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Teaching Online versus Teaching in the Classroom
This paper is an attempt to distill my experiences and reflections about teaching and learning online versus teaching and learning in the classroom, hereafter referred to as “onground. There is not strictly a one to one comparison between teaching online versus teaching onground because there are different formats for teaching in both, and some have more comparable characteristics and pedagogical effects with those across the divide than with those on the same side. There are techniques and potential characteristics for each that can make them better or worse, and I have written extensively about teaching methods in general in essays at www.garlikov.com. I will not repeat that here, nor will I try to explain, for example, how to lecture better or how to ask better questions more likely to generate responses in either print or speech. This paper simply tries to explain what the similarities and differences are between the nature of teaching online and teaching onground that affect learning.
Some teachers lecture well; others poorly. The old adage about poor lectures is that a lecture is an hour in which information passes from the notes of the teaching to the notes of the students without going through the minds of either. Some teachers are better at generating productive and meaningful discussion/questions/responses than others, whether in a large lecture hall, a large classroom, or a small one. Some topics and some circumstances lend themselves more to lecture or long print passages; others more to dialogue. It is not just that lecturing is a better or worse way to teach than is encouraging discussion, but that there are some circumstances where lecturing, if it is done well, is better and other circumstances where encouraging discussion, if it can be done well, is better. (In some cases eliciting responses from students causes enough cognitive dissonance that they are far more receptive to short lectures that resolve their confusion than they would be if the lecture were given without first getting them to see and “feel” the problems the lecture is meant to address and resolve.) When either method is done poorly, whether because of the teacher’s being boring, disorganized, unclear, pedantic, intimidating, cold, etc. or the students’ being apathetic, unprepared, inattentive, shy, timid, fearful, etc., or a combination of both, it is not necessarily a reflection on the method or the potential of the method.
I will try to distinguish throughout this paper issues that have to do with the methodologies themselves versus their being done poorly by teachers or students, though there is potentially nothing wrong with the methods. But that is often difficult to do because there are many cases where a method would work if either the teacher or student knew how to use it or respond to it better, but they are not able to because they don’t have sufficient background or skill or the right attitude. In such cases it is misleading to say there is nothing wrong with the method or that the method would work if used and responded to correctly, or if it could be taught and learned how to use correctly, since it won’t be – at least not by many teachers and most students.
Online courses can be what are called “synchronous” or “asynchronous”. “Synchronous” courses are those in which teachers and students are in contact with each other at the same time in a form of immediate back and forth communication, as it could occur in an onground classroom that allows interaction among students and teachers. Online, this can occur in a “chat room” type of software platform where all participants can see what each person contributes as the comments and questions appear onscreen, or in a combination computer/telephone conference kind of classroom, whereby the teacher can show and lecture information and students can type questions and comments that all can see or that just the teacher can see, or the students can speak on the phone to comment or question as they see fit.
Synchronous teaching can also be done with one student at a time on an individual basis, through something like instant messaging back and forth between the teacher and a student. Instant messaging situations are more like a teacher meeting with individual students (outside of class time, whether in the teacher’s office or over coffee, or in the classroom after the class period is over, or in a phone conversation). The other students do not participate in the interaction. This sort of interaction is potentially great for those issues peculiar to the particular student, but less efficient if the student has questions or misunderstandings that would benefit the other students because they have them in common. It is often frustrating in onground courses, for example, when a student waits till after class to raise a question or make a comment that would have been important and helpful to everyone to address during the class.
Therefore, there are two dichotomies to keep in mind: 1) the synchronous/asynchronous dichotomy and 2) the group/individual dichotomy. An onground classroom is an example of a group, synchronous education platform. Private consultation with students individually is individual synchronous education (which happens to occur onground), as is instant messaging (though it occurs online). E-mail exchanges (which are online) are more likely asynchronous, but so are reading or attending a lecture and having to wait to meet with a teacher in a recitation class or outside of class (onground).
Asynchronous online courses, which constitute many or most online college courses now, are those in which students can check into the classroom whenever convenient for themselves to find their assignments and instructions and to leave answers or comments for teachers and/or for classmates, and find responses to them. This makes courses potentially available for people in different time zones or on different work schedules or with different family responsibilities. Students and teachers can go online at whatever time(s) of the day suit their schedule. However, it means there may be hours or a day or two between the time comments are posted and the time they are read, even when students and teachers are conscientious. When students or teachers are not conscientious, or are particularly busy outside of the course, there may be longer periods between responses.
And there can be mixed online/onground courses, whereby students meet in a classroom but also meet online in whatever proportion for which the course is designed.
Similarities and Differences in Quality of Education
Theoretically, as long as certain conditions are in place, I believe there is no necessary difference in the quality of education that can be received online versus onground – for subjects that do not require proximity because of some particular reason. Some subjects seem to require more proximity than others. E.g., if one is teaching cooking or wine-tasting or if one is trying to teach how to mix or heat ingredients enough to reach a certain consistency that has to be felt, it is important for the teacher and student to experience the same food, wine, or mixture. Following a food recipe alone may not quite give the desired taste; two bottles of the same brand and vintage wine may not have the same bouquet or taste; two mixtures that look to be the same consistency may not feel the same, and subtle differences can sometimes be significant. A Nobel laureate in medicine one time told me that although you could usually emulate experiments you read about in journals, there are occasions where you cannot get the same results and you need to visit the author’s lab to see what, if anything, the two of you are doing different that is not coming across in the verbal description of the process. But even onground courses in some subjects are limited in quality if the subject matter is three-dimensional (such as sculpture or architecture) and the best examples are not within reach of the students to visit, and cannot be done adequate justice in drawings or photographs. The same is true for wine-tasting courses or cooking classes, for the proximity needs to be not just between teacher and students, but among teachers, students, and the material or phenomenon being taught.
