Maintaining the Integrity of an Online Course
28 September 2000
Distance learning is not a new concept, but what we are doing with it through the Internet is. In the past, libraries, postal messages, newspapers, and modern communication systems (such as radio and television) have given us opportunities to learn about the world around us without our ever having to leave our homes. The learning that those venues provided, however, was based entirely upon the inferences derived by the learner from the material at hand. There was little direct dialogue between a reader and the text except that which occasionally manifested itself in sometimes unacknowledged letters of response. The distance learner, therefore, was a learner whose growing critical awareness of the world-at-large was a one-sided phenomenon—the learner read or heard the informed opinions of others and thereby formed opinions of his or her own. These opinions could be shared with members of the community and be debated with varying degrees of resolution, but the text from which they were drawn did not necessarily answer back, and it was usually better understood only through the interpretations of critics. Distance learning, in the modern sense of the term, has changed both the manner in which readers respond to the text and—because form usually follows function—the manner in which the text responds to its readership.
As a virtual assessment involves a critical response to both the form and the function of the medium through which we practice our pedagogical skills, it is important to analyze each of these concepts separately at first in order to demonstrate their cohesive nature in evaluating student work. This new and progressive form of distance learning is, in technical jargon, an asynchronous/synchronous method of disseminating ideational activity across a multi-lateral plane of discourse. In short, it creates a virtual community of students that extends beyond time and space. It is a wormhole wherein these traditional concepts of time and space are no longer relevant except within the confines of the schedules of temporal beings and their dealings with the institutions that govern their activities. A weak illustration of the process of adjustment is found in the evolution of the typewriter. When it first became available, the keys were given their order in an effort to keep people from typing so fast that all the letters would jam against the paper. When electronic typewriters made that precaution unnecessary, people had already grown used to the order of the keys, so the keys remained the same. Then, word processors were developed that opened up a world of new possibilities in preparing and printing documents, but people continued to view computers the same way they had grown accustomed to viewing electronic typewriters—as single pieces of machinery with little relation to other pieces of similar machinery. So, when computers became able to perform dozens of other functions, users still considered them primarily as word processors. Next came intra-department correspondence in which computers at one end of an office could download information that computers at the other end of the office had uploaded. It only took linking all these local area networks together to create a global Internet environment. That happened commercially with CompuServe in 1982, but it took another twelve years for individuals to discover email and five years beyond that for the Internet to realize its enormous commercial potential, as manifest during Christmas of 1999. The attitudes of people evolve more slowly than the technology they create, and that is where we are at now in our vocation—to use a cliché, we are at yet another crossroads of looking at a new thing with old eyes.
Establishing a new teaching environment, therefore, dictates that we reestablish ourselves within that environment. Now, this is presently being done in two main formats: the first is the use of the Internet in distance-learning classes that exist entirely in cyberspace, and the second is the use of computer assisted instruction (CAI) within the physical classroom. While this paper is primarily concerned with the distance-learning environment, there is a great deal of overlap involving the CAI classroom that I do not mean to slight. That overlap, in fact, is entirely a result of form following function. To embrace the potential these two formats offer, I believe it is more important to generate an atmosphere of critical awareness based on shifting pedagogical attitudes than it is merely to focus on the strategies we have grown accustomed to using in the classroom because strategy-development without attitude-shifting is sterile. In reconceptualizing our classrooms, it is important that we learn how to reconceptualize our approaches to those classrooms. My advice is geared to that end, and it is simply that we should get to know our students by creating a sense of place in a virtually displaced environment. The first step is to realize that, because form really does follow function, traditional pedagogical paradigms and attitudes based on traditional concepts of time and space will not work in an environment bereft of those traditional concepts.
