The title is a little grander than what I will ultimately discuss in this post, but it gets to the main issue so I’m going to allow the hyperbole for now. Let me explain why I’m asking the question. There is an ad hoc group of folks who care a lot about online instruction and they want it to be included in the campus strategic planning process. To date, we’ve had some very high caliber online programs on campus, but they have been one-offs with essentially very little coattails. There have been spillovers from these programs within the units that have offered them. But the spillovers have not been broader.
I have been asked to serve on this group and want to contribute if I can. From where I sit there are only two possible positions to embrace with little potential middle ground. Either online is destined to be a fringe activity on this campus as it has been for the last 10 years or so or online and face-to-face essentially become one thing and then, where it makes sense (because there is demand and we have the expertise on the instructional side), we expand the audience to those who are not physically on campus.
In this post I want to restrict attention to the “synchronous component” in instruction and I don’t want to get into whether asynchronous can substitute for synchronous, a topic many others have written about. (I think it can and some of my experiments with quickie videos are intended in that vein.) Instead, I want to look at instruction via placeware and variants of that sort of technology – chat, online whiteboards, voice over IP; some commercial products in this space are Breeze, Centra, and Elluminate. In so doing I want to bring two distinct strands/issues together.
First, we’re seeing a classroom space crunch in the range of 60 – 110 seat classrooms. More and more courses are being offered in this size range, where say 5 years ago those courses has 30 or 40 students. These class sessions are most likely lecture. One wonders whether one might engage the students more actively while simultaneously economize on this type of classroom space by moving from lecture to an interactive placeware session.
Second, some of our online programs want to offer their courses in multi-mode simultaneously, with on ground and online students in the same class. They can’t afford to do make two separate offerings. The question is how to do this. If there is a live class session that the online students “join” via video conference, then they invariably become second class citizens. The instructor can make eye contact with the on ground students and will be more connected to them. The online students are outsiders and don’t participate in the same way.
I propose an alternative that seems sensible to me, though I don’t know too many folks who have tried this. The idea is for the instructor to interact with all students via the placeware. The online students do what they normally would do in such a synchronous class session. The on ground students, however, do something different. They are in groups of 3, 4, or 5 students who meet in a location where the students have good internet connectivity, can see a common computer screen, and can talk amongst themselves in that location. So they can have face to face interaction with each other and online interaction with the rest of the class. In the placeware, these students are represented by a single group presence rather than by a separate individual presence for each student.
So, for example, in an on ground class of 60 students, one might have 15 groups of 4 students per group, rather than a lecture of the 60 ensemble. In this example, there is now a tolerable reason to believe that the placeware sessions would be better than the lecture alternative (and this surely is something that we could test via the appropriate experiments) because it would be much more interactive throughout. Further, the students might like these type of sessions more (this too should be testable) because they would be akin to the IM sessions that students engage in throughout the rest of the day in their social lives.
Similarly, in the blended setting where there are both on ground and online students, the on ground students would be represented in groups while the online students would be represented as individuals. It wouldn’t be totally symmetric, to be sure, but it would be symmetric vis-à-vis how those students interact with the instructor. Indeed, one might think that in this circumstance the pedagogy would not vary so much from the totally on ground situation to the totally online circumstance, but instead would vary only by the subject matter, the maturity of the students, and the disposition of the instructor.
To date, placeware has been kind of a fringe application. If this sort of teaching approach were proven to be successful, however, it could become the core application. Similarly, regarding physical learning spaces, at present group work areas for students that meet the necessary requirements for placeware sessions have not been a priority on my campus in thinking about instructional spaces. But some experiments in testing this teaching approach could make such spaces seem more important and bring our campus view of learning spaces more into accord with the current view by professionals in the field. (For example see this piece by Chris Johnson and Cyprien Lomas in a recent Educause Review.) This would allow such spaces to be used for such synchronous sessions and for group work done out of class meeting time.
So that is the rough overview of the idea. This is how it came up. The last time I taught (spring 2004) I had to go on the road a couple of times and yet I wanted to keep my commitment to my campus honors class, so I had them do text chat sessions inside WebCT Vista. I only had 15 students but I was concerned both about tech support issues (and sure enough during the chat some of them bounced in and out until that stabilized) as well as my ability to manage the threads with 15 individual contributors. So I had them meet in their project teams. (We had 5 teams with 3 students per team.) They met in one of the team member’s dorm rooms.
Those sessions ended up working very well from my vantage as the teacher. Each group participated vigorously and so I got more feedback from them during those sessions than I got while we had face to face class discussion, where invariably some of them talked more than others. And because they were sending their messages more or less simultaneously, we avoided the first to raise her hand preempting other students from raising their hands. And when there was diversity in their views, it was immediately apparent so we had a natural next step to reconcile those opinions.
Of course, this was not the normal mode of instruction. It was the exception use only when I was out of town and perhaps it worked so well because of Hawthorne effects. So maybe the approach has to be blended with a more traditional face to face approach (when there is a significant number of on ground students) and certainly if others experiment with the approach there needs to be sufficient use as to rule out Hawthorne effects as the explanation of the good results.
We do have on ground courses with much higher enrollments than 110, for which this approach would not work, and we have many classes that are sufficiently small where they could be taught in seminar mode if the instructor chose to adopt that approach. So I’m not proposing that every on ground class we offer be done this way. But there are many classes that would be ripe for this approach and, in my opinion, it would be a way of invigorating our instruction without raising costs dramatically. (We’d need the placeware and the infrastructure to support that as well as the group meeting facilities for the students, but the former is not that expensive and the latter probably is necessary anyway, simply to accommodate the out of class group work.)
It would be a direct way to change the culture here in thinking about online and about quality of instruction. To me, it sure seems something to explore.
But it may be too good to be true. So as is my wont, tomorrow I’ll make a post taking a somewhat more skeptical view about trying to implement this type of an approach with a bunch of typical undergrads, where poor attendance, plagiarism, and other such issues are likely to crop up.