Moreover, two people’s looking at the same thing while standing next to each other may not mean they see it the same way or are thinking about it the same way. As a photographer, I learned to refuse to try to take pictures for clients who want a picture of a child that emulates a photo they have that I or someone else took of an older sibling or of the parent, because I have found that there is almost always some feature of the original that is the key feature to the client but is one that seems totally insignificant to me, and that I cannot or do not duplicate. E.g., one time a woman brought in a baby picture of her husband and wanted a similar picture of their son at the same age. I worked very hard to get the angle, the lighting, the expression, the pose, etc. of the baby and thought I had achieved it perfectly. The woman was unhappy with the result because on the baby’s right hand, he did not have his fingers in the same position the father did as a baby, and, for some reason, that finger position was the most salient feature of the original photograph to her. Had she told me that to begin with or even during the shooting – which she was watching while I did it, I’d have refused to do the picture, since that was not likely anything I could get the baby to do. So proximity is not necessarily a sufficient guarantee of mutual understanding of ideas and concepts, but it often helps.
As of this writing, there is a practical problem with teaching online that is akin to the wine-tasting problem. The teacher cannot always know what the student is seeing on his/her monitor, and when it is not what the teacher sees on his/her monitor, that can cause some serious problems. At one college at which I teach, I discovered, after increasingly discordant exchanges between me and the affected students, that some of the classroom material does not show up at all on the screens of students who use Macs with Safari as their web browser. (They have to use a different web browser, it turned out.) Since much of the instructional material is in the missing components, it makes it seem as though the students are disregarding reading assignments or course instructions, when in fact, they have no reason to believe there is anything there to read. There is not even a gap that might make them suspicious they are missing something. So students were not following simple instructions I complained they were ignoring, and they thought I was being unduly accusatory, since they were doing everything required. I now have my students cut and paste a passage from those sorts of components to prove to me that they actually have access to them and see them.
In a simpler, less problematic kind of case, if a teacher uses a font to emphasize certain passages, and students’ computers do not have that font, the students won’t see the emphasis.
Every time any platform changes or is “upgraded” in an online course, or any time new browsing platforms become available, such as currently various “mobile apps”, there is a fairly good risk that what students are seeing is not all they are supposed to be seeing or what the teacher thinks they are seeing.
But if we limit this discussion to those courses whose content is primarily verbal and visual in ways computers can handle (such as currently, displaying two-dimensional images such as photos, blueprints, or paintings), I will argue that online courses can be every bit as good, and often much better than onground courses, but only under certain conditions – which unfortunately may not be the norm at this time for most students and for many teachers, and are not easy to achieve. For knowledgeable teachers and students with good communication skills for expressing and understanding complex ideas, online courses afford great educational potential because they offer more opportunities for sustained, detailed, reflective, polished discussion than does a typical onground classroom.
Online courses allow the opportunity to combine the best qualities of reading and of interactive dialogue. If students take the time and make the effort to read reflectively and respond fully, there can be far more effective and efficient dialogue than usually occurs extemporaneously in a classroom hour or two. However, in practice at this time, only a small proportion of students work that way or perhaps understand how. And although only a small proportion of students enter an onground classroom each day fully prepared to discuss or even ask questions that will help them understand the assigned readings or any lecturing presented, there are teaching techniques in a classroom – or any synchronous environment-- that can mask, or sometimes even make up for, student inability to understand or attend sufficiently to longer written or spoken passages and complex or difficult ideas.
A Word About Teaching
Teaching requires trying to turn an experience, idea, or insight we have into words which we transmit to others through writing or speaking and then hoping that the recipient of the words can use those words to understand the idea or insight we have. It is a difficult process and one that is not always successful even when the teacher and the student are both conscientious and have good vocabulary. Some concepts and phenomena are simply difficult to transmit through the use of words. If you tried to explain, for example, what ice is to someone who had never seen it, and explained it is frozen water, they would not likely know what you mean. And it doesn’t likely help to say that it is water that is hard like a rock, because being water and being hard like a rock are incompatible ideas to someone who has only experienced water in liquid form. Perhaps the best they might understand originally from that description would be if they had fallen from a height and hit a body of water very flat on their back, side, or stomach, and it hurt a lot. But that would still not be anything like falling onto ice, which they cannot comprehend. Possibly one could say that if you make water cold enough, it turns into a substance that is very much like greasy, slippery glass as long as it stays cold.