If, for example, what we are used to is lecturing to physically present students, what we will put online is a written lecture, just like when we videotape our lectures and put them on reserve in libraries or play them over the television at certain times of day. We then absent ourselves from the vertical relationship we have just created with the student. In our classrooms, we take the attitude that the teacher is the most important person present, so in distance-learning, we carry that attitude into videotape, and then we wait for students to email us with questions. If we get enough similar questions, we post our answers on a bulletin board and consider that a sufficient response to an entire class of similar questions. Ultimately, we end up assigning Scantron tests that gauge how much a student learned from the lectures based on his or her ability to regurgitate the information provided. There is, however, no classroom in this kind of environment. There is just an arbitrary assessment of a faceless name done by computer without taking into consideration different learning styles (whether a student learns better in a peer-response environment, in small group activities, in a broad range of choices, for instance), various cognitive disabilities that result in the need for diverse pedagogical strategies based on multiple intelligence theories, or relevance to the student’s ultimate academic and career ambitions.
It can be different using the Internet, though. There is no traditional sense of time or space within the realm of the Internet classroom, and this enables each of us in our own classrooms to redefine what those terms mean in terms of sense of place, both the students’ and the professors’. In any vacuum, there exists definitive potential—the opportunity to create a world in which its inhabitants can find themselves comfortable. We teachers can create the framework of that world, but its inhabitants will be the ones to shape it as they find niches comparable to their needs as learners. We have to allow them that flexibility and latitude if we hope to create a dynamic environment conducive to their various learning styles. This has its benefits. Students who have a lot to offer will not drown the voices of students who otherwise might have wanted to offer something of themselves, for instance. Time does not exist, so a class discussion in which every voice is fully heard is entirely within the realm of possibility. Groups are not arbitrarily assigned by proximity of desks, but by proximity of ideas, so students are not inhibited from expressing themselves by their incompatibility with the group into which they are thrust. Once these inhibitions are overcome, members of other virtual groups within a class will have a stronger understanding of their place in the virtual world, which will impact their willingness to cross those boundaries. As a result of students being able to create a place for themselves in this virtual world, the relationship of the teacher to the class suddenly and quite naturally changes. There is no longer a vertical relationship where the teacher has the ultimate authority through his or her familiarity with, and organization of, a physical room confined by walls in space and time. The relationship becomes horizontal with the teacher as a mediator of that world, not an arbiter.
Indeed, attempts at arbitration would destroy the very learning environment a teacher has striven to create, by shaking the confidence of those whose creative impulses would have contributed more to the function of that world than the instructor could have ever contributed to its form. Let us take the asynchronicity of the virtual world as an example of this. In a classroom environment, the instructor can pose a question and allow five minutes of student response time before advancing the point. In those five minutes, three or four students out of a class of twenty-five are able to respond with some degree of coherence. They respond synchronously and consequently to one another, each one building on what was said before. Maybe the last willing student in the series even declined a comment after having heard what another student just said, either through fear of upsetting the other student or because the other student expressed those very sentiments and it would have been a redundancy to repeat them. In a virtual environment, however, the asynchronicity is necessarily inconsequent to the order in which the comments that came before were made. Knowing this can be a helpful tool in evaluating the development of a virtual community because it helps us to understand the thinking process inherent within that community.
There are two instances where this phenomenon of inconsequence is manifest—in asynchronous bulletin boards and in what is believed to be ‘synchronous’ chat-rooms. In the first instance, virtual learners will log-in at times of the day that are convenient to them; as a result, responses to a question posed at noon will appear around the clock. If student A responds at 1:00 and student B responds at 1:05, then the response will be consequent to what student A has written. Student C, however, responds at 1:30 to what student A has written and then reads student B’s response (which may or may not have just been duplicated) and responds to that. By the time student Z hits the server at 2:00 a.m., there are a legion of messages (provided everyone has participated) the path of which can only be figured out exponentially. Student Z has some options at this point—one, it’s 2:00 a.m. and breakfast is at 7:00, so student Z reads through every response before replying (which is much easier if the responses are threaded) at which point his or her reply is consequent. Two, student Z replies to each response in the order of appearance. Or three, student Z goes to bed after clicking select all, delete. More than these options are within student Z’s realm of control, including not logging-in at all. At noon the next day, when the instructor logs back in and reads through this cacophony of replies, he or she might just give those listed points for participation before proposing another topic. There is, however, no personality in doing merely such—every comment established through the virtual medium should be validated or qualified if the student is to develop a sense of accountability to the real entity the course has become even if this means our weeding through that cacophony of asynchronous inconsequent responses and coming to an awareness of how virtual group-think works.
