Gregory Semenza

Associate Professor at University of Connecticut

Online Teaching, It Turns Out, Isn’t Impersonal

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Image: France in 2000 year (XXI century). Future school. From a postcard by Villemard, 1910.

Believe it or not, debates about the merits of online teaching are more than two decades old. That fact shocked me only because, until this past summer, I’d been so far behind the curve in teaching online courses. I mean actually teaching them — as opposed to weighing in on the practice, regardless of experience. Like so many others, I’d done plenty of the latter.

Since the debate is old — dated and tired — you’ll probably be relieved to know that I don’t intend to engage it here. As the recent Molly Worthen-inspired arguments about lecture versus active learning demonstrate, the tendency of both sides to reduce and demonize their opponent does a major disservice to the real complexities of teaching in any environment. I’m guessing I’m not the only one who thinks it’s obvious that good teachers know how to balance fundamental pedagogical techniques like lecturing and discussion. I think it’s equally obvious that online learning has advantages and disadvantages, and that arguing for or against it serves no purpose other than making you popular or unpopular in certain rarefied communities.

No, I wish merely to weigh in on a single aspect of the conversation — the basic assumption that online teaching is intrinsically, and irredeemably, more impersonal than the face-to-face version.

That assumption is accepted as gospel by nearly every critic of online education and is epitomized by Mark Edmundson’s memorable 2012 essay in The New York Times. He singled out what he assumed to be the impersonal nature of online courses: “With every class we teach, we need to learn who the people in front of us are. We need to know where they are intellectually, who they are as people and what we can do to help them grow.” Edmundson’s deliberate choice to write “in front of us” rather than “in our classes” is perhaps the most strategic, and problematic, one in the essay. It spoke to me in 2012, confirming everything I thought I knew about the flaws of online courses.

It was with a certain amount of discomfort, then, that I agreed to teach my first online course last year. Quite simply, I needed the money. My decision to meet with the head of the Center for Online Learning was made only slightly easier by the encouragement of a close friend, a dedicated teacher, who’d taught his first online course the previous year and had found it an “immensely rewarding” experience.

I ended up teaching an intensive (six-week) upper-level “Introduction to Shakespeare” course that is required of all English-ed majors and taken by many English majors. The course launch was preceded by a semester-long design phase — a collaboration between myself and a remarkably skilled designer called Tim. My job was to describe how I envisioned the course and to be a total pain in the ass to Tim, while his job involved educating me about online learning, figuring out how to deliver the course I wanted, suggesting productive alternatives to my less-than-stellar ideas, and doing endless amounts of technical work to create an attractive, user-friendly platform. In the end, we created a course that blended traditional learning models and assignments (short video lectures, quizzes, written analyses, etc.) with other approaches more directly tied to the online format (Mediasite film-clip exercises, discussion boards, etc.).

Now that I’ve completed this first course, I feel strongly that Edmundson and other critics — however well-intended — are simply misguided about online learning being too impersonal. I got to know my group of 30 online students as well as, or better, than any undergraduate course I’ve taught in recent years. (I should add that teaching evaluations confirmed my sense that the class achieved its goals).

In sharing this experience with colleagues, I’ve realized the degree to which a lot of faculty — many of them dedicated instructors — continue to shun any opportunity to teach online for fear that it is tantamount to selling their souls. That’s a shame for multiple reasons, but mainly because we need our most dedicated teachers involved in shaping the future of online education. If you fall into the shunners category, you might think about how online courses can actually facilitate the sort of personal interactions we know are fundamental to classroom success. Consider two basic facts about online courses:

  • Everyone participates. In any face-to-face classroom, a small number of students emerge as truly skillful participants, speaking not just regularly but also eloquently, while others speak only out of a sense of obligation, and many don’t speak at all. Some students simply aren’t very good at rushing their thoughts into talking points. Let’s face it, the typical discussion in a physical classroom rewards — and certainly overvalues — extroversion. Even the most thoughtful, intelligent students can disappear in such environments. In my online course, students were required to participate in discussions of various sorts on issues raised by the readings, by me, and by their classmates. In a playing field where the number of comments from each student is relatively equal, and where external influences on persuasiveness such as physical appearance are eliminated, discussions feel as if they belong to the entire class, not just a small part of it. That more complete sense of community fostered high-quality discussions as probing and vital as those in most face-to-face scenarios.
  • Everything is written. An obvious reason for the quality of students’ comments has to do with the fact that most of the communication is written. From their first-day introductions of themselves to their final journal reflections on the class, the vast majority of student work takes the form of considered, thoughtful prose. Across different assignments and formats, the required writing can be more or less polished, of course. But in all cases, the necessity for student and teacher alike to constantly distill their ideas and questions can greatly enhance communication. Simply put, I felt like I had a particularly strong grasp of what each of my online students was experiencing from week to week and assignment to assignment. I had a clear understanding, in other words, of where students were intellectually, who they were as people, and what I could do to help them grow.

As may be evident, a serious challenge of online teaching has to do with affording students chances to think aloud, ask visceral questions, and make mistakes. Well-regulated discussion boards and specific assignments can emphasize the value we place on such aspects of the learning process. Not all thoughts and questions need be thoroughly refined.

In the end, though, I’m energized by the simple realization that solutions are out there — meaning that the challenges of online teaching are no more daunting or problematic than those surrounding a face-to-face setting. Online courses will fail under the same scenarios in which regular courses fail — when instructors are lazy or unfairly compensated, when class sizes are too large, when instructional resources are too sparse. These courses won’t fail because there’s something intrinsically wrong with them, and certainly not because they’re too impersonal.

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