The same is true for teaching any concept that is initially “foreign” to student understanding or experience. For example, it is difficult for many children to learn to ride a bicycle because they know they cannot just sit on it and balance. Adding speed to the experience doesn’t strike them as being a help, even if you show them a wheel will stay upright by itself when it moves. First, they will see the wheel eventually falls down or hits something and then falls down, and they are not looking to ride if that is the outcome. Or they will have tried to ride with some speed but not really balanced properly and crashed anyway. So they are not encouraged that motion is the secret. And even if they see other children or adults ride a bike, they believe very strongly they themselves cannot do it. It takes a certain amount of work to teach them to do it, if they are not able to do it just naturally and if they have fear of it. And it is unlikely you can simply teach them very efficiently to ride, if at all, by giving only verbal instructions.
This is often even more difficult for concepts, because it is more difficult to teach them and show some tangible results. Algebra is extremely difficult for many students, for example, as is any math “word problem” – meaning any problem that looks like it involves math and the particular kind of calculation necessary is not just given to you.
But it is not just math that is difficult for students to comprehend. Far too many college students cannot follow any sort of complex or extended verbal train of thought, whether in speech or in print. So they have problems following and understanding extended reading assignments and spoken lectures. Most, for example, cannot see what the reasoning and points are in the Declaration of Independence, even if they have plenty of time to read the document (which is not all that long) carefully. They know the few catch phrases that “All men are created equal” and have the “unalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”. But they do not and cannot understand the context in the Declaration for which those points serve as evidence. They don’t see the reasoning of which those points are only a part. They don’t see the relationship of those points to the broader meaning and purpose of the document. And in many cases they do not understand even those points, and will argue, for example that capital punishment abrogates the unalienable right to life pointed out in this clause in the Declaration of Independence, and that life in prison is therefore the proper punishment for the most serious crimes. Yet prison abrogates the right to “liberty” (and probably the right to “the pursuit of happiness”) in the same way, but they don’t see the inconsistency in their understanding.
Being able to teach and learn new and difficult material involves being able to present it in ways that a student is likely to be able to understand it, but that usually takes work on the students’ part as well because understanding something complex requires active thinking, not just passive reading or listening. Many teachers cannot do it well; and many students cannot do it well, even when the teacher has done his/her part well, because those students either have not had the proper training or they don’t want to have to do the thinking or work that is required. Many students today will look all over the Internet for the answer to questions posed that requires them to think, and that is not likely to have been written about on the Internet. When they cannot find the answer on the Internet or clearly stated in their assigned reading, many think the question is simply not fair because you have not taught them the answer or made it possible for them to find it already stated in those places. They do not know how to derive answers from knowledge and information they already have, but only to repeat what they have read or been told. At best, many will make a feeble attempt to derive an answer and think they have done enough; and that if they don’t get a good grade for that, it is because the teacher is not clear or hasn’t taught them or is making them guess what is “wanted”. One particularly interesting, but sad, phenomenon is that in an onground discussion or in an online discussion, most students do not listen to or read the other students’ answers they are supposed to or they don’t follow them as they should, so that when a student gives an excellent well-reasoned answer to a problem, his/her classmates do not recognize it as such, unless the teacher points out it is a correct or brilliant answer – and sometimes even then. I don’t think this is simply always because they are inattentive but because they cannot follow and recognize a well-reasoned deduction from evidence to a conclusion which they have not read or heard before., 
Now, there are methods that can serve in a synchronous environment, such as a chat room, conference call, or online chat room that foster the learning of difficult concepts and ideas – or that sometimes mask or hide not learning them. And those methods are not open to being done well in an asynchronous environment. So what happens is that teaching and learning may actually be easier in an onground course or, more likely, they simply appear to be easier even though teaching and learning are not really taking place to the extent they should.
The methods involve various forms of dividing the difficult material into components that students may be better able to grasp. One such method is the Socratic Method of teaching, which I have written about at www.garlikov.com/Soc_Meth.html, but an easy way to see the general idea of dividing material into piecemeal components is to consider giving someone driving directions to some place they are seeking, in an area with which they are unfamiliar, so that you cannot just say something like “It is two blocks west of the Old Mill, on Darcy Street” because they do not know where either the Old Mill or where Darcy Street is (and may not know which way is west). So you give them the component directions piecemeal. If there are many twists and turns, they probably need to write them down, or have you write them down. If you MapQuest or use Google Maps for directions, you get both a pictorial map and a set of step by step directions. If you are driving by yourself you need to either memorize all the directions or you need to learn enough of them at a time that you don’t have to keep stopping to look at them or try to read them while you are driving. Having a passenger who can read will allow you to get each direction as you are ready for it. Modern GPS systems give you the same advantage without a passenger. You can arrive at your whole destination step by step. This is the beauty of synchronous teaching in a step by step fashion as the student is ready for each subsequent step. In an asynchronous environment, it would take far longer if you had to wait a long time for the next direction each time you completed a step. You might not be able to get to a meeting on time, for example, using an asynchronous step-wise methodology, and thus defeat the purpose of the trip.
One way around that problem in teaching is to write material in dialogue form, such as the works of Plato, but that doesn’t help much because whenever the dialogue diverges from how the reader would have answered the questions, it defeats the purpose of the method.