In the second instance, the instructor opens a chat room and the students are assigned a certain block of time during the day to log into it to both chat with the other students in the class and generate feedback from the instructor. Technically, it is synchronous in the sense that students read each others comments as they occur and are able to immediately respond, but it is asynchronous in the sense that the average student types slower than he or she thinks or talks. By the time a student submits a comment, the timing of the response might no longer be relevant as another ten responses might have already appeared that forced a shift in the direction of the discourse. Synchronous chats, therefore, cannot include as studied a response or as detailed an answer as can the bulletin board and end up being just as cacophonous. Their advantage lies in their generating a sense of immediate community that bulletin boards do not generate. And while the student who clicks into the bulletin board is discovering what is to that student a new dialogue even though it may be several hours, or days old, the text is dated by its subsequent replies; the student who clicks into an ongoing chat is, conversely, a participant in a live dynamic, not a distanced stasis. The instructor who is involved in this process can guide the discussion or follow it where it leads, but it is important to remember that the instructor is as much a participant as any of the students. The absence of a clock affords that luxury, for the discourse does not have to end when the instructor logs off and it can always be reviewed in its entirety later depending on the program used to generate it. The fact that a session’s discussion can be reviewed, in this case, means that it ought to be, for the comments in which a discussion ended or culminated are often the best assurance of continuity into the next discussion, and the instructor should demonstrate that by way of example when the next discussion is assigned. Students should be given the opportunity to realize that while particular topics are not cumulative, attitudes generated through their discussion are, for no discussion exists within the context of a vacuum or for the sake of the issue alone but rather for the sake of illustrating through the generative virtual community the process whereby critical awareness of any subject is created and maintained.
So far, I have approached some of the ways in which this world functions without dealing too much with how this world is assessed. The reason for that is we have to know how the world operates before we can evaluate the activities of its participants. Referring back to the model used earlier to illustrate how new concepts are approached with old paradigms, an instructor who gives zero credit for participation and credits only work completed is not one who is likely to give much credit to the learning process (however scattered and disoriented it may appear in reviewing the correspondence) undergone by the students in the chat rooms or on the bulletin board. More than likely, such an instructor will dismiss this process as irrelevant to the completion of the foundational assignments upon which the course rests. Now, there is nothing wrong with that in the traditional classroom, but in the virtual classroom it closes off an important part of the ideational activity being generated by the process of coming to terms with the subject being taught. For the very reason that students are not in the traditional setting where class stability can be measured by the reactions of their peers to the coursework, they need the perception of support that the virtual community provides. Crediting participation, as a result, and by this I mean really selling it as pivotal to generating critical awareness of the subject matter, is necessary to forming an adequate assessment of how those students have responded to that subject matter. It is what puts humanity into the course and what creates a social setting for social beings. It is what maintains the integrity of that course in this virtual environment.
