“Fostering Regular and Effective Contact Among Students,” by W Clay


Street art in San Jose, CA. September 2012.
Photo by DMG.

I still consider myself a relative novice in the field of online teaching. I’ve been doing it for about five years, but I think I’ve only cracked the tip of the pedagogical iceberg. The struggle is and always has been (for me at least): “regular and effective contact.” What is it? How is it done? When I’m in my lecture courses and I’m looking out at my students crammed into their seats, shoulder-to-shoulder, trying hard not to pay attention (and failing in the attempt)—I can feel the learning happening. It just kind of works, and if it doesn’t, I tweak it slightly or severely and then it does. With online courses, though, counteracting the inherent distance and delay requires a lot of work (and a lot of patience).

For most of my online teaching career I’ve thought of my courses as being like automatic cat feeders: the content is available and the students can digest it at will without needing to come into contact with me or each other. Human support and interaction is available but not necessary. Cats like this system. So do some students. But is that approach healthy? Is it conducive to learning? If feral cats can be convinced to socialize with humans, can’t online students?

I started adding video lectures to my online courses a couple of years ago and in hindsight, I see that my excuse for not having them in the first place (something about the sanctity of the lecture hall performance or some such thing) was pretty lame. Bad lighting, cluttered background, messy hair, pajamas—it didn’t matter much—the students would at least know who I was. They and I became connected. But I was still faced with the quandary of how to connect them to each other.

In my lecture courses I have managed to greatly increase interaction between the students by creating group projects and the space in which to complete them. And ironically, while I’ve been able to find and create online elements to augment my lecture courses (which, of course, I deliver via ANGEL, the college’s course management system), I haven’t been able to cross-pollinate my online courses with the same success.

Discussions were some of the first assignments I created online, but they don’t function very well since I originally intended them for my lecture class. They instead provide an almost passive experience, because the questions I ask do not promote discussion. (In my lecture courses they do foster student interaction only because I am there to coax the answers out of the participating students.) Still, they serve a purpose and for now I leave them as they are.

For an online discussion to really work, there needs to be a question that a student is really interested in answering. The answer needs to come from the student’s own subjective experience, because a correct answer to an objective question is a terminal event in most cases. But opinion provokes other students to weigh in with their own opinions, which leads to further responses. Suddenly, there is dialogue. Suddenly these students who have never met, and most likely never will, are interacting.

In order to foster student-to-student interaction, I started by creating a low stakes type of “blog” assignment—a set of five questions that was graded only on participation—in a multi-discussion Discussion Forum with 8 related topics. The students had incentive to participate (1 point per post, 2 posts per week) but the content they created had no bearing on the exams or papers. I asked simple questions that I knew anyone could answer (for instance, “what is your favorite film?”), and as those became exhausted, I added more questions based on student responses. I continue to include new discussion topics.

Although I read all of my students’ posts, I don’t actually respond much unless specifically asked to (the FAQ discussion is the one exception). I enjoy the fact that the students are talking to each other rather than to me, that they are sharing their stories and opinions with each other. That’s one engaging way for them to learn. Occasionally I feel inclined to weigh in, correct a misconception, or give encouragement, but for the most part, this assignment in the class belongs to the students.

I do have to mention that there is one big technical problem that gets in the way of this assignment, which I hesitate to call a blog, since I set it up in a Discussion Forum (partly because the ANGEL blog feature works so poorly); instead, I think of this assignment as the “HYDRA discussion forum.” (That name came about because at one point there were 8 questions and the metaphor kind of stuck). ANGEL’s grading tool doesn’t allow me to grade the topics individually, or to add all of the scores. And so my students have to wait for their grades until I close the assignment, and then use two different browsers to open the grade book and each of the individual discussions. That’s grading made tedious by technology!

But, for the time being I am sticking with this system, flawed though it may be. Either tools in ANGEL will catch up with this type of assignment (doubtful), or I’ll learn to use WordPress, and or I will create a blogging application from scratch (slightly less doubtful). I might also create a new set of discussions to help students connect with each other while doing group projects. Now that the students are talking together, I’ll see if I can get them working together.

W Clay teaches television production, non-linear editing, introduction to film, and survey of film in WVC’s Theatre Arts Department. Currently, he co-chairs the WVC Distance Learning Committee.


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