A better solution is for teachers to be able to explain material well in writing (or in speaking/lecturing), but not all have that skill because they leave (often serious) gaps in the explanation and/or don’t know how to structure the material so that its logic or significance most likely shows. And when they do, a serious problem is that many students cannot or do not read or listen carefully for comprehension and understanding.  Careful reading and comprehension skills, even at the college level, are frequently so bad that I jokingly say one can see why Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit even though the only instruction God gave them was not to eat the fruit of that one tree while He went out for a bit. One imagines they both remembered it as “He said something about eating the fruit of this tree” or thought “That instruction is probably not important.” The problem is actually, however, no different in regard to listening onground in the classroom than reading online in an asynchronous course. And it is no worse online than it is in regard to student understanding of assigned readings for homework in an onground course. But in an onground course or in synchronous communication, lack of understanding or reading shows up much quicker, at least potentially. And in onground courses, there is the potential compensation of immediacy that allows for step by step progress in a topic too complex to absorb all at once.
Moreover, in teaching a whole group, whether online, by conference call, or in a classroom, you are normally able to reach more people with the same comment in response to any misunderstanding – particularly a common one. If someone says something everyone agrees with or if someone asks a question others also are thinking about, one answer (or an answer with immediate follow-ups) will suffice for all who are 1) paying attention at the time, and 2) who are psychologically ready for the response at that time so that the answer is meaningful. Now theoretically the same would be true for asynchronous communication as long as the responses are all available for reading. But many students do not read the interactions teachers have with their classmates – even when directed to do so as a course policy. And what tends to happen in practice is that the teacher has to repeat the same things to each student, as if teaching 20 different separate tutorials.
This is not much different from students not paying attention in a classroom to answers teachers give to a classmate or to the questions and comments of classmates in the first place, and then asking the same question or making the same comment five minutes later. However, it is more likely to happen in an asynchronous interaction than a synchronous one, I think. This is not necessarily because some online students are inattentive or irresponsible, but in an online course, even conscientious students will often say they feel it is cheating to read their classmates’ answers, or they say they don’t want to be influenced by those answers before they post their own. (My directions about the latter concern are they should then write their own answer for themselves, but they should not submit it until they have read the already posted responses to see whether they need to amend their answer – and this is not cheating if it is the practice the teacher wants implemented. If the teacher wants you to learn from your mistakes rather than getting a low or failing grade because of them, that is sound educational practice, not cheating. Moreover, it is not cheating if you have to add your own reasons and give your own explanations and examples beyond what the previous students have said, in order to show you truly do understand the material. That precludes simply copying or paraphrasing someone else’s answer.)
The previous point applies to online discussions where the answers are graded and count toward the students’ final grades. However, if the discussion is not graded, only the most conscientious students in asynchronous courses tend to read their classmates’ comments and the teacher’s responses. This is very similar to classroom discussions where “participation” does not count toward students’ grades and where the teacher is not knowledgeable or skilled enough to have a way to motivate students to appreciate the intrinsic value of being actively involved in the discussion. In such cases only conscientious students tend to listen to the comments their classmates make and take them into account in their own thinking about the topic under consideration. That is a shame because it wastes many potentially teachable moments that would have been important and that would have made the course material actually more interesting and relevant to most of the students. Often the material that goes beyond the foundational material is what is most interesting and challenging, so when students don’t listen or read and don’t assimilate the basic material, it makes the conscientious teacher spend most of his/her time repeatedly correcting simple mistakes and misunderstandings individually instead of doing that all at once and moving past it to the more interesting ideas.
It is probably easier to detect students and teachers who are not conscientious or who are apathetic in an onground course than in an online course. Online courses can keep track of student attendance (whether courses are synchronous or asynchronous) but they cannot tell as easily whether a student is paying attention or whether a teacher is attentive to students as is able to be seen in a classroom, unless perhaps it is simply a huge lecture hall. But in a classroom of 20 or 25 students (perhaps even 50 students) where the teacher can pretty easily see facial expressions and body language, and can call on a fairly large number of students in a short amount of time, a teacher can be constantly monitoring for student attentiveness. And students can readily see whether the teacher cares whether s/he is getting through to the students or not, and being responsive to their questions, comments, or even to just their expressions of puzzlement, or whether the teacher is just putting in the time for a paycheck.
Courses designed for discussion need to have a technological format that facilitates collaborative discussion. One format I have seen militates against that; each student responds primarily to the teacher and although other students can see each others’ answers, they have no particular incentive to read them or to respond. If the course requires them to respond to other students, many will just give meaningless, perfunctory responses, such as “I really liked the way you explained that. It helped make it clear to me finally. Good job.” More often than not, such a response is given to a student who gave a wrong answer, sometimes even an exceptionally poor, wrong answer.
I have found online course design and visual format to be serious issues in regard to making sure students have all the information they need. Web pages that form the course often are not laid out well and make it difficult for students to see or find all the information they need, particularly when different bits of information are squirreled away in different links (especially if the links are difficult to notice) or components of the screen. In some classrooms important new information gets hidden at the bottom of a home page that comes on first when students login, and unless they know and remember to scroll to the bottom of the page, they are not likely to notice there is something new they need to see. In some cases students have to click on different links individually in order to find out all the information that they need to know about a particular topic or about what their assignments are, etc. In some cases there are too many portals of information to have to check to see whether there is important new information or not. This is like a teacher’s having a note on the corner of a chalk board or white board and expecting all students to notice it before s/he erases it. It is, of course, important that students are conscientious, but if the course design or format is such that even conscientious students are not likely to see or realize the importance of reading information they need, then that is a serious design or operational flaw in the course format.
