|"Online" has Many Meanings|
Prof. Bunge has been candid and generous in describing her attempts to improve an undergraduate course through additional online activities. I hope many will emulate her willingness to explore, evaluate, and share intermediate results with colleagues who might benefit from her experience. I offer below some suggestions for clarifying this article and making it even more useful. I include questions to help others describe online course improvements more fully.
Some of Bunge's conclusions, especially those implied by the title and by the sentence that was extracted as a highlight, are not justified by the full published text of the article.
"I told my classes I could add online work if students requested it, but not a single student of the 147 enrolled in all my classes asked for it." This highlighted sentence is probably misleading. It seems to suggest that students are rejecting online options, and by implication, so should teachers. But without further explanation, it seems more likely that the undergraduates were responding exactly as Bunge should have expected would happen if she told students in ANY class that she could add more work (of any kind) if they requested it.
Perhaps a more accurate, but less provocative title for this article would be "What I Hope to Improve in My Teaching - and How My First Exploration of Online Activities Fell Short."
A more appropriate conclusion than suggested by the article's title is that adding a certain kind of online assignment was unsatisfactory for the students and the teacher in this course. The article suggests (but not explicitly) that it was unsatisfactory because
a. too many students reported that they "struggled to complete the course requirements"
b. too few students reported or demonstrated that they "engage more deeply with texts"
c. too few students reported or demonstrated that they "learned more and were more challenged intellectually"
d. too few students "talked about my enthusiasm, respect for their opinions, and obsession with making sure they understood the texts and assignments"
This a-d list above, extracted from Bunge's article, provides a good start for developing, evaluating, and selecting among various ways of improving undergraduate courses - whether online or otherwise.
Clear answers to the following questions might help others benefit from any candid description of an experimental use of online activities to improve an undergraduate course. In particular, to understand what Bunge had attempted and why, some of the following information would be essential:
1. How did online assignments differ from other assignments in the course?
- How were courseassignments communicated?
- How was students' [text-only?] work examined, guided, structured and graded?
- Were students permitted, encouraged, or required to do their thinking and writing in any ways for the "online" assignments different from how they did their thinking and writing for other assignments?
- Were students permitted, encouraged, or required to read the passages for the online assignments in any ways that differed from other reading assignments?
- What was the nature of the online assignments, activities? The most common option would be to use the institution's Web-based course management system to enable and require students to participate in an asynchronous threaded text-only online discussion during which the instructor intervenes occasionally. That certainly wouldn't be my recommendation for achieving her stated goals.
2. What was the course schedule and how did it change? Did the course usually include 4 face-to-face class meetings per week? and
a. Was the schedule changed to include only three such weekly meetings with some kind of online activities provided instead of the fourth weekly meeting? or
b. Was some kind of online work added instead of substituted for class meetings?
3. What kinds of online activities were included in efforts to "use online work to coax students to think through texts on their own"?
Bunge said "I wondered why students gave me good evaluations the first time I attempted online teaching. Perhaps my blundering won them over. I made many mistakes as I learned to use the technology, so I e-mailed them frequently and anxiously monitored their reactions. They may have appreciated the same thing that students in my traditional classes liked: my concern for their learning." Are we intended to infer that these frequent emails and other interactions so effectively demonstrate that she cared about the students' learning that they produced some of the hoped for motivation? If so, could that frequency of email and attention be achieved without the goad of initial "technological ineptitude"?
Also, in what ways was Bunge's initial goal of getting students to "engage more deeply" characteristic of (or different from) the "approaches that genuinely work" that she learned about during the Wisconsin conference mentioned in her article?
Bunge also said: "The most interesting contrast shows up in the comments: Those who liked my course with the online modules praised its organization, while students in the course with no online component talked about my enthusiasm, respect for their opinions, and obsession with making sure they understood the texts and assignments—all traits beyond a computer's reach." Why does Bunge believe in these limits? No one familiar with computers expects them to engender enthusiasm, demonstrate respect, or obsess about students' understanding. However, like textbooks and other resources, computers can be used effectively by teachers for these admirable purposes.
Finally, I share Bunge's hope that our colleagues will "keep evaluating technology's impact, perhaps they will eventually find a way to invest its processes with the sense of shared humanity that binds together students and teachers in successful classes." And I hope she shares mine that our colleagues will continue just as avidly to try to achieve those successful classes - with or without online activities. By using whatever available technologies, supporting resources, pedagogies, etc. that seem worthwhile and well-matched to their own abilities, to the characteristics of their students, and to the purposes of those classes.
Above comments, questions, refer to: "Why I No Longer Teach Online," by Nancy Bunge, "...professor of writing, rhetoric, and American culture at Michigan State University." The Chronicle of Higher Education, November 6, 2011
Part of:Online Learning: The Chronicle's 2011 Special Report
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