Sunday, February 26, 2012

When does an online class start?

Over fifteen years ago, while designing the very first online composition course for Lansing Community College, I recall discussing with other faculty working on their first courses to start in Fall 1997 the question of when online classes start.

Today, it seems obvious--when the semester starts. But even so, not such a simple answer. F2f classes have clear, weekly schedules. This section meets on Mondays and Wednesdays from 12-2 p.m., that section meets Thursdays from 6-10 p.m. It's labeled so in the schedule book, on an instructor's assignment page, and now on the web.

But online classes don't have a time listed in the schedule book. All they say is "Arranged." So when do they start? When the professor decides. Students have access to the Angel LMS web site from the first day, but that doesn't mean the professor starts it then. I usually have with online classes the basic pattern of posting assignments on Mondays by 5 p.m., with work for the week to be completed no later than Saturday night--no later than midnight. For all of my online classes, there are real-time meetings, as I've mentioned in earlier postings, using small group chats, and creating a schedule of 3-5 chat sessions for a week based on student schedules.

But with the use of Second Life, I've been experimenting with whole class meetings, where we do meet weekly at a specific time, like a f2f class would do. For this semester, I have creative students meeting with me on Tuesdays from 7-9 p.m. and Comp II students meet with me on Thursdays 7-9 p.m.

It's caused a problem doing so with the schedule book/web listing of the courses. They're still "Arranged" with a note stating when we're meeting. But of course, students are used to seeing day and time listed in a specific spot for f2f and hybrid courses, so when they don't see such for my classes, they don't expect to have to meet at a certain time. I've tried to have administration change this for my classes, but they've not been cooperative, telling me "it's just not done with online classes." Sigh.

Well, I solve the problem by emailing students before the semester starts, so everyone knows what they are getting into well before the semester starts, and those who cannot meet at the scheduled time can drop and go elsewhere.

Anyway, over the last few semesters, I've found a few benefits for meeting as a full class rather than in small group chats.
  1. Second Life orientation goes much smoother when everyone meets at the same time.  I have students do the orientation and a scavenger hunt during week 2. It's much simpler for them to find a partner to work on completing tasks at Angel Learning Isle when they all show up between 7-9 p.m. on a particular evening than throughout the week as happens with sections who meet only in small groups. 
  2. Whole class meetings are more energetic than small group chats. Now, don't get me wrong, small group chats can be quite animated with a rich conversation among well-prepared students. The song sharing I mentioned a couple posts back is an example. But sometimes they are not--especially on Friday afternoons when few are prepared! But when you have a whole class together, even if some aren't prepared, enough are that significant work and learning take place. 
  3. Whole class meetings are easier on me. In the beginning of the semester, I attend every chat. So if I have a class with 5 chat meetings that last from 1-2 hours each, and I have several classes doing so, I can be in world (or online with 2D chats) for up to 24 hours. Now, I do bow out of chats later in the semester by choosing a moderator to keep things going in each group. But even so, it's much easier meeting with everyone, and saying something once rather than five times! A prime example is my creative writing class a couple weeks ago, where I do a lesson on how best to read poems aloud, showing them how to read a poem from sentence to sentence rather than line to line. We talk about nursery rhymes, songs, and literary poems, and I read to them one of their assigned poems to show how much clearer it can be when read from sentence to sentence. In past semesters, I did so three or four times, depending on the number of chat sessions. Last week, only once.
  • Now, I don't tend to choose lessons or class organization based on what's easiest for me. I choose based on what works best for students. But it certainly doesn't hurt if the two coincide. Even more important that they do the older I get!
  1.  Whole class meetings give students much more of a sense of community. It's true that they work with the whole class in Angel discussion forums, and in real time with a small group during chats. But meeting regularly with everyone gives students a sense of being a whole community, rather than isolated individuals or small groups. I'm not sure that such is important for everyone. A good number of students just want to get their work done and move on. But when part of the learning in a writing class is to address an audience in a community of writers, seeing that community regularly surely helps.
The other aspect of meeting regularly with a whole class is the question of whether to meet at the beginning or at the end of a week. It's an issue that arises with hybrid classes, where half or more of the work done in is done online and the other half on campus. So for a four hour class, usually two hours a week are scheduled to meet on campus.

So, I'm doing both this semester: the creative writing class meets at the beginning of their week (Tuesday); the composition II class meets closer to the end of their week (Thursday). The dynamics are different. For the beginning of the week, students are just getting introduced to the work they'll be doing; for later in the week, they're already full steam ahead.

Any benefits for one over the other? I have yet to decide. One of the benefits of having a later meeting is that  I can expect more significant preparation, kind of like chats, where I expect students to come to a session with notes on the reading or writing they're doing. Classes I start early may include later in the week small group chats. But late week meetings, small group chats don't take place.

Either way, I definitely plan to stay with whole class meetings, something that I've not found doable until virtual worlds.

Side note--I finally got shadows to work! Well, more like Linden Lab finally got the viewer to cooperate with my graphics card so I could take snapshots with shadows, ambient occlusion and even depth of field. My frame-rate drops to a crawl, but it's sufficient for pictures. Now if only the Arts & Sciences division will cooperate and grant me a computer upgrade!