Conscientiousness is one of those concepts that are not easily, if at all, able to be evaluated objectively in terms of meeting a prescribed set of objective criteria. And institutions make a serious error in trying to formalize such a set of criteria, which unfortunately is a common practice. For example, if one wants students to check an ongoing discussion periodically to see whether they need to respond to a new question or direction in it, and if one wants them to respond when they have something to contribute, it does not work to make a rule such as one must be online four days during each seven day classroom week and that one must respond one time during discussion of any assignment to two other students. Students who are not conscientious will easily meet that requirement without making any useful contribution to the discussion whatsoever. Or if the requirement for a teacher is to respond to 70% of the comments made and to check in to the classroom at least five days a week without missing two days consecutively, that also can be fairly easily met without the teacher’s really being a usefully responsive teacher. Oppositely, I have had online students whose day jobs required travel to places they did not always have internet access and many of those students were extremely conscientious and made valuable contributions to the class by responding very fully early and in every opportunity they had, which might mean twice or three times during the week. Yet the automated system would flag them for poor attendance that could suspend them from the course. Fortunately the system gave the teacher a chance to prevent the suspension. But the point is that conscientiousness cannot be measured by mere class attendance, by online logins to the classroom, or by number or percentage of comments made during a discussion. It is a qualitative matter, not a quantitative one.
First, and most obviously, students and teachers can be anywhere in the world, united by a common interest, rather than by the accident of geographical proximity. That allows even the smallest village to be a center of worldwide teaching or learning, as long as the subject matter can be taught and learned through verbal and pictorial communication, and as long as it can be organized and presented in a way that enhances (or at least does not impede) that.
Second, online courses are potentially excellent when teachers and students are conscientious, capable, prepared and have the time and freedom to do what is right, and when the format of the course facilitates (or at least does not hinder) discussion and the timely exchange of information among students with each other or between teacher and students. This is because there is more time for students to think about points raised and to be able to respond in a way that gives other students or the teacher the opportunity to do the same. In onground courses, students often hold a comment until after class, or don’t even think of the response they wish they had given until hours after the course is over. In such cases, any salient comments or questions have to wait until the next classroom period, which may be a few days or even a week later. Online, questions and comments can be posted when they occur, and can be addressed within 24 hours. In an “active” course with enthusiastic participants, comments will be viewed and responses will be given within a few hours or within half a day.
1) Where the students do not understand the basic concepts and ideas, the more interesting material is not discussed because all the time is inefficiently spent trying to teach the basic concepts and ideas. You can’t get into the more interesting applications and mistaken apparent applications of the ideas because all the time is spent just trying to explain the basic ideas themselves.
a) students are more inclined to try to say what they think the teacher wants to hear/read instead of saying what they honestly think – which normally would be more helpful in nurturing their understanding.
b) students don’t care about the material if they can just do whatever they need to with it to get a good grade.
c) when they think a unit is over and the material no longer involves their grade, they do not care whether they learned it or know it yet or not.
d) students resent any poor grade or any disagreement with their answers (which they think will mean a poor grade) and focus more on that than they do on trying to learn from their mistakes. Often students will spend far more time and effort explaining why it is not their fault they don’t understand the material than they do trying to understand or explain what it is they don’t understand about it so that the teacher or other students can possibly help them. They will say “I just don’t understand any of it.” So then, with no clue what to focus on, the conscientious teacher will try to explain it in different ways or give different examples or focus on some part that is normally the most problematic for students. But the student who is more concerned about the grade than in trying to learn, or who does not know how to isolate problems in understanding, will say things like “You just keep saying the same thing in different ways and that is not of any help!”
“Well, what part of it seems wrong or doesn’t make sense? Where do you start not being able to follow it or accept it.”
“I just don’t get any of it.”
[In an interesting coincidence, today I received an e-mail from a student who wanted to pursue a discussion we had during the online course that had ended two weeks ago. She had already seen her recorded grade, and simply wanted to discuss this particular topic further, apart from any grade, because she found it challenging and stimulating. That is the kind of environment I want to foster, and that I often could in a synchronous (onground) environment, but find difficult to do in an asynchronous one other than with students who already have the desire to learn, apart from getting a grade. I found out a year or so after one night course I had taught onground ended, that after each class period most of the students stayed for another hour or so outside in the parking lot discussing and debating issues that had arisen in class. That was gratifying to learn. Clearly they were not doing that to impress me for a higher grade. I attribute it to the fact that we were able to discuss in a two hour class period, a great many stimulating and challenging points and arguments related to the main points I was trying to teach. A couple of my students online last term had individual dialogue with me, that was posted for all to see, about issues they wanted to pursue further. After one such prolonged exchange, the student said she didn’t understand why none of her classmates joined the discussion with us, because she thought it was so interesting.]
