Saturday, February 03, 2018

High Impact Practices in an online class

Inside Higher Ed published an article recently entitled "Making an Impact in Online Courses," a report on a session at the annual Association of American Colleges and Universities conference at Washington, D.C. (a professional organization who advocates for the inclusion of liberal arts in all aspects of higher education).
The focus was on the incorporation of high-impact practices, an AAC&U term that incorporates researched activities that have proven to enhance student learning, such as learning communities, writing-intensive courses or collaborative assignments and projects.
The three member panel from Mary Washington University, McDaniel College, and St. Edward's University discussed a variety of projects and practices, mostly focused on encouraging students to write, and collaborate, and interview people in their communities.

Sounds good, though--as I experienced when attending this conference a couple years ago--as someone who has taught online for decades, I found much discussed obvious--for example, one professor mentioned how much better participation in interviewing became when she first had students submit a proposal about who to interview.
So, good stuff, and if you're new to online learning, helpful to recognize some things that are helpful when teaching in that venue. However, most of it is asynchronous, even though interactive at some level, disembodied, and substantially lacking in presence among students or with the professor.
At the end of the article, one participant brought up something that was quite interesting:
Jesse Stommel, executive director of the division of teaching and learning technologies at Mary Washington, said ... that he wants to see informal, self-motivated discussions considered as a high-impact practice of sorts. In his face-to-face classes, he sometimes starts class by asking how students spent their weekends, and students sometimes approach him after class for free-flowing conversations that last 10 minutes or more. 
He thinks creating an environment where similar spontaneity can flourish would make a high impact as well.
It brought me back to a conversation I had years ago with a colleague who had tried teaching online, and did so for several semesters, but then gave it up and went back to face-to-face teaching. He told me that he missed the informal interaction with students, being able to joke around, talk about their weekend, the give and take that he saw and enjoyed in a real-time, f2f environment. This lack is exactly what Stommel seems to be decrying and suggesting is as integral to an educational experience as other high-impact practices.
My observation is that when we limit online learning to asynchronous 2D, text-based environments, we lose that spontaneity, that opportunity to create community with students where more informal, though vital, interaction can take place. Yes, we can create a simulation of informality through our emails, or assignment language, or syllabus. We can jump into discussion forums and interact with students asynchronously. We can even do some real-time text chat, or even audio, or even video conferencing that helps some. But notice that none of that real-time getting together as a learning community was mentioned in the article, and rarely is with online classes.
Our campus is no different at Lansing Community College. We've had online classes, online degrees offered since 1997 (as I've mentioned some years ago in this blog). But the push has always been asynchronous, with very little recognition of the value of synchronous interaction.
For the last eight years, I've been using Second Life with my online classes, where we meet as a whole class once a week. It operates just like f2f meetings. We talk about our weekends, movies, the weather before class. We work as a whole class, in groups, do peer review, writing exercises, visit sims related to their work (especially for the creative writing students where they are able to interact with other poets, fiction writers, storytellers in world). We are doing Stommel's high-impact practice.
Is it perfect? Of course not, any more than f2f interaction is. But with embodied avatars operating in a 3D space, students can see a representation of each other, work together in a place (rather than a computer 2D window), hear each other and participate in a learning community each week; I've seen (as have others) "an environment where similar spontaneity can flourish" as it can in a classroom on campus.
But it's difficult with little support from administration. I'm allowed to teach this way in online classes. But I'm on my own. I have no technical support, and the ability to get what I do (Is it an online class? Is it a hybrid class? Is it an online but hybrid class? What is it?) has been difficult to comprehend by overworked staff, administration, even academic advisers. And explaining it as an overworked professor! I've not had the time, or energy, to promote as I could, and even if I did, I'm not sure it would do much good. Online=asynchronous learning to many--students, staff, faculty and administration.
It's really a shame. Because with 3D environments, the experience that online students have could be so much more. Sure, they can still learn in a 2D learning management system like Blackboard and Desire2Learn, and such is integral to my class. But that spontaneous interaction--as my colleague put it, the ability to joke around--is largely missing, and there is no good reason, today, for such to be the case in online learning.