt work of my job, i.e., grading. Instead of part of a conversation I have with a student, grading becomes wholly tedious. Their papers are noticeably worse, their understanding of the material suffers. An unusually high percentage just stop participating in the class. They don’t spark interests in each other. Interesting side discussions don’t get started as easily. I honestly can’t see a student coming out of an online class feeling as if their whole way of thinking had changed. My student evaluations dropped by about 20% from the usual numbers. I don’t know if that happens to others who teach offline and on, but I certainly feel more than 20% less effective. (I imagine some classes might be more amenable than others – in philosophy, logic might work better than, say, ethics.)

I’m teaching a particularly great bunch of students right now in a traditional classroom. No PowerPoint, even, which is the first in a while for me. They throw questions and challenges at me left and right, they challenge each other, they bring up things they learn in other classes, they detain me for far too long after class asking question after question. I never make it back to my car alone; a student is always accompanying me, blathering. I love it. I look forward to going to class. I don’t know if I can touch them the way my favorite teaches have touched me, but it’s a hell of a lot more likely under these circumstances.

There is something special about the relationships in a classroom: both teacher-student and student-student. The flow of discussion, the building of a relatioship rather than the mere imparting of information. And online classes remove the presence of others which has in itself such an intellectual power. I mean anyone can find syllabi online and just read all the books on it. You’ll learn a lot but will be missing something, too – that kind of love which really changes your life.

UPDATED: In answer to some comments, I am not advocating getting rid of online classes. They are cost-effective, and for some people they are an opportunity for some education that they would otherwise get. I’m just saying it does come at some cost. Some of the people who get the most benefit from seeing their peers intellectually excited are people who went to underfunded, low-performing high schools. Alas, they are the most likely to benefit from the cost-effectiveness of an online class.

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26 thoughts on “Log in, glaze over, tune out

  1. But is the nurturing relationship the cause of better learning, or the result?

    In my personal experience, a good relationship with a teacher has only developed after, or because of how much I’ve learned from them.

    • I’m not sure. Could be sort of cyclical: good teaching inspires love which inspires greater learning. But even initially the material comes gripping when it is presented through the medium of a person who knows it well. And wen you catch on to the social interactions that are pushing you toward finding this stuff exiting.

       

  2. There are some classes that really need the discussion — it’s fundamentally liberal arts’ lifeblood — the communication between people.

    There was a Logic course taught at CMU that was online. CS students took it for an “easy A” (aka “please let me sleep through something”) while taking their Systems course (which, at half the credit hours for a semester, was still WAY too undercredited).

    I’m pretty sure they walked away with about what you’d expect — a little more knowledge,a nd mostly things they already knew.

    I think instead of online classes, some classes may benefit from either “breakout sessions” (thou must find other students, and Talk with Them — there will be no schedule), or more limited classtime.

  3. One of the middle schools we looked at for our youngest daughter does something they call ‘looping’. When the kids start 6th grade they get a set of teachers for their grade. Those teachers then stay with them for all three years, moving forward to 7th and 8th grade. When it was explained to us they said that after the kids return fromm summer break they hit the ground running because there is no getting-to-know-you period. They estimated that over the three years the kids got an extra 3 months of quality learning.

    I was also impressed that test scores had gone up 30% since they implemented the plan. It seems that building relationships with the teachers is exactly what is happening and it’s working.

    • That’s kind of awesome, unless you draw a crappy teacher, and then it would be hell on earth for a grade schooler.
      • I agree – we thought about that too, especially since middle school seems to be when kids no longer think their teachers walk on water.
      • It’s also true if you draw a crappy class.