Pitfalls In Both Online and Onground Courses
1) When students or teachers are not conscientious, material is typically not covered in the depth it can be. If students do not reflect on the material assigned, in order to seek deeper understanding, they will miss much of the significance of it. They will not have the insights into it they should, and they will not notice that some of the material will provoke questions that provide “teachable moments”. If teachers are not attentive or caring, then any teachable moments which do arise will be squandered. This is as true onground as it is online. In good courses of either sort, there is ample time and opportunity for teachers and students to experience and utilize “teachable moments”; moments where students are more likely to absorb and appreciate any information given because something has challenged or stimulated them to be in more of a receptive learning mode than normal. It is a shame to minimize or squander potential teachable moments whether online or onground.
2) Some teachers, whether online or onground, assign too much material and often compound that mistake by assuming students can simply read it and learn it on their own. They think they are being intellectually rigorous. Instead they are simply being unreasonably demanding and are not necessarily teaching. One could call it “school” to assign students to the library to begin reading at “A” and stop when they have finished “Z”, but that is not a good, fair, reasonable, or efficient way to teach. Students who do not ask questions about the material to show they are trying but having specific difficulties understanding, simply enable poor teachers to continue assigning too much without giving any real help.
3) Just as there is too often apathetic, slipshod, and negligent teaching whether online or onground, there are also slipshod, mechanical, contrived “assessments” of student learning that do not seriously measure what they are supposed to, and that often do not motivate or inspire students to learn. For many reasons some students give up on, or don’t care about, learning the material in a course (often a required course, or a course chosen to meet a requirement) and don’t care what their grade is as long as they pass. Such students often do minimal work, or sometimes are not adequately prepared to take the course, and it is very difficult in many cases to tell what is the cause of their poor performance – apathy, bad study skills, lack of previous important experience/knowledge, higher priorities with lack of time/energy to get to the lower ones, lack of talent for the particular subject matter, etc. Sometimes tests or assessments are just so poorly designed or worded that even conscientious and knowledgeable students will not necessarily do well on them.
4) Polite and “politically correct” students too often refrain from criticizing a fellow student’s answers because a) they do not distinguish properly between analysis of the answer and criticism of the person, and b) because they are under the misguided impression in courses with more intangible subject matter that there are no wrong answers or that any answer is as good as any other. They need to be taught that civilly saying an answer is wrong, and why, is not the same thing as saying the person who gave it is stupid, ignorant, blind, inept, lazy, careless, deceitful, callous, biased, or irresponsible – as long as they stick to the issue itself and the evidence that pertains to it. This will help generate more, and more meaningful, responses and better discussions.
5) I tend to think that too often, particularly perhaps in some online courses, too much of what ought to be free intellectual discussion is instead a formally graded assignment that makes students unwilling to explore ideas for fear of being graded down for being “wrong”, meaning “not giving the answers the teacher or test is ‘looking for’”. I think it is important to be able to challenge student thinking in ways that encourage students to be intellectually adventuresome and allow them to make certain kinds of understandable errors without penalty, so they can learn from their mistakes. E.g., if one is trying to teach certain difficult concepts, it should be sufficient that students demonstrate understanding and ability to use those concepts by the end of the term even if it takes them a long time and much effort to learn them. That does not mean basic errors in material they should know are acceptable, and it doesn’t mean they can acceptably be less than perfect on tasks that require perfection, such as engine repair or heart surgery.
In short, while there may be certain aspects of teaching onground or online that give an inherent advantage to one over the other for particular subjects, there is nothing automatic that makes teaching online or onground necessarily good without skill, effort, and understanding on the part of both teachers and students. Online courses are not necessarily a panacea for education; they can be taught poorly or attended to by students poorly. But they are also not necessarily merely “diploma mill” tools that are educationally valueless; they can be taught well by conscientious and able teachers, and much can be learned by conscientious and capable students.
One of my greatest academic experiences as a student was in a Philosophy of Religion
course lecture (large hall) by Prof. George I. Mavrodes. During the lecture he said something that
struck me as mistaken, and I wanted to question it and began to raise my hand, but
then thought that inappropriate, and lowered it. But he had seen me as he spoke
and finished his current thought and then called on me. I voiced my question as best I could (I was a
sophomore at the time) and he said “Let me see whether I understand your
objection correctly” and then wrote out a fully formed set of premises and
conclusion on the board that was a spectacular argument; iron clad as far as I
was concerned. He asked if that was what
I was saying, and I responded that it would have been if I could have been
smart enough to form it that way. I
didn’t understand how he could know that argument, which he clearly did, and
have said what he did, when this argument totally showed it to be wrong. He then proceeded to show the flaws in this
argument in a perfectly lucid and orderly way, and I was in awe. It was a beautiful example of how to field
and answer a question/objection during a lecture and turn it in to a teachable
moment that went far beyond the lesson he had originally presented.
And this is not about IQ or being smart or not.
Medical research journals for example are replete with logically faulty
conclusions drawn from perfectly good data discovered by obviously intelligent
and knowledgeable researchers. That is
part of the reason favored treatments of today become prohibited tomorrow. They
were never justified by the original data in the first place.
Some of these students will complain that the teacher thinks there is a right
answer and tells them it – if the answer is derived using reasons given, rather
than pointed out where it is in the book or the Internet. They think it means
you have to be able to correctly guess what the teacher has in mind or “wants”
for the answer.
