College Writing, Educational Consulting, Learning, Machines, Pedagogy

Understanding Online Education

Throughout my own college education I didn’t take a single online class. For both my graduate and undergraduate degrees I attended small liberal arts colleges that prided themselves on small classes, strong teaching, and close personal attention. Neither of them offered any online classes at the time, much less fully online programs. But when I was ABD I returned to teach full time at one of them as a Lecturer, from 2004-2008, and one year the college faced the Avian flu — remember that? In response, the college asked its faculty to design courses that would allow students to complete their semesters online should the college have to close unexpectedly. So this Coronavirus situation has been faced before. These contingency plans have been considered in the past, if not implemented, so it seems appropriate to revisit what online education is, how it works, and common misconceptions about it as many colleges across the country are actually closing now and moving courses online at the last minute.

My first experience of an online class was in fact in response to a mini-crisis: I was dropped into an online graduate class last minute due to the unexpected death of a faculty member. I started teaching in my first full-time Assistant Professor position in the Fall of 2008, and due to that unexpected death, I had to cover an online graduate class the Spring semester of that year, before I started full time. Needless to say, with my prior educational background I was deeply skeptical of online education. However, as I continued on with that institution I typically taught at least one online class per semester out of a four course load and at least two over the summer, always at the graduate level. I then went on to lead the successful redesign of a fully online Master of Humanities degree program, which I then Chaired, in addition to the numerous online classes I’ve developed from scratch and taught. That experience has changed my perception of online learning.

The most common misperception about online classes is that they’re low quality — that they’re somehow worse instructionally because they’re online. That perception is mistaken, but it exists for a reason. The original major online programs were developed and expanded by for-profit colleges and universities such as the University of Phoenix, which had over 600,000 students at one point. The truth is that for-profit colleges and universities themselves are the problem, having the lowest graduation rates, the lowest retention rates, the worst employment numbers for their graduates, and the highest student loan default rates. It doesn’t matter if their programs are fully seated or fully online: they get the same results.

But since the for-profit higher educational model is an abject failure with either seated or online classes, it’s not the class format that’s the problem. I’d like to emphasize a core idea that I think applies to pedagogy across the boards: there is no magic bullet when it comes to teaching. There is no one model that works best in all circumstances, for all students, at all times. The truth is that different pedagogical models have different strengths and weaknesses, so choosing one over the other involves a tradeoff: you sacrifice the benefits of one kind of pedagogy for the strengths of another. That tradeoff needs to be defined in terms of the student population.

How do we understand that payoff for different student populations? A few fundamental principles might help at this point.

  1. It’s not the format, it’s the teacher. Some teachers teach better in online environments, some worse, and some about the same. But no format works well unless the teacher works well, and teachers are able to work well when they are supported with decent pay and benefits and treated with respect by administration and students. Many colleges and universities think online programs reliant upon adjunct instructors will be a cash cow for them, but they wind up spending more in advertising to continually recruit students to replace the ones they lose — and seldom get to the point where their program really grows in a sustainable way.
  2. It’s not the format, it’s the student. Online classes require more work, not less, from both teachers and students, and they require more independent work and discipline from the student. Some studies have shown that advanced students do better in online classes because they have more independence, while at the same time, experiments with online formats for general education curriculum at San Jose State University and elsewhere were met with horrible failure. Students who need more attention and direction from their teachers will do worse in online environments. Students who prefer to work independently will do better.
  3. Online classes are more rigorous, not less. In most online classes, the student must participate publicly every week. Almost everything is in writing: instructions, assignments, lectures, feedback, etc. There are usually some video components as well as PowerPoints, but unless it’s a math class, there’s a lot of reading and writing every week.
  4. Can teachers replicate their pedagogy in an online environment? The most common thing I’ve heard from teachers who have never taught online is, “I can’t replicate what I do in the classroom online.” Of course not. But once you start to teach online, you will find a new “instructional you” as you do so, and you’ll find it works the other way too: you can’t replicate what you do in an online class face to face either. I think this is part of why people think online classes are somehow worse: it’s hard to generate that same in-person chemistry. It’s like of like seeing a concert versus watching one on film. It’s hard to beat the live experience, but you can’t rewind and rewatch a live performance either. That’s the tradeoff, and studies indicate that the chemistry produced in an in-person classroom isn’t absolutely vital for student learning. Students think they learn more when the chemistry is there, but assessments of actual learning show otherwise.
  5. Spoken words help with reading comprehension for difficult texts. Reading out loud helps. Close, line by line readings of parts of difficult texts help. When I teach Paradise Lost, I often cover the first 40 lines this way, and students are able to read much better on their own afterwards. If you can’t bring yourself to do this, find YouTube equivalents or podcasts. There are many good resources already out there for many of our major works.

So, how should we react to moving our classes online? First, be patient. Students will be stressed, teachers will be stressed, IT people will be stressed, and the technology itself will be stressed — servers will get a lot busier all at once.

Next, realize that student learning occurs from what students do in and out of the classroom, not teachers. Teachers are facilitators of student learning, not the source of it. Classrooms don’t work like The Matrix: there’s no jack you can plug into the back of your head that will teach you to fly a helicopter. So while teachers are vital to learning, students need to understand learning only occurs for them when they do the work.

Finally, once it’s set up, get to work. Work on your classes at least a little bit every day until your work for the week is complete, and above all, don’t try to just do it all in one day and be done with it. You’ll get behind.

We will get past this.

