Tuesday, November 08, 2011

"Why I No Longer Teach Online" Bunge article, Chronicle Hi Ed; Candid, Potentially Misleading, Potentially Helpful

"Online" has Many Meanings
"Why I No Longer Teach Online," By Nancy Bunge - full citation below.  
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 course 
  • assignments 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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  1. At the end of my 20 year career at UC Berkeley, our unit was starting to scale up our efforts to post lecture videos to YouTube. At first, the faculty liked the idea since it served as a backup for students who missed class. However, some faculty found student attendance dropping off precipitously when videos of their large lecture classes were made available. In other words, students were voting with their feet. Some faculty took a laisse-faire approach and simply taught the students who did show up. Others were concerned that students with poor study habits might try to cram in viewing of all the lectures right before the final exam.

    When I started working at Berkeley in 1987, I tried to persuade faculty to find alternatives to large lecture classes. With projects like the High Tech Small Study Group program, my unit tried to introduce the practice of Tutored Videotapped Instruction, which had been pioneered with great sucess by Stanford's distance eduction program back in the early seventies. We also brought in folks like Joe Redish who worked with Jack Wilson on RPI's studio course model. Unfortunately, the faculty and the powers that be at Berkeley did not embrace any of these ideas at the time.

    When the faculty saw their own students voting with their feet in 2007, the year I retired, I thought this might lead to a change of heart. Unfortunately, it didn't. It's been a few years since I visited the campus, so perhaps things have changed. However, judging from your article, I'm not getting my hopes up.

  2. @Fred -- It seems to me that when those profs stopped posting videos of their lectures, they decided to use access to their course content as a lever to force students into their classrooms. I hope those same profs didn't also claim that the resulting improved attendance was anything more than evidence of the unequal power relationship which continues to exist in most schools. Teachers can still treat students in ways that are disrespectful of their time and commitment to learning as long their reasons can be made to sound reasonable.

    Sadly, increasing 'bum in seat time' addresses only the lowest level of Krathwohl's Affective Taxonomy -- i.e RECEIVING (http://www.dynamicflight.com/avcfibook/learning_process/1-5.gif). The unintended consequence of teachers' using their power and class time simply to ensure students HEAR what they have to say is that it reinforces the students' belief that their most important job is simply to RECALL what was said. (http://www.dynamicflight.com/avcfibook/learning_process/1-4.gif).

    Why didn't those educators reframe their new problem as an opportunity? Those videos could have become the first step towards making content acquisition the students' responsibility. Relieved of the need to spend hours and hours year after year filling rows and rows of empty vessels with the same content over and over, those profs could have turned their attention to adding new value to the traditional practice of gathering students together in the presence of a learned and passionate expert. What educational alchemy might have emerged?

  3. I'd like to point out, again, that I had 1,000 words for my article. Also, this was not my first experience, as I did manage to explain in my 1,000 words. I also managed to address some of the other questions you claim I ignored.

    Again, I spent dozens of hours in workshops and working individually with experts at online teaching on my campus. And then I spent hundreds of hours working on my classes. I tried all kinds of things. And after I had tried everything I could think of or that I had heard about, I took another workshop and turned down the $1,000 I was entitled to for completing it because I felt I learned nothing in it that I could use to improve my classes.

    And I don't see any connection between what I wrote and videos. I do know there are all kinds of studies that show students don't learn from videos. And I don't know how anyone who read my article could assume that I was obsessed with students learning to recall my lectures. I am obsessed with my students thinking things through for themselves. And I don't know how listening to the most learned and passionate expert would achieve that.

    Nancy Bunge


What do you think?