 One of my better classroom teaching moments probably could not have been done effectively, if at all, in an asynchronous environment. I had made the point that we don’t normally desire things in order to get happiness from them, but that we normally get happiness from pursuing and achieving things we desire. A student tried to support that view but gave an example in the reverse. He said that he had always wanted to water ski and had even bought a boat but had never been able to actually water ski – he could never get up onto the skis though he had tried a lot and friends who could ski tried to help and teach him. But he wanted to water ski because it would make him happy. The ensuing exchange in the classroom between him and me went like this:
“You don’t know it would make you happy; you’ve never been able to do it.”
“I’ve seen it make other people happy, and I want to be happy like them.”
“But twenty minutes ago in the previous discussion, you said you have seen people happily eat raw oysters and that you would never try that; you thought it was disgusting.”
“But water skiing looks like fun.”
“Why? Not because the people doing it are happy, or eating raw oysters would look like fun.”
“Well, I want to water ski so I can go fast on the water.”
“But you can do that in your boat. In fact, except for maybe slaloming or something of that sort, you can’t go any faster on the skis than you can in the boat. And if your boat is really powerful, you can probably go a lot faster in the boat than you ever could on skis.”
“Then why do I want to learn to water ski?”
“I don’t know; but because you do want to learn, you will probably really be excited when you actually are able to do it. As I said, the desire comes first, not the thought of happiness. If you didn’t have the desire, it would probably not make you happy, just as eating raw oysters would not likely make you happy.”
 With the modern emphasis on “learning styles”, which I think is not as important as it is made out to be (see “Learning Styles?” http://www.garlikov.com/teaching/Lstyles.htm), the apparently obvious skill necessary for online courses is the ability to read; onground, the ability to listen. But most American college students can read and listen only in the sense of distinguishing the words and sentences used. What many or most cannot do well is to comprehend the ideas and relationships expressed in speech or writing because they do not actively seek to make sense or find the deeper significance of the statements they hear or read. I don’t see a significant difference between student understanding of concepts, ideas, and relationships when they read or hear the same statements. And theoretically, reading offers a better chance to understand complex ideas because you can keep all the statements of the explanations in front of you while you work your way through them to try to grasp their meaning and significance. It is like the difference between being given a list of directions in speech versus in writing.
 Both onground and online, one runs into a pedagogical problem that has to be faced in one way or another. Some students don’t read the assignments at all or they don’t read them with any kind of care or diligence – at best, they skim. (One online student told me he was no good at reading and hated doing it. I didn’t ask why he chose to take the course online then, but many students have told me they were told online courses are easy and you don’t have to do much work. That is not the way it should be, but alas it often is – which makes it more difficult for those teachers who really are trying to teach and not just give a grade for paying tuition and showing up. Another online student let me know up front that he was blind; really. And I thought this was going to be interesting. He had someone who read the work to him, and he was doing well in the course until she was no longer available to help him. I was really sad to see him go, not only for his sake, but because I wanted to have the bragging rights that I taught so well that a blind man was able to learn from me in an online course.) In some cases with online textbooks, students don’t see there are more pages or some other section that has to be read because the webpage design format of the assigned readings doesn’t have a “next” link or the link is some unmarked, obscure icon no one would think was a link. The pedagogical problem is those occurrences are difficult to distinguish from cases where students did read the material but neither understand it nor ask any questions to assist their understanding. In order to teach the material better when a student shows lack of understanding of the assigned reading, it is important to find out what they do know or have gleaned from the reading, or how they understood the material, and when they show no sign of having read it, the inclination is to point out they need to read it. But students who have read it and just not understood it, and those who are determined to lie about having read it, become outraged (or feign outrage) that the teacher is implying they have not read the material, even if the teacher only points out there is a link icon they might not have seen and it is not the student’s fault s/he did not read the whole assignment.
 Here is an example of a multiply redundant posting to try to reinforce information the students should know. I sent it as an e-mail when I posted my answers for the discussion question for the first week, and I also posted it as an announcement in the announcement sections of the course. It includes much information they have already been given, but it also explains some things from a different angle:
I have posted my answer to the Discussion Board question about date-breaking; and I also posted a second post that gives my brief comments to the items on the "running list". You are responsible for reading those, as you are also responsible for reading all the posts for the week that I and your classmates have made. The teaching I do in this course is in my responses to each student and in my own posts, along with announcements, and, of course, my Introduction to Ethics, which is the two chapters assigned for reading the first two weeks. So I want you all to read all that, attentively and reflectively. Plus, much of the material in here is cumulative, and I take off more and more as the term goes on for answers that show unfamiliarity with what has come before. So both educationally and gradewise, you should read everything in here carefully.
This all applies to future week's as well. I will post my answer each week on Sunday morning. That is not meant to be the last word, and you should respond to it with any questions, comments, or disagreements, but it basically ends the grading part of the discussion (unless you point out a mistake I made). I will post grades in the grading area as soon as I am able to. Normally that will be by sometime on Tuesdays if possible.
A couple of people this week missed the Saturday deadline. The first week I tend to allow that, but not in future weeks. There are conditions that can make me think a late answer or further response is worthy of being graded, but it has to go well beyond the kind of information already posted by me or by others.
