Note to readers

This is a blog that I'm required to keep that's full of unedited, near stream-of-consciousness reactions to similarly required and related readings in a graduate course in N.C. State University's Communication, Rhetoric, and Digital Media program. The way these posts are written help me interrogate and understand what's going on in our readings. I'm identifying what's troublesome so that I can give it more thought, but the posts aren't written in a style that's productive for audiences outside of our class to read. That's by design. I start with contestation, then spend heavens only knows how long researching, recutting, and reevaluating so that I can try and see what potentially productive readings I can extract from these source for use in my own work's contributions back to the field. Comments encouraged, but please, you'll likely need a thick skin if your work is quoted here.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Distance learning and critical thinking lit reviews

Buraphadeja & Dawson was essentially just a literature review of different attempts to establish means of measuring how students think critically using online techs. Nothing too exciting there.

Blair & Hoy's article on distance learning and adults was more problematic. The article seemed to have a pretty clear political undercurrent. The English 207 class as described was pretty clearly designed for nonstandard students, even before it went online. The elephant in the room was if these students should run the asylum and been able to demand a class where there might have been more demonstration of ability than learning. I base this critique on a few statements in the article...

  1. "As Kristine Blair and Stan Lewis (2003) have indicated, Prior Learning Assessment acknowledges that “college-level learning may be acquired from experiences outside a formal classroom setting” (p. 1)" (34)

  2. "Another compelling factor for moving to online delivery was the success of one student, Greg, who because of work-related travel was unable to attend regularly but did submit assignments electronically for review by both the instructor (Blair) and his peers and who nonetheless produced a portfolio equal in quality to those of his face-to-face colleagues." (36)

  3. "Some of her adult learners completed the assignments and the course quickly with a minimum of peer and instructor responses while others completed the course and each assignment more slowly, carefully and meticulously revising each assignment and requiring more peer and instructor feedback." (42)

If we want to talk about how adult students have a more difficult time in the university, could there be a more loaded class to pick than one that practically invites those that need some sort of academic remediation/enculturation? To use this class to identify trouble is circular reasoning at its finest, and obstructs possibly useful lessons. Combined with the statements, above, that do not eliminate the possibility that what was occurring was more vetting academic viability of students rather than primarily provide learning experiences, the foundation of the article is suspect.

There's another pretty clear political theme throughout, that of identifying and rewarding labor in these "service"-oriented classes. For the authors, this took the form of "invisible" labor in online classes and the use of graduate student instructors for this class.

Because Blair was a faculty member in A&S and because the course typically enrolls fewer students due to the heavy writing load and necessary personal attention, the College office decided it was too expensive to employ a tenure-line [end page 36] faculty member to teach a course with such a consistently small class size. Consequently, to keep the course on the schedule, we arrived at a compromise—a graduate student would be selected to teach the course and would be supervised jointly by Blair and by Lewis. (36-7)

The number of omissions and forced silences is deafening. Here, we've got the continued issue of the specifics behind why the course is offered combined with an administration that's generally not particularly supportive of putting departmental resources into its "instruction" (by virtue of claiming economics as an unarguable justification for removing tenured and tenure-track instructors), and we top this off with the unquestioned statement that online classes need to hold half as many students as "f2f" ones without [the authors imply] any penalty in tenure or promotional considerations. The tenure concern is hinted at early ("we call for more attention to the impact of adult online education on faculty workload" (34)) and made explicit in the conclusion ("there has been little to no change in the merit, tenure, and promotion guidelines at our own institution for online instruction despite the administrative recognition that fully online and other alternative formats (weekend courses, workshops, etc.) are vital to competing for adult and other nontraditional learners in the online educational market" (45)).

Am I the only one that cringes like hell when they see "online educational market", "competing", and "vital" in that sentence? The university was supposed to stay relatively independent of capitalism. What the hell happened? Go work at the University of Phoenix. /especially harsh vitriol

Some of the reported "adult" problems -- the email prodding for feedback, etc -- are class management issues moreso than adult or technological ones, as email (as one example) certainly can enable structured feedback just as easily its [here] off-site and passive nature disable it. Part of this class management seems to be a failure to build capacity in instructors, who say things like, "These discussion boards did provide students with the opportunity to put their virtual chairs in a virtual circle in an online classroom and discuss their writing," (38) and presuppositional phrases afterwards like "But, just as it is important to remember that face-to-face community doesn’t occur by sheer virtue of asking students to put their chairs in a circle, as Hoy’s experience with Susan suggests, an online community doesn’t happen by sheer virtue of creating discussion forums and requiring weekly postings" (40). There is no "just as". Only "different from and similar to". Simile, not metaphor.

Finally, when the authors say that "external influences on the adult learner can cause delays in completing assignments; these delays can quickly deplete the adult learner’s motivation to not finish the assignment, and sometimes not finish the course as well," they certainly haven't disproven what we all know to be true: undergraduates run into life too. In their case, we simply don't always value the interruptions with the same seriousness that we do when they are work or family related.

Ultimately what's useful in the article are more the lessons for would-be online instructors than the topic of its title. There is important, behind-the-scenes feedback that should be considered. One cannot craft a website, replicate it between instructors, grade a few portfolio assignments, and forget about it. Not that, in my experience, there's any less "invisible" workload for "f2f" teaching, between office hours, email, and even, occasionally, student chat, but one should remember that online teaching does not give anyone, even in this English 207 design, excuse to coast with their instruction.

And to close, I'd like to ask what the "other hybrid formats" are that are mentioned in this quote...
Because of the changing demographic from traditional to adult students, we shall also argue that this change also fosters a change in the relationship between teachers and students, particularly given studies, such as Barbara Pevoto’s (2003), which suggests that students enrolled in web-based courses may not succeed as well as in other hybrid formats.

Guess I should march my rear over to DH Hill and find out.

Oh yeah... Ongyod (arrested dev?)...

I hadn't thought about providing feedback via video. That's an interesting idea that I should give more thought.

I wonder how fair it'd be to assign public speaking speeches as homework to be emailed or brought to class? Finally, a rough-draft speech? I'm not sure those without webcams would be comfortable giving speeches in front of Macs in the library, but it's an interesting possibility.

Worrying about 3 megs seems so not 2007. ;^)
Now playing: The Black Crowes - Goodbye Daughters Of The Revolution
via FoxyTunes

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