        I’ve had groups where even the students themselves were happy to see the class disolve in June never to be reformed.  I’ve had kids come up to me years later and say “Wow we were a horrible class weren’t we?”  The idea that those groups are “locked in”?  ~shudder~

         

  4. A mistake in relation to what, though? I’ll buy that online classes are objectively inferior, but they’re being adopted for a reason–they’re cheaper for the college and easier to access for students, especially nonconventional ones. Online classes are a beater instead of a new camry, but that’s not always the wrong choice, especially in a society that’s made college a requirement for most white collar jobs.
    • It’s not even clear that they’re objectively inferior in all cases. For subjects where each lesson builds on previous lessons, it’s very important that a student not fall behind, because then nothing makes sense for the rest of the semester. With online learning, a student can go at his own pace. Maybe if he’s slow, he doesn’t make it through all of the material by the end of the semester, but he gets through a lot more than he would if he fell behind on the third week and never caught up. Also, when listening to a lecture, my mind tends to wander. I would have found the ability to pause and rewind a lecture to be invaluable. For technical subjects, I would think that a well-designed online-learning program might be superior to traditional classroom education.
      • I agree, for technical classes, it would be more likely to be helpful.

        Re: mind-wandering: I would have thought what you say is true. Despite the fact that I am the most mesmerizing, fascinating lecturer ever, my students’ minds will occasionally wander in class. And while I wouldn’t sy my subject is technical like engineering, there are some concepts and distinctions that I have to explain, like, 10 times before anyone gets it (ontological argument, I’m looking in your direction). So a couple of times over the past few years when I was sick and couldn’t make it to class, I recorded and posted a lecture. Every time I came back, the students bitched and moaned on how they couldn’t focus on the recorded lecture, that it was too difficult to attend to, etc.

         

  5. Rose-

    In case you don’t know, I’m a teacher myself (of Pre-K).  I am incredibly sympathetic, if not a downright advocate, of the model espoused in the linked article.  However, don’t you think this type of thinking is what has led us to the search for a one-size-fits-none model?  I think some courses and/or students are better served in an online model.  Some lend themselves to large survey-type courses, others intimate environments.  There is a whole range of coursework and, more importantly, learning style and student type that all interact with the teaching methodology to create a learning environment.

    My hunch is that most teachers teach in a way that they learn best in.  The problem that arises is many teachers who might be excellent teachers in non-traditional models are probably turned off by their very-traditional experiences as students.  This is more of  half-baked idea than a fully-thought-out thesis…

    Thoughts?

    • I one hundred percent agree that some course matters are more suitable for learning online. Maybe this seems stark to me because philosophy is probably one of the least suited to online learning (with the exception of logic).

      I know plenty of teachers who are very excited about online learning. I would not be shocked if they are better at it than I am. I definitely plan to put more thought into how I can make it the best it can be if I ever teach that way again.

      I do still think there’s something ineliminably valuable about face to face interactions. But this is just based on my gut feeling.

      • Though not a professor of it myself, I did take some basic philosophy courses at the undergrad level and agree that they do not lend themselves to online learning.

        I think your update also touches on another issue which is that online courses need not necessarily replace “face to face” courses.  At the graduate level, I took many ‘face to face’ courses that included an online component, which not only allowed people to choose their preferred way of engagement, but also augmented what already existed without detracting (except insofar as people who would have been required to participate more in a ‘face to face’ setting who reserved their interactions for the online component).  So I could have amazing face-to-face interactions on Tuesday and Wednesday nights and great online dialogues on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday.

        I realize that is not exactly what you are talking about, as it seems you are referring to online-only courses.  I guess I’m discussing online education more broadly.

      • Duly noted.

        With that in mind, exclusively online courses certainly fill a need, be it for students who learn better in that way, as a way to reach students who otherwise would not limited access to college, or what have you.  But they cannot replace all courses for all students and, as with any education reform, should be implemented thoughtfully.

  6. Natural light and temperature control are actually quite relevant.

    But have you actually tried teaching philosophy with Pink Floyd’s light show?

  7. Online learning is something that the IS&T department at CGU experiments with frequently.

    There’s a difference between “online learning” at an institution that is trying to cut costs, and “online learning” at an institution that is trying to expand their enrollment, and finally at an institution that is trying to make a difficult-to-schedule class available for commuter students.

    When I hear “online learning”, I don’t know what people are talking about.  There are so many different incarnations of the animal that the term itself is diffuse past real meaning.  Do students log in once a week via chat rooms?  Do they blog?  Is there a group project on a wiki or content management system?  Do the projects include social media surveys?  Is it an “online” class if there are 9 kids in a classroom and two watching the lecture via Skype or some other SIP client?

