May 11, 2008

Sterility or psychodrama vs. untimed engagement or intellectual drama

Margaret Soltan is not a Luddite—far from it, she has used her University Diaries blog to become one of American academic letters' premier public intellectuals. But as an observer of college life, she has a well-reasoned hatred of what she calls technolust. She regularly links to stories about students who abuse cell phones and laptops in class and professors who abuse students with PowerPoint. Her argument is that at its best, the classroom is the best environment for the drama of learning, and that technology is too tempting a draw for poor teaching:

...my focus is not on occasional courses in which clever and restrained use of this and other visual technologies makes a better class. My focus is on student (and other audience) response to PowerPoint in general, and on the clear trend toward the overuse of this technology and other technologies in settings in which direct human interaction should be primary. [emphasis added]
I assume that she is working off the same mental model of intensive interactions that's in my head: you walk into class, and you cannot wait to see what ideas suddenly come into conflict, which people realize what's happened to the ideas they've always held, and who change their minds as you watch and participate! ("Survivor" and other reality shows have nothing on a great seminar, because involvement of the audience on a "reality" show is vicarious at best.) To Soltan, presentation software, clickers, and online course management systems are the processed carbs of higher education: easy to digest, but not very nutritious. [The extension of this metaphor to identify academic equivalents of fiber, proteins, fats, and MSG is left as an exercise for the reader, who should instead read Howard Becker's warning about metaphors in Writing for the Social Scientist.]

The reality of instruction is far more diluted: even in a small seminar, the great, life-changing moments are rare. To her credit, Soltan recognizes that but holds up the ideal as the standard against which parallel-play* online classes, reading from PowerPoint slides, and constant-clicker lectures are found wanting. No shinola, Sherman. Take the worst from any format and it will be found wanting against the best of another format. The worst of online classes is the electronic equivalent of a correspondence class, where students proceed at their own pace in their personalized and isolated bubbles, at best watching their peers in an adult form of parallel play. The worst of either bad PowerPoint or bad clicker-based lecturing is a sterile reading of bullet point and faux interactivity. But the worst of in-class drama would also cause Soltan to cringe: the unprepared/psychodrama professor leading her or his students through a semester's equivalent of drowning in emotions, an academic waterboarding.

Maybe a better comparison is among the everyday exchanges in a highly-competent class taught in different formats. In the hands of a skilled lecturer, a PowerPoint or a clicker is a tool used to keep the class engaged, not a crutch for bad teaching. For decades, Bryn Mawr professor Brunhilde Ridgeway kept her beginning archaeology classes engaged with the old set of lantern slides, chugging through centuries of sculpture until, just as she was pointing out the development of articulated knees carved in Greek funerary sculpture, onscreen would appear Magic Johnson, larger than life, running downcourt with... superbly articulated knees. Everyone laughed, the point was carved in our brains, and she moved on. No one took her class expecting to fall asleep, and I suspect today's skilled equivalents of Bruni Ridgeway use PowerPoint stacks in similar ways.

The everyday exchange in a competently-run small discussion class is what Soltan claims it is, an intellectual drama. The adrenaline isn't pumping every minute, but even when the tension ebbs, there is always a flow, a set of themes that the faculty member reinforces through the term, the possibility of a quick turn of thought, a sudden connection with material remembered from several weeks before, and regularly a softly-spoken "aha!" that marks a minor epiphany.

The problem with online education is not that you can find bad online classes, because you can run a poor class in any environment. The problem with online education is that we don't have a strong sense of what broad engagement looks like online. I've been struggling with this issue for some time. When I can make the class synchronous (an awful term implying that we're somehow in our bathing caps and in an Olympic pool), there is some drama that helps, but synchronous online classes have to be pretty small to work well with equipment commonly available. Asynchronously? There's the great challenge, and the fact that I don't have an answer may mean that Margaret Soltan is right: Maybe there is no way to engage students consistently in an online class that doesn't have a live (synchronous) component.

But I suspect that there is a way to have an engaging intellectual exchange online. The terms social presence and transactional distance are awkward ways of talking about how to engage students outside a live setting. It would not be the same thing as a face-to-face seminar, but it may have some compensating advantages: the student who participates more when she or he has more time to think through a response, or the working parent who is able to take the class and thereby injects a mature perspective that changes the way 20-year-old classmates think about the world. Those changes are more likely when the message comes from a peer instead of a teacher. It would not be the live intellectual drama that Soltan and I value, but it would not necessarily be of lesser value.

I am certainly not There yet. I am not sure if anyone is in terms of deliberate course design, though I am certain it appears in spots and for some students. But it is incorrect to assume that distance education is technolust just because faculty are not practiced in a relatively new format in the same way that they can be in a centuries-old format.

Listen to this article
Posted in Teaching on May 11, 2008 8:21 PM |