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Thursday, January 10, 2013

Professional Practices in Online Education

Session #794 at #MLA13 on Sunday, January 6 (2013) in Boston was exciting for me for many reasons, not the least of which was serving as a respondent on an academic panel on a hot and timely topic: Professional Practices in Online Education. It was among the last panels in a whirlwind of great events, and I hope it went well in the eyes of those who attended. You can offer your views at www.mla.org, by the way, of this panel or any others. I was very grateful for the panelists and attendees, particularly those who stayed afterwards to share their thoughts. The discussion spilled over into coffee at Starbucks for a few of us.

Thank you, Sandra Baringer of the University of California, Riverside, for coordinating and planning --and a tip of the hat to the Modern Language Association's CLIP (Contingent Labor in the Profession) committee for hosting it.

Here are my remarks with a few likely editorial changes, as the introduction and conclusion were written ahead of time and the rest was reconstructed from notes and memory.

Online teaching offers promise and peril, as our panelists have so well described. On the one hand, there is freedom from the constraints of classes gathered in a particular time and place. On the other hand, there is the possible loss of academic freedom and that delightful thing I call chemistry, which we can experience in real time, problems and all.

In a Dec. 21, 2012 article by Doug Lederman in Inside Higher Ed, online learning pioneer Ann Kirschner was quoted as using the word “magical” as a common occurrence in the face-to-face classroom. And as I like to play with words, perhaps education can become e-ducation too, with the right magic.

Adding to the ambiguity of a brave new e-world is the role of the teacher. What is an online teacher? Merely a mechanic offering a quick skills-fix, as Batya Weinbaum suggested…or an intellectual traversing new ground as Cynthia Eaton and Joshua Fenton described…or in Aaron Plasek’s darker envisioning: a mere servant of sinister, mouse-pushing administrators? I wonder about it all.

And wonder is a start. And curiosity. Curiosity led feminist literary scholar, dean emerita and former MLA leader Catharine Stimpson to “become” a Phoenix for a time. Stimpson affirms in that same IHE article that teaching requires "dignity." We don't want to risk losing that.

So dignity was a word that reverberated as I listened to these papers. And creativity. And parity. And peril$, with a dollar sign struck through that final S.

It is perhaps no coincidence that the sixth and seventh letters of the word “humanities” are “I.T.” And it is part of our mission as scholars and educators to make sure that the unique human needs and strengths (of both student and teacher) are not lost under the many demands of it.

Let me move from last to first panelist in summarizing.

“Academic” and “freedom” should not be at separate ends of a continuum, as Aaron warned in his “hypothetical villain administrator.” My colleague Mike Piero gave me permission to quote from an email in which he shared that the online world “embodies the same problem of academic freedom that every adjunct faces when teaching with a semester-to-semester contract, the only difference being that web-based courses leave ‘the evidence’ of the so-called ‘offensive’ material…[T]he humanities, in particular, should guard against this kind of conservatism and extremism.” Aaron first offered the word “complacent” and then “silent” to describe adjunct faculty facing online demands. I will add a word: “stunned.” Aaron said he could ad lib if he tired of reading his paper here; that is a liberty not given to online teachers. Can moments of such flexibility be woven in? Isn’t the creative ad lib a time when we learn, too?

Cynthia, with two decades of online and onground experience, has created an impressive website that I looked at over the weekend, and I encourage you to do so. Ten contract dimensions are clearly delineated, and whether or not your institution is unionized, these dimensions are worth examining. I’ll read them again: Methods of delivery? Intellectual property ownership? Compensation? Course development? Class size? Course assignment? Training and technical support? Online office hours? Privacy and surveillance? Course observation and evaluation? These areas are all so important … and can be formulated as questions to ask ourselves and our institutions. The word that echoes again is “parity” and from Cynthia’s comments I also value the wonderful suggestion of peer mentors for distant educators – for best practices, for guidance. “Both FT and PT faculty and [if applicable] their unions need to carefully monitor the spread of MOOCs, interrogate their effectiveness carefully, and resist efforts at displacing faculty with technology,” Cynthia advised.

Josh’s intricate paper of a “pilot project” – anecdotal, yes, but we learn from creative risks like this – took place at UCR, University of California, Riverside. I’m struck by the letters in common of UCR and the word “uncertainty.” There is a lot of uncertainty in this new form of education. Is hybrid better? It certainly isn’t less complicated, from Josh’s detailed description. Intricate technological interface, intricate planning – all so important. And it’s crucial that institutions make the requisite investment in faculty training, not just covering technical costs. Josh said: “Watch out for a techno-fantasy of cyborg subjectivity in learning, where information is accessed from a database and ‘stored on human minds.’” I wish I had a model of the brain in here! Learning takes place in creating new, delicate connections between neurons! It’s not a linear process! The fantasy that just developing a course and having students follow it without emotional engagement and somehow that yields learning is just that, a fantasy. Learning is magical and multifaceted. It is multisensory and involves our whole body and brain. Let’s hope that online learning movements do not forget that.

Batya lives the life of a “true interdisciplinary scholar”; she is a creative person who “lives a life of passionate engagement.” I first wrote down that creative people are especially hamstrung by rigid policies but reconsidered: All people are hindered by such policies despite our need for some routine. Teaching is an art, and outreach to a worldwide audience for someone with global consciousness is great. My thought upon hearing Batya speak: We should use what teachers have to give. She describes the downside of e-ducation: “I have a white space that used to be my mind…” That shouldn’t have to happen. Yes, there is often a discrepancy between educational theory and practice; there is the potential of an online brave new e-world and its peril. If something is not working for students online and there is a lock-step curriculum in place, she may feel stuck whereas in her own classroom, she would change what wasn't working and adapt to suit the students in each situation.

In conclusion: If we can keep online teaching human, if we can keep it fair, if we can compensate it adequately, foster creativity, and not erode further the tenuous working conditions of adjuncts, online education may offer the potential to keep the ripples of knowledge reverberating ever outward and that rare gift, wisdom, swirling inward.


Revised 1/10/13

3 comments:

Vanessa Vaile said...

thanks - good piece. I look forward to reading papers. I do beg to differ on one point: two of the most magical classes I've taught were online. My Facebook network includes students from the first online course I taught.

The magic is in the teaching, forming a genuine learning community, not in the medium...and in the autonomy to innovate and be creative, which is disappearing on and offline. Admittedly, the most egregious instances are are online.

Maria said...

Thank you for your thoughtful comment, Vanessa. I think it takes imagination and stamina to forge connections in the way you describe ... along with technical knowledge.

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