    I think that certain types of collaborative conversation classes (seminars, most philosophy courses, literature courses) lend themselves particularly well to 15-20 students in a roundtable environment, and turning that into an online course would be a challenge… particularly if you’re handed a finite set of tools and said, “Here’s the ‘online learning’… go rub it on your classes and make the institution some more money!”

    If you have a creative IT department and a crapload of time to work on creating the class, you can probably make it work, though.

    • > particularly if you’re handed a finite set of tools and said, “Here’s the ‘online learning’… go rub it on your classes and make the institution some more money!”

      Yeah, that was pretty much it. I used recorded powerpoint lectures and discussions on facebook. My husband is set to use WordPress with written lectures, which I would do next time.

      >If you have a creative IT department and a crapload of time to work on creating the class, you can probably make it work, though.

      IT was lovely about troubleshooting specific issues, but definitely not a let’s-work-together-to-build-this-from-the-ground-up kind of situation.

      And I really do agree that there is a certain kind of student who could use this, and my discipline is just particularly horribly suited to it.

      • IT was lovely about troubleshooting specific issues, but definitely not a let’s-work-together-to-build-this-from-the-ground-up kind of situation.

        Ah.  Here’s a quote I use a lot: “You need better IT guys”.  You have technicians (sounds like good ones, which puts you up on most places).  You need some strategery.

  8. I once took a “distance learning” course in which we watched the prof via satellite hookup because it was easier than driving 45 to the campus where she was teaching. After two weeks, I started driving 45 minutes to the campus where she was teaching. I just couldn’t stay focused on a television set like I could a teacher.

    Now, I try to meet with my students at least once or twice a semester outside of class to see how they’re doing with the material. I do this because I constantly hear them complain among themselves about how impersonal the educational experience is at our university. I sometimes wonder why administrators never hear these sorts of complaints. Maybe they do. Recently, our university launched a new initiative to be more responsive to student needs and give them more “personal” interaction with “university life”. It was a website. You could leave anonymous complaints that would be read by anonymous secretaries.

  9. Most teachers have troubles adjusting to online courses because they simply don’t understand the medium.   Keep them short, punchy and to the point.   I teach SOA.   Taught Java for years.

    Forget that you are teaching a course, for the moment.   You are making a video.   Don’t forget that simple fact.

    Don’t bother teaching to the camera.   Voice is just fine.   Use the video to push content.   Don’t read the content off the screen.   Learn to write a screenplay from the pros.   The gold standard is the PBS series NOVA.   Here’s one such script.

    Rule 0:  Teach to a goal:   a course covers a certain amount of ground.   It has prerequisites.   Conduct a pre-test, before you teach the course, to make sure those prerequisites are understood.

    Rule 1.   The Preacher’s Rule:   If you can’t get the sermon out in 15 minutes, you’re not going to succeed in half an hour, either.

    Rule 2:   Sovereign US Army Block of Instruction:

    2.1   First tell ‘em what you’re going to tell them

    2.2   Then tell ‘em.

    2.3   Then tell ‘em what you’ve just told ‘em.

    2.4   Assignment:  Have them demonstrate they understood what you just told ‘em.

  10. Our school uses (?) an online class program for students who have failed a class and need a credit or two to “keep up”.  I daresay that it is an unmitigated disaster.  First we have many students who simply pay someone else to take the class for them as we allow students to work from home on the course material, thus without supervision.  At this time we don’t have IP tracking nor will parents give us that information.  Yay.  Second students who failed to learn it in a traditional classroom are now expected to suddenly develop the self motivation required to learn “at their own pace” and keep up with a pace needed to finish with a passing grade in the same time span?  Not so much.

    In short because we’ve been told by state and federal officials that we will have all kids ready to take a national standardized test on a given date and that all kids should be prepared to go to a college (and thus cover specific college prep content) and because new laws have made it harder and harder to seperate people by ability, we have to use a one size moves at the speed of a time breaking Delorian and thus fits all philosophy.

     

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