Once the virtual instructor has reshaped his or her conception of the classroom, his or her perception of the role played within that classroom is also reshaped. Having created a functional environment for the class (of which the instructor is as much a member as his or her students), that instructor then has to construct the format of the course and assign values to each of the aspects of that format. An integral part of each of these values should include an assessment of online identity. My developmental writing course, for example, is grammar-based with an introduction to composition. It includes ten chapters of grammar in an assigned text and periodic tests on whether the student understands the concepts being taught. It also includes a series of readings to which the students respond, through which responses they incorporate into their writing evidence of having understood the assigned grammatical principles. It includes as well the drafting of a short 6-paragraph online essay that is designed to allow for online peer revision. Finally, it includes an examination over a short novel, Flowers for Algernon, as a culminative semester experience. In this handful of activities, a great deal is being demanded of my students. They could have been asked, out of context with a traditional (and therefore natural) classroom environment, to read, learn, and respond to a faceless and nameless entity called ‘the classroom professor.’ In addition, they could have been asked to deal with on their own a very real and dynamic entity called ‘the classroom community.’ By developing a sense of the ‘class,’ however, as a place embodied by others who share a similar experience, we give that student the perception of there being the support needed to enable him or her not merely to survive, but also to thrive. Uncertainty of academic support, on the other hand, could scare students into never attempting an online class. It could also cause them to lose hope even before the class begins after having received their letter of introduction and having logged in to find that a great deal of work is actually expected in what appears to be a barren environment. Issues like these will resolve themselves as online instruction becomes more pervasive and more students (and faculty) have experienced it and can allay the fears of the uninitiated.
What we as online instructors should never do is give the students who have enrolled and have begun their assignments any reason to despair. One easy way to create a desperate student is to return online assignments with quantitative scores without a personal explanation of how those errors may have been created. An instructor who does not care to know his or her students will do just that, or worse, enlist in an electronically graded quiz program that does the same. A student who receives a 50% on an exercise intended to rate his or her understanding of the position of a subject in a sentence, for instance, might feel devastated after answering half of the questions incorrectly. This sense of devastation might create an attitude adversive to the goals of the class. What the student may not realize is that only one type of question was answered incorrectly, and given the opportunity to be shown how to master that confusion (say, in the case where a student repeatedly mistakes the object of a preposition for the subject of the sentence), future scores will improve. An instructor without an online presence would have missed an opportunity to redeem a lost student. An instructor with a dynamic presence, however, will catch it in time to use the student’s mistake as a learning tool for that student. The initial exploratory exercises on which a student makes the 50%, therefore, should not carry as much weight as in the final assessment phase, for the student should feel a great deal of freedom in the ability to make mistakes and learn from them thereby. For that reason, my online students have always had a great deal of latitude in their freedom to err, for it is not through getting an answer right that we actually learn anything but by getting the answer wrong (by giving ourselves the attitude that a wrong answer indicates growth potential) that enables us to do so. It is only after several dozen online exercises have been evaluated and recorded do I hold the students accountable for what they have been able to learn and give a comprehensive test over that section of the material. If the students are unhappy with their scores at that point, they will want to improve them in the comprehensive examination over the next section of discourse, on which they will work smarter because they perceive themselves in a process of learning rather than conceive of themselves in a void bereft of learning potential. In short, the learning process is progressive in nature, and the material upon which any online course is based should also be progressive in nature so that the students develop a sense of growth as something that builds upon its own foundation. Most important to this process is that the students sense a support mechanism through which they can discuss similar difficulties with one another by having established such uninhibiting and natural virtual relationships within their cyberlearning community. The teacher, as an integral part of this community, has to take the lead in getting to know the students and in charting their patterns of development so that the course can fulfill the needs of each student.
As much as we assess traditional classrooms by the level of student performance on work submitted, therefore, we should assess virtual classrooms by responding not only to how well these students have learned their material, but also to how well these students have performed as members within the class. After all, education is nothing more than a focused acculturation into the world of the subject, and every student who spends significant time in such a world will be transformed by it—with the Internet, moreover, there is the added potential that the students will, in some way, not merely be transformed by that world, but will also, in their own turn, transform that world, themselves. Looking at the new field of online learning with new eyes enables us to gaze in directions heretofore unrealized in much the same way as those navigating in space had to look beyond the x and y axes and realize that looking ‘up’ made just as much directional sense as looking around.