Further Thoughts on Technology in the Classroom

The issue of technology in the classroom has captured my imagination this semester. I’ve been thinking a lot about it this year as I have taught my first online class as well as taken my first online classes. Until this year I had completed small professional development courses online but never a full college course.

First a brief description of the varied types of courses that fall under the “online” or “distance learning” umbrella that I have experienced. In the first summer session of 2016 I taught an online course that was facilitated completely through Canvas. I based my syllabus (and teaching techniques) on the previous summer’s syllabus. As a result, I conducted the course completely through online message boards and written assignments. There was no face-to-face or digital interaction with voice or video. Students wrote on message boards and emailed me with questions.

This fall, I am taking two courses that may qualify as “online” or “distance learning.” The first is conducted through Scholar and is similar to the course I taught. Assignments are written message boards and essays. However, the professor also provides video and audio lectures that he has recorded to supplement the readings and written assignments.

The final course is a “polycomm” course. The professor is in Northern Virginia and has the bulk of the class’ students in Alexandria. I and several other students sit in a room in Blacksburg and join the class through a video conference. Of the three distance learning formats I prefer the polycomm course. It provides the closest experience to an in person, face-to-face and “traditional” classroom setting.

Given the difference in medium, the three courses have had qualitative differences but overall I still prefer teaching and taking in-person courses. As I’ve written before, I believe that the face-to-face (and spontaneous) interaction between students and teachers and professors is where deep thinking and learning occurs. As a teacher answering spontaneous questions from students is both difficult and fun and as a student the ability to ask questions to faculty in the moment they occur and receive nuanced answers is most helpful. It can be difficult to decipher exactly how to understand written feedback. Tone is often lost and critique can read as criticism.

However, despite this reservation, tools such as Skype have made video calling easy to do and it works as well (or better) for speaking with faculty during office hours. If I were to teach an online course again, and I imagine that I will, I would make more use of video and/or audio lectures and definitely encourage my students to meet with me virtually through Skype. It is quite strange to only evaluate students on their written assignments having never met or even spoken with them.

Additionally, the benefit of online courses that do not have fixed meeting times is that it allows students and faculty flexibility in their day to complete assignments on their own schedules. However, in my limited experience I found that some students tended to be silent on message boards until the last day assignments were due. At this point they would post the required amount rapid-fire. I’m not sure this has the intended pedagogical benefit of interaction and discussion between classmates and faculty.

To close these musings I want to note that I am no Luddite!* Technology has been enormously helpful in my academic and teaching career (I am thankful everyday that the internet saves me from card catalogs). However, there is something about face-to-face interactions, both in the classroom and socially, that social media and digital technologies can’t seem to replicate.

* I use the term here in its contemporary meaning of someone averse to new technology. However, actual “Luddites” were skilled workers who sabotaged new machinery they worried would reduce their wages or render them redundant. They were not intrinsically against technology. I have, of course, solidarity with workers resisting the inexorable capitalist drive to lower costs and raise profit.

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