online teaching and/of online behaviors

In my previous post I mentioned heading off to a presentation on digital pedagogy. The outcome of the presentation reminded me of a common feature of these discussions, one that had slipped my mind as it had been some time since I'd had an extended conversation about online teaching with folks just entering into the practice.

As you might tell from the last post, the focus of my remarks addressed the recognition that contemporary digital networks promote a degree of real-time sociality that is untapped in conventional online teaching. Furthermore, I noted that the primary errors in online pedagogy are  

  1. adapting existing FTF courses for online, with the result of a course that is the least common denominator of FTF and online teaching, and
  2. imagining that the problems of the FTF class, namely managing the potential sociality of the space, is the problem of the online class (where, err, it isn't).

The conversation that followed focused primarily on managing the online behaviors of students. Interestingly, the concerns were not even particularly with behaviors in classrooms but with online behaviors in general. Most of the points that were raised were anecdotal ("I heard about this one student who…") or searches for exceptions ("but what if a student…"). Sigh.

However, my reaction was to observe how the conversation quickly shifted from teaching online to questions of online behavior. Why is that? Clearly the physical classroom is designed to regulate behaviors of both students and teachers. That's why the seats are situated as they are. No doubt there are conventions regulating in-class behavior as well. However, as faculty, we don't spend a tremendous amount of time worrying about student real-world behaviors outside the classroom. So why should we worry about student online behaviors outside our online courses? By the way, student online behaviors are part of their real world behaviors, so whatever distress one might have about such behaviors would apply as much to FTF classes as to online classes, right?

In other words, I'm a little mystified as to why the conversation goes in this direction. Perhaps it is because the audience is on such uncertain ground in discussing online teaching that it retreats to commonplaces about the online world. Maybe the appeal of the CMS is its sterility. In fact, there's probably little doubt about it. That's what appeals to faculty and universities about Blackbored: the sterility of the CMS means little can happen.

The real concern though is the deeper pedagogical problem this reveals. Clearly the traditional lecture classroom operates on a pre-industrial, medieval model where the best way to get information is to listen to the expert tell you. All of our school behaviors condition us to accept this state of affairs as natural. In the digital world, where we have an overload of information, the problem is restricting the flow of information, identifying what is the best media. However, that doesn't mean that we need a lecture; it means we need a guide. The classroom with its no-laptop policy and Blackbored are designed to create artificial conditions of information scarcity where the performance of the medieval lecture can be re-enacted.

Of course, once we record the lecture, we don't need it performed again. In fact, why don't we hire Morgan Freeman or some other actor-sage and create documentaries like those on Discovery or the HIstory Channel? Why not have big budget videos with historical reenactments and special effects of black holes or atoms or dinosaurs or whatever? Why not have that instead of lectures? If the classroom is all about delivering information and then testing people to see if they received the information, then we really don't need professors. We need videos, some texts, a testing center, and maybe customer support/tutors. For some perverse reason, this seems to be the future that faculty wish to pursue (except somehow they fantasize they get to keep their jobs, maybe through union protectionist clauses). The perverse reason is that they would rather go under with the lecture hall than risk entering a non-sterile online space.

  • What happens when the student's non-academic social media mix with the activities of the classroom and you read tweets/updates about their lives?
  • What happens when students say things online in your class (or otherwise visible to you) that are offensive or that cause problems for other people?
  • What happens, what happens, what happens

One answer is that we don't know, because we don't know what the future of online learning will be. The other answer is what happens when these things happen in real life? When the student confesses in the office hour? When they come to class with bloodshot eyes and reeking of pot? When they get into a fight in the hall? 

Here's the deal: The dangers of the online world are no different than the dangers of the real world. Do you know why? Because the online world is part of the real world! 

The future role of faculty will be negotiating online and physical spaces. I think most of our students will continue to come to college… if for no other reason than they don't want to sit around the house all day. Classes will continue to have real time elements, both FTF and online. Our job will be to serve as leaders and mentors in learning communities. If you are studying to be a nurse or a teacher or a professional writer or if you are studying literature, philosophy, physics, or psychology, there is a body of knowledge that you need to learn and there are practices and methods you need to adopt. As a student you can't just decide you want to be an "X" and then make up your own course of study. Getting a degree means entering a community and learning its knowledge, practices, and methods. In that regard, the role of the faculty remains the same.

It's just that the specific activities that we undertake to fulfill that role will change.

And if we want to talk about the ethics of online behavior along the way, that's fine. You could tell the prospective teacher (or really almost any aspiring professional) not to upload risque photos or post status updates about getting wasted. I suppose you could tell them not to identify their sexual orientation, religion, or politics either. Any of those things might offend someone. But ethics is a two-way street. And ultimately we will have to learn that we don't get to decide in advance what our ethics shall be.