Unfortunately, online education, or its include-all moniker “online,” tends to be lined up against face-to-face or classroom instruction, as if the two were gunfighters. Even if in the minds of some one of the parties walks away the victor, that party has more than the usual shoulder or arm wound than that of the winner left standing in the street before the townspeople come rushing into the frame.
I am certainly guilty of having expressed dissatisfaction with “online,” mostly about the notion that too often it is seen as a way to lasso many students and corral them under one brand of college in the name of profit, as if it were all about the beef. I also do not like the standardized icons, courses having to look the same, compliments of templates and learning management systems. Not everyone wants to have a satchel or an apple sitting on the virtual classroom desktop, put there in what is a strange notion of harking to the good old days, even before most of us went to school, this graphic display in what supposedly is a paradigm shift.
There is, however, one aspect of online education that beats the traditional classroom instruction hands down. This is the intimate, intelligent, and deep conversation that can occur between instructor and student in a virtual environment. Ironically, it is accomplished by one of the more basic technological features, email.
Forget discussion boards that are an imperfect venue attempting to simulate classroom interaction. Students post responses, but how many of them in your typical undergraduate online class are really going to benefit from an asynchronous discussion that by its very nature is set up for failure, because the instructor is not in that discussion, live, as it happens, nor are the students. In the classroom, the faculty member and students have the benefit of being able to read body language, maintain eye contact, and most important, the faculty member can guide the discussion as it occurs, to ensure that salient points are pursued, some digressions are allowed, and that the discourse is meaningful, rather than having five students contribute to the discussion and the others posting an obligatory response by raising their hands and saying something, anything, taking up valuable time.
I know that this last assertion makes for a wonderful argument that discussion in the traditional classroom is not much better then than that of the discussion forum in an online class. True. And that is why just as it would be meaningless to have all of the students say something in a brick-and-mortar class of twenty-five it is really meaningless to have all twenty-five students in virtual space post something on a discussion board in an online class. Inevitably, there will be the five truly contributing students, while the vast majority of students post something just because they have to post something, usually to earn a few points.
This is where the good ol’ email of online beats the discussion forum of online and the traditional classroom hands down! This is where online instruction can seize the day, even if it is an asynchronous one, and become a better friend to many of us who have a love-hate relationship with online education.
I have found email interaction, one-on-one, with students over the years in my American lit survey class to be the most rewarding. Students are able to email me any time anything they wish, and most often the emails are thoughtful, expressing points of view or thoughts about literature many students would not feel comfortable sharing with others. Students, without being formally asked or required to do so, also email other, non-assigned readings they have come across, or an event from “real life” that they found relates to literature. The use of email is a give-and-take where I can give more than I would in the traditional classroom, it too with its confines of space and time, and I also feel more comfortable sharing particular experiences that not everyone in a classroom might necessarily want to take the time or have the time to listen to. I can respond directly to the student and that student’s needs. Most important, the student feels comfortable, in a realm of trust, knowing that the communication that takes place is between the student and me only.
While many of us are able to establish zones of trust in the traditional classroom, no matter how safe the environment is, many students will be reluctant to mention honestly or at all topics such as race or sexuality–which are often much more than “topics”–and any number of points as they relate to the literature we study. Online, using email, the student can express his or her views without fear of public non-acceptance or ridicule, which can occur outside the traditional classroom after the faculty member is no longer present to moderate a polite discussion that does not resort to ad hominem tactics. Whether a Democrat, Republican, Anarchist, the student has time and a fuller freedom than if on public display in a classroom or discussion board to develop through email exchanges with the faculty member his or her research paper in American literature and is truly able to relate the American Dream how it affects him or her in a literary-contextual environment.
What I like most about this email interaction in online classes, making use of the simplest function in a learning management system that is so standardized, is that the students and I are able to engage truly in a conversation of the mind, where any other factors are irrelevant. I don’t have my students post pictures of themselves. The pictures we create are those that come from honest dialogue.
Yes, “online” has “face-to-face” beat(en) hands down, as I keep wondering why we could not have online classes simply using email, some attachments, and texts. But for that to happen we need some some reincarnations of Matt Dillon and enlightened town folk. I am sure they are out there.