Every memorable class is a bit like a jazz composition. There is the basic melody that you work with. It is defined by the syllabus. But there is also a considerable measure of improvisation against that disciplining background. A truly memorable class, even a large one, is a collaboration between teacher and students. It’s a one-time-only event. Learning at its best is a collective enterprise, something we’ve known since Socrates.
Online education is a one-size-fits-all endeavor. It tends to be a monologue and not a real dialogue. The Internet teacher, even one who responds to students via e-mail, can never have the immediacy of contact that the teacher on the scene can, with his sensitivity to unspoken moods and enthusiasms.
-Mark Edmunson, “The Trouble With Online Education”
I struggle with this. On one hand, I believe above else that an equal education should be available to all, and I think it’s excellent that educational institutions that were once notorious for their inaccessibility have opened their virtual doors.
But I’ve long hesitated over how effective I feel online education can truly be. I rarely teach the same class twice. I would argue that being able to teach a truly effective class amounts to 60% knowledge and 40% intuition and observation. And let me be clear what I mean by truly effective: not the ability of a student to be able to regurgitate an iteration of facts back to me on a midterm (I don’t have midterms, anyway), but to take what they are learning and apply it to their own lives, interests, passions. Otherwise the knowledge is useless. I’ve wasted your time. And I ask my students to tell me if they ever feel like I’m wasting their time. If I can’t prove to you why certain knowledge is essential, I have failed you, not the other way around. I’ve gotten rid of a number of assignments from semester to semester this way.
As Edmunson writes, teaching very much is the ability to read a room, and to let its energy flow in a natural direction. Any teacher worth their salt can tell you this changes on a daily, weekly, and monthly basis. I love that no group of students is ever the same. It makes teaching never get old. Here is an example: one of the most popular courses I teach is The Literature of Sport. Firstly, I could never have taught this course without the immediate feedback and input of my students, most of whom are athletes taking this course because they think it will be “easy.” Based on whatever alchemy the classroom creates from its combinations of minds—and while I start from that “basic melody” that Edmunson mentions, I end up coming up with reading and assignments as we go—it dictates what we all become mutually fascinated with. Last semester my students were largely concerned with the social commentary of sports, this semester they are more interested in ethics, risks, the individual philosophies in extreme sports. This usually means I am reading from sports anthologies until midnight and on weekends, but you know what? In no other class that I’ve taught do I see such a rapid switch from “haven’t read a book in five years” to “can’t wait to write you an argumentative essay on why fighting is integral to hockey.” Witnessing that kind of transformation is addictive.
The longer I teach, the less I go into every class with a definitive, minute-by-minute lesson plan. In the early days of teaching, I worried how I would fill up time. I would overplan. I would talk too much. Now I know better. I walk in with the previously assigned reading, maybe some things to watch or look at. But I trust my students. I trust them to start the conversation. And I trust myself to improvise what comes next based on that conversation.
I worry that online education misses this improvisation by a long shot. I worry that it’s an incredibly passive form of learning. I worry that it’s for the “already dedicated” students, students who have the patience to watch a video of someone lecturing for an hour. Believe me when I tell you that this is not most students. I think the questions we should be asking are “Who are we trying to engage? And are we doing it as effectively as we can?”
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- ecantwell said: This is exactly right. Also, your class on The Literature of Sport sounds amazing.
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- hereiamlikemaryjblige said: online education as of right now is not as strong. I’d NEVER take any photographic course online because I wouldn’t get the same feedback as when you work together all semester in a class, and liberal arts online…WHAT A JOKE.
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