It is often said that necessity is the mother of invention, and she can be a cruel matriarch. The systems in place around us are rife with antiquity and change is often a tedious process for the most elaborate of constructions. It is unfortunate then, when these systems are forced into rapid change. The system that I’d like to talk about today is Oakland University. In particular, their forced shift to total online teaching after the first confirmed case of COVID-19 in Oakland County. I am Trenton Petersen, a soon to be graduating Professional and Digital Writing major. I’ve taken a variety of both writing and non-writing classes and feel comfortable sharing my thoughts on the matter. In addition, I’ve talked to a number of my colleagues in different majors about how they felt the transition was handled. To this end, the wide stratification of experiences that my peers and I went through suggests there are large structural issues with respect to use of the online space.
I suppose that it would be most appropriate to speak of my own experiences first. My curriculum that semester was a class on digital storytelling, a business writing course, an ancient Greek philosophy class, and an experimental hybrid journalism/writing course involving work with non-profit organizations. Of these four, I will be discussing the first three. The journalism class was already so unorthodox pre-switch that I feel it would have little use to this particular discussion. Below are overviews of each class as well as some major takeaways I had from each experience.
Philosophy and Forums
The first class to discuss is my philosophy class. This class, similar to most college classes I’ve taken previously, used the online space as a repository; a means of storage for resources, documents, and ease of turning in assignments. Readings and homework may exist here, but learning is not a direct function of these online spaces. The classroom is still what primarily engages the student with the content. This classroom centered pedagogy can be reflected in the way that the professor modified the course for online. Their solution was to host a surprisingly robust discussion forum.
Click here to see the forum homepage in greater detail.
The professor had a weekly word count requirement for students and posted threads about topics related to coursework. However, they also encouraged students to post threads of their own even if they weren’t directly related to coursework. This was a brilliant move that took advantage of the asynchronous nature of online discussion forums. Students could feel free to bring up topics they might be truly passionate about and the professor could engage them without worry of wasting precious class time.
Click here to see the example of a forum thread closer up.
This forum was a very great step in the right direction for teaching an online course that heavily relied on discussion. As a student, I appreciated a welcoming space for my thoughts and questions. I also valued the ease of access to lectures so I could refresh myself on topics before responding to a post. If I were to add anything, I would include links to secondary sources for the topics at hand when they are available. Hyperlinks to these sources integrated into forum posts made by the professor would be an even better step, and leave no excuse for students to not have proper context for questions.
A Class Already Structured For Online
On the other end of the spectrum, my business writing class was very well prepared. The online space was not just a resource for the professor; it was the location where learning happens. The expected readings and assignments were hosted here. Forums dedicated to peer review for assignments served as a level of student interaction. In addition to actual pre-recorded video lectures, outside web pages and videos were linked to give students alternative explanations on classroom topics.
Click here to enlarge the business writing screenshot.
This acknowledgement of the internet at large as a valid pedagogical tool is an incredibly important move. Many of my peers can speak to resources like Khan Academy being the sole reason for getting through Calculus courses in their engineering curriculum. Question and answer forums for students to clarify things with the professor were also set up. These go a step further than email, as other students can see the answers to questions they themselves may have had. The class was so well put together for learning in an online space that it was borderline unaffected by the switch to online. The professor built the digital space from the ground up as an pedagogical equivalent to the classroom and it shows. I inquired with the professor about their approach and they said,
“The interesting reason I have my classroom set up the way I do is from my experience as a student. Having all of the information online allows students to access lectures, notes, rubrics etc at any time. Sometimes a student may have to miss a class, sometimes they are having a hard day and just not locking in to the message, and having it available at all times allows them to truly get the most out of the class and provides an equitable grading platform.”
While I personally had a good handle on the material as initially presented, students all learn differently. By including alternate sources, instructors provide students with different approaches to the material that may click better. Having it integrated into the site also eliminates two problems with outside sources. One, it solves the problem of students not taking the time to search things because they don’t feel like it. Two, and more important in my opinion, is that a professor posting secondary sources is a source of implicit “vetting.” This helps alleviates fears of student-found information/resources not being correct or academically equivalent. The professor is putting their seal of approval on this information and that is especially valuable for students who are already unsure about a certain topic.
A Course Right In The Middle
Sitting firmly in between these two extremes is the digital storytelling class I was enrolled in. This class mirrored most of the traditional online features with access to readings and assignment submissions. In the physical classroom, discussions of the weekly readings were done and there were often days dedicated to introducing software for creating digital stories. They usually began with a brief demonstration of key features and then the class was asked to replicate this with a small selection of provided material. There were, however, a couple glimpses of the professor taking advantage of the online space for teaching pre-switch. A repeating weekly assignment was being asked to produce a short example of digital storytelling based on the things learned from readings and the software tutorials. These were to be posted into a forum on Friday. By Sunday we were to respond to two different pieces with thoughts and questions. This open dialogue between students about their work takes advantage of the asynchronous nature of online forums, similar to the philosophy forum mentioned above.
Click here to see the forum post for the digital storytelling class.
Another spot that approached digital pedagogy is the linking of tutorials to software that are generated by other people from the internet, similar to the business writing class. Despite this, they did feel much more like a secondary resource. I also found it odd that the only time the professor added their own tutorials to the website was after the forced switch to online. Adding these as a base as an alternative for students who couldn’t make it to class would be a great way to get some real learning done in the online space. Similar to the comments I made about the business writing course, having multiple versions of the same information from different sources is a great way for students find the way they learn best.
These three examples all speak to a difference in the way that classes are structured with respect to online pedagogy. The vast majority of college courses that my peers and I have taken are firmly structured around the idea of the physical classroom being the main pedagogical space. COVID-19’s shakeup of this structure was very revealing. Professors treating the online space as secondary has the implicit effect of giving the students the impression that the learning done there is therefore also secondary. Making the online space equivalent to the physical one will not be easy, but it may not be impossible. Here are my main takeaways from my experiences.
- Recognize that students like discussion, even if they don’t like to admit it. The online space is the perfect way for shy students to speak up about classroom topics when they otherwise wouldn’t. As for the students who speak up already, making it easy for them to continue to spark dialogue will take some of the onus off of the professor.
- Students of today have grown up absorbing a huge amount of their information from the internet. By acknowledging this and bringing in sources “outside of academia” to help supplement teaching, instructors open up a huge amount of resources learners of all types; furthermore, alternate explanations can help clarify ideas for those who don’t get it the first time.
- Simply try to be in the mindset that the online space is just as valuable as the classroom, even when you’re teaching in person. Don’t think of digital learning as a supplement or fallback to whatever may be going on in regular lecture; think of the digital, online learning space as a parallel to the regular learning environment, and one that should get just as much attention and care.
I am not going to pretend that I understand how being a professor feels, or that I would know how to teach a college course in any capacity. But I can say that I am someone who wants to learn from a college course and I have been fortunate to engage with some really good online learning experiences. I only hope that my experiences can help contribute to future learning experiences for others.