Thursday, January 03, 2013

Face-to-face immersion

(Note: this blog posting started over a month ago, so it's really a middle-of-the-semester reflection rather than an end of semester wrap up. I expect to do such a posting soon.)

A couple weeks ago, I was sitting in an English Department distance learning committee meeting, where my chair, Rick Reagan, said something that really caught my attention: "Many students just have to realize that online learning is not an immersive experience like face-to-face learning is. It's mostly asynchronous and on your own."

What caught my attention was the idea that f2f is immersive; although subconsciously I recognized such, I never thought of it in those terms. What makes the f2f classroom immersive? It seems to me there are at least three things: real time interaction, spatial proximity and manipulation of objects with others in that space.

Now, online learning, especially traditional, 2D online learning at LCC, is mostly asynchronous interaction. Synchronous can be included but is not used much on our campus. Proximity does exist at some level with a 2D learning management system (LMS) like the one we're currently using, Desire2Learn, in the sense that everyone sees text/organization/colors much the same in the computer browser window. In other words, there is a similar look and feel that everyone in a class experiences.  But clearly not a sense of space, of being somewhere. And there is no manipulation of objects in the same space. I guess you could do something similar with Google Docs, editing, manipulating, writing on a document together. But nothing like looking at a sheet of paper shoulder to shoulder, or passing a notebook from one person to another, or even looking at a projected screen together.

Don't get me wrong--there are other criteria, and a quick web search will give us articles about immersion in film, games, virtual worlds, whole room virtual reality simulators and so on.

But to make a class immersive, in a typical f2f way, seems rather simple: real time interaction, spatial proximity, and manipulation of objects with others in that space.

And his point, one that is so for most online courses, is that students just need to realize, it ain't there, when it's an online class.

However--and you know where I'm going with this, don't you!--we shouldn't settle with a lack of immersion for online students.

It's true that some are fine without immersion in their educational experience. They want to get in to read stuff, watch videos, write papers, take tests and move on their merry way. They'll tolerate some interaction, but they don't really want it. I remember many years ago, one of my first online students did a paper on being in a virtual community with our class, and arguing that the interaction with others even though we couldn't be in the same place, made the learning more enriching than an online class without such interaction. She interviewed class members, both in our class and others she was taking. Some agreed, but some didn't, saying that interaction, community in learning, was great but took too much time, and they just wanted to get in, do the work, and get out. In other words, they'd much prefer a correspondence course.

But the thing is, many students take online courses, not because they want a correspondence course--a solitary learning experience--but because of a number of issues that keep them from coming to campus. In other words, they'd prefer a f2f class where immersion is present, but they can't attend such a class because of distance, lack of transportation, inability to leave home because of a disability, illness or small children, and so on.

Consequently, for many online students, being able to experience a regular real-time class experience, in a common place where they can interact and even manipulate objects with others is beneficial. That's the reason why I have been exploring the use of a virtual environment with my classes, to give students an experience where they have a much more sense of community, working with others, with me, in a place that creates immersion, or at least affords the opportunity for immersion. It's often clunky. It's often less than ideal. But it's light years ahead of 2D interaction.

An example: a few weeks ago, my WRIT 121 class met during our regular Thursday evening meeting. I had asked them to bring working theses for the essays they were working on so they could share and discuss and hopefully improve their main points to make them more focused and more insightful for their upcoming essay.

Here's how one student described the experience afterward on a discussion forum:
While I enjoy taking online classes (this is my third), the face-to-face approach works better for me and my learning style. I like the personal interaction. Even in the virtual world of SL, last night toward the end, Prof. Dan asked us to briefly share our thoughts about editing our thesis and narrowing our focus so we can write a 1,000 word essay. Even though the exchange of ideas happened in SL, they were using voice and therefore it was almost like a phone call conversation (in my opinion) that we could all hear. One person shared hers and Prof. Dan asked a few questions and provided some feedback. I also made one brief statement that he turned into a question for her, and it made me think about how the thesis could be reworked.

This rambling comment is meant to summarize this point: Even in the virtual world, voice-to-voice communication with a teacher (while still not "in person") is, in my opinion, better for me as a student than just receiving an assignment online, doing the work, and submitting it online.
So interacting in real time, in an immersive virtual environment, gets this student closer to what she sees available in what my chair would call an immersive f2f class. And she is in no wise alone.

Besides--where else can you ride a racing slug or come to class as Jack Skellington!