College Writing, Learning, Majors and Areas of Study, Pedagogy

A Creative Writer Apologizes to Numbers

Fun read by a creative writing professor about his relationship to numbers. I think the institutional separation of arts and sciences causes us to forget the historic relationship between the two. The original seven liberal arts consisted of three studies of language and ideas, the trivium — grammar, rhetoric, and dialectic — while the other four focused on either theoretical or applied math in the forms of arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music. Education was never about either developing language or math skills. Each one helps you understand the other. Intensive study of grammar and poetics, at some point, makes you feel like you’re studying algebra:

A Humanist Apologizes to Numbers – The Chronicle Review – The Chronicle of Higher Education.

One problem with contemporary education at most levels is that it puts knowledge into silos. When you silo learning at the higher education level, you pit knowledge fields against one another, forcing fields and departments to compete for funds and students. That creates zero-sum pedagogical thinking, and that keeps us from serving the whole student, or all students, very well.

College Writing, Learning, Pedagogy

Writing for College and Beyond Book Site Up

One of the benefits of using Bright Futures Educational Consulting for help with your or your child’s college application process is that I’m a published author and experienced college writing instructor who now has a first-year writing textbook out: Writing for College and Beyond.

Bright Futures Publishing is providing marketing and administrative support for the first-year writing textbook Writing for College and Beyond (Lulu Press, 2019). Contact Bright Futures Publishing for desk or review copies, and check out the book webpages for more information, including links to ordering information, the table of contents, the book flyer, testimonials, and a list of special feature.

Writing for College and Beyond is a new kind of first-year writing text, one that emphasizes connections between the writing students do in typical English composition classes and their future business and professional careers. It’s also fully customizable for departmental or group orders. Contact Bright Futures Publishing for more information.

College Writing, Learning, Machines, Pedagogy, Technology

Print vs. E-Books

We all have to use what works best for us, but it’s also smart to pay attention to some of the latest research, which indicates that reading print books rather than electronic books is better for us in several ways:

  • Print books lead to increased comprehension. The tactile experience of reading a printed book actually matters. Check out the research.
  • Related to the above, we’re more likely to read every line of printed material. When we read e-books, we tend to read the first line and then just the words near the beginning of the line after that.
  • We lose the ability to engage in linear reading if we don’t do it often.
  • Reading printed material for about an hour before bedtime helps us sleep. Reading ebooks keeps us awake.

I read both e-books and print books, and I’m grateful for my e-readers (really, the apps on my iPad) when I’m traveling. It’s easier to carry 1000 books on one iPad than it is to carry five in a backpack. I relied a great deal on an app called iAnnotate while I was reading for my last published scholarship, the introduction and chapter 1 of Reading as Democracy in Crisis. I can’t tell you how useful the app was to me: it allowed me to highlight, underline, and annotate dozens of .pdf files and then email my annotations to myself. Imagine having all of the text that you highlighted in all of your books gathered up in searchable electronic form.

Even with this experience, I know what the researchers mean by the tactile elements of memory, the feeling of better control over your media with pages. I do remember where to find things in books by their physical location in the book, which isn’t possible with an e-reader: you can only search terms and page numbers. I think the point here isn’t which search method is more efficient, but which reading style engages more of the brain by engaging more of our physical senses. So I appreciate ebooks and use them quite a bit, but for educational purposes, especially in K-12 environments, we should use them carefully and deliberately, being aware of their drawbacks as well.

I’d like you to consider a few things about the way we developed our technologies:

  • The people who developed our technologies didn’t have our technologies. In other words, the people who built the first computer didn’t have computers.
  • The engineers who landed men on the moon did most of their work on slide rules.
  • The computers that they did at first use had less computing power than our telephones.

So we should use the best technology available to us while being aware of its limitations. Don’t dump your printed books. Continue reading in multiple media, and make sure your children especially regularly read printed books.

College Writing, Educational Consulting, Learning, Majors and Areas of Study, Understanding the Market

Employers Want Writing Skills

In 2011 the Wall Street Journal published an article asking, “Why Can’t MBA Students Write?” which was later revised to “Students Struggle for Words.” The truth is that employers have been complaining about MBA writing skills for well over ten years now, and not just MBAs but college graduates in general. A survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers stated that 73.4% of employers want graduates with strong written communication skills, while a survey by the American Association of University Professors found that 93% of employers think a “demonstrated capacity to think critically, communicate clearly, and solve complex problems is important.”

The numbers are high because too many college grads leave college with poor writing skills. In some cases the problem is simply etiquette: graduates haven’t learned formal business communication. Others think that writing skills are difficult to teach, as if good writing was more an innate talent than a learned activity. I think these impressions come from a panacea view of writing instruction: students take a writing class, and then they learn how to write, so if those one or two writing classes are good enough, they don’t need any more.

Writing instruction doesn’t usually work that way, however. Developing writing ability is a matter of cognitive development, not just a matter of taking in information, so it takes time to develop. If a college program wants to develop students’ writing skills, students need to be made to read and write and to receive writing instruction in most of their classes, not just their English classes. The problem is that business and many other professional programs don’t invest in practices that develop writing skills, such as placing high reading and writing requirements on their students and then holding their writing to high standards.

Solution? If you’re in college, regardless of your major, take additional, even unrequired writing classes. Take all the discipline-specific writing classes that you can. And take some writing classes outside of your discipline, maybe even creative writing classes. In addition to those strategies, work on your own to develop your skills and get outside help. For example, I have a first year writing textbook titled Writing for College and Beyond, one that ties the basic elements of college writing to typical tasks in business writing. I wrote this textbook out of eighteen years’ experience teaching college writing in addition to my own experience with business and professional writing. Additionally, I’m the author of four other books and a number of book chapters and reviews as well as short stories, poetry, and creative non-fiction. I would love to help you with your college application essays, requests for letters of recommendation, and with your editing needs. Just contact me for more information.