Every term, I am besieged by all kinds of excuses for work being late, some of which if true would be legitimate, but many of which are not really legitimate even if true, and I have a difficult time trying to decide what is ethically right for me to do in those cases. So I want to particularly commend [student’s name] this week who did not get signed in to the course until very late this week and who still did all the work and had it in on time and did it really completely and pretty well for the first week's assignment. I hope that insofar as you all are able to emulate her effort under adverse pressures, you will do so.
That being said, many of you work and have families and some of you are even deployed on military assignments and not really the masters of your own schedule. I try to make allowances, but I also have to be sure your grade reflects what it should for the integrity of the school and the subject matter. And while I try to individualize instruction for those who have to miss a discussion, I can't do that if there are too many, particularly with insufficient excuses. It helps when you work as [student’s name] did, insofar as you reasonably can. Some of the rest of you also went beyond the minimal requirements of the assignment to have good, sustained discussions that showed you were truly interested in the material, and I appreciate that. That is what I seek in here.
I do have some ways for people to make up work if necessary, but you basically have to answer a different question that will take more work on your part, or you have to go well beyond my, and your classmates', posted answers and the discussion for the week to show you really understand all the points made. I hope that doesn't have to happen very often, if at all. And I won't be able to do it if too many people try to take advantage of it or misuse it.
In some online courses, there is either no incentive, or there is an actual
disincentive, for students to respond early to assignment questions which are
graded. Those who respond first may be
more likely to answer incorrectly and then not be permitted to amend their
answers. The incentive needs to be for
students to respond early and as often as the discussion shows they need to
amend their answers or as it inspires them to have new ideas about the
material. If that does not occur, online courses cannot cover the material as
well as a decent classroom discussion can, and much of the significance of the
material will not become apparent to students.
The amount of time allotted to cover the subject matter will have
elapsed without sufficient discussion to foster ideas or interest. So if a topic is to be covered in a week, and
the directions for students are to respond initially on the fifth day and then
to comment on two other students’ answers, typically many students will wait
until the fifth day and then make perfunctory comments to two others, and may
not even visit the online classroom again.
Whereas if the assignments are structured in a way that has students
respond early and be collectively and individually responsible for achieving a
good answer or solution about the problems posted, there is likely to be far
more discussion and progress in the week in which the topic is covered. I have
seen five or six students solve a major problem in a few hours by collaborative
debate and discussion between the time I was last online in the course and the
time I checked back in to see what was new.
That is, as of this writing, not the norm, but it happens. The trick is
to try to figure out ways to make it be the norm in an asynchronous
classroom. One way is to have students
give, and teach them how to give, more complete answers with examples and
explanation, so that other students can see the problems with those answers and
respond accordingly. And it is important
to teach students how to read and listen for understanding, and motivate them
to do it.
But in today’s culture where students tend to give
extremely short, text message type of responses even to complex subjects, that
is difficult to bring about. It is not
helped by students all having the same conventional beliefs as each other on
top of their reluctance to give fuller explanations and rationales for
them. They think their views are obvious
and obviously correct. I teach online courses at two different schools with
onground campuses, one in the South, and one with students in campuses in many
major cities across the U.S. When
teaching the same topics in ethics, the southern students tend to be as
adamantly unreasoning about their mistaken simplistic conservative views as the
students in the other school are to be about their mistaken simplistic liberal
views. In teaching logic, most students everywhere make the same common
mistakes, and when they give no or only very short explanations for their
conclusions, they are not likely able to help each other find those mistakes.
So I tend to think that one of the most important online cultural paradigms to
shift is in getting students to communicate more completely by giving fuller
explanations with reasons that support their conclusions. That is difficult in today’s climate of
students brought up with standardized, short-answer, testing, political debates
conducted in sound bites, and text messaging in sub-cultures that discourage
independent thinking and reasoned civil disagreement.
 Essentially some of the same skill and understanding is required to do this as is required to being able to understand and develop concepts and ideas in the first place and to have a productive discussion about them: 1) seeing a gap in your or someone else’s understanding and being able to explain what the gap is and filling in that gap reasonably, 2) being able to see and say what evidence you have, if any, that contradicts your or someone else’s explanation, conclusion of it, or the rationale given for it, or pointing out evidence that cannot be explained by it, or that shows it to be flawed or inadequate in any way you can describe or even hint at. 3) being able to propose, if possible, what different idea or modification of the one given that would be better, stating why?
A simple example is from when I was six or seven and asked my mother “how babies get inside the mommy’s tummy”. She told me that the daddy plants the seed. I accepted that and didn’t think to ask about the process, assuming, I guess, that he gave her something to eat, like a watermelon seed. But I used to watch I Love Lucy and when the episode came on where she became pregnant, it was all about her concern about telling her husband Ricky. That puzzled me, and so I asked my mother: If the daddy plants the seed, how come Ricky doesn’t already know Lucy is going to have a baby? My mother’s response was that the seed doesn’t always grow. That satisfied my curiosity for years.
More complex examples, but of the same process, are
shown on the medical TV show, House,
every week, where they are always trying to make their diagnoses and treatments
square with the symptoms, test results, and anything else they know about the
patient. Whenever anything isn’t
consistent or is not explained by the diagnosis, they are not done, and they
have to describe that and resolve it.
I have written about this in various ways in essays at www.garlikov.com, some of which are: