(in-progress – for the 2013 edition of magazine Connections – FLANC)
The importance of confronting the challenges of online classes and preventing those challenges, I would suggest, is more important than foreseeing the opportunities the classes will offer. The possibilities are unlimited in every class. However, understanding its level of unpredictability, seem to be common ground on online classes. My experiences training online instructors have shown me that many who are interested in teaching online classes do not anticipate these difficulties. For this reason, I would like to discuss some of the more important challenges, perhaps not to suggest that I have a simple solution for them, but to place them in the center of the discussion with the hope that some of these ideas might be useful to the community of educators who are interested in exploring the field of instructional technologies and online education.
Online classes are basically not so different from regular face-to-face classes. The dynamics are similar but the representation of these dynamics in virtual space creates the illusion of discrepancy between these two modes of teaching. The forum in which the interaction takes place is the challenge. Furthermore the challenge becomes magnified by the fact that in many cases the students have a great deal of expertise in the area of virtual space and none in the subject studied while the instructor has exactly the opposite type of expertise.
Since the evolution of instructional technology, and virtual technologies, continues creating new paradigms in this area, the issue is not going to change much in the near future. Students already arrive in class with their own virtual styles, codes and behaviors, and these virtual styles may contrast enormously from what instructors might think is appropriate behavior in a class. Let us take for example the issue of plagiarism. Students are accustomed to having access to all types of information immediately on the internet, a process that is passive in nature and does not require any manipulation or criticism of the information. It is difficult for them to distinguish between a peer-reviewed paper and a Wikipedia or personal website article. Furthermore, plagiarism on the internet is a common practice. People copy entire paragraphs and reproduce them without proper citation practices on practically any social media on the internet. So the question is not, why plagiarism is epidemic today but how can we make it clear to students that a virtual class is not a simple social media platform? The project of trying to change the virtual reality of the internet does not work. However, at the same time, in a virtual classroom, we want to use these preexisting social media dynamics and codes because this platform and virtual universe are common place for students; they are familiar with this type of virtual reality, they feel comfortable in it. I will say, it is who they are.
Let us now explore some of the most common challenges of the online composition class.
Lack of participation
We used to say in graduate school that if you listen to a conference presentation about online classes in which the presenter claim that the forum participation is exceptionally active, perhaps it is time to leave the presentation. Participation is almost always a challenge. There are some sporadic cases in which this is not the case; but in those cases it would not be the entire class that is actively participating but rather a small subgroup. The principal of active participation and spontaneous interest for the subjects presented on the online class does not seem to work as it does in social groups. The distinction between participation for personal interest and entertainment it is very difficult to reproduce in the virtual classrooms.
Fear of making mistakes in public
The classroom atmosphere does not engender enthusiastic participation, but rather seems to foster fear of making mistakes. We could argue that this is not unique to the virtual classroom but it is obvious that the contract between student and instructors, that dictates that participation and assignments are quantified and qualified, magnifies this deep-set fear. The tendency of some students to copy instructor’s statements or quote the teacher’s ideas to the extreme in exams and papers, testify to this condition.
Even though the instructor can give extensive indications and suggestions for an assignment, the possibilities for students misunderstanding does not diminish. This confusion will always prevent some students from openly and easily participating in the online class. Even when the instructor actively tries to alleviate this discomfort, the process is already traumatic in some degree.
Virtual space vs. physical space
When instructors offer a class in virtual space, even though we never take this under consideration, we are projecting ourselves into a reality that is not completely familiar to us. It does not matter how much we know about instructional technology or how much time we spend in virtual space. The dynamics of virtual classrooms, and their constant reshaping by the different populations, are unfamiliar to us. One can argue that we can confront a similar situation in face-to-face classes; and to some degree, this is true. However, the factor of constantly reshaping technologies and the enormous distances that we find between virtual generations magnifies the challenge. Many instructors who take on the challenge of offering an online class online do not take this under consideration.
On the other hand, there are some behavioral connections between online and face-to-face classes. An interesting factor in virtual classrooms is that even when we interact and communicate in virtual space, in reality we are, most of the time, evoking physical space. The techniques used in class, for example, in a Socratic-seminar type of debate, have the same principles online. The discussion in the forum has the same dynamics as in a physical class discussion except that is written and not oral. However, these basic techniques and what seem like minor differences can be magnified on an online language class. And these minor differences become an enormous obstacle to a second langue acquisition student. There is already extensive research about the differences of the speed of acquiring proficiency on the oral and writing area and how the popular methods of teaching today are first focusing on the first area. The communicational approach method exemplifies this idea. Because of the technology available in most of the online classes today (for example on typical LMS like Moodle and Blackboard) online classes today are offered base on the “media” of writing. There are audio and videos components, but most of the active basic discussions are in writing. Even though this reality is a plus for the outcome of the composition sclass, since the exercise of writing is the final purpose of the class, the element of stress that some students have to deal with since the practice is documented publically, has to be taken under consideration.
Choosing the right tool.
Something that we do not always take under consideration when we have to offer material online or create an interactive virtual space is that the tool should not run the designer but the tool is the instrument that helps us to achieve our goal. That is why when we decide to use a tool related to instructional technology in a particular area, it is important to carefully examine why we want to implement this technology and to clearly identify what goal we are trying to achieve and most importantly, pay carefully attention to the feedback students offer us. As Hart says:
In the same way that good classroom teaching uses a variety of techniques to maintain interest and to cater for different student approaches to learning, so too does a good online teaching space require a variety of approaches. A classroom teacher develops teaching strategies both through training and experience. The development of online teaching spaces comes through a knowledge of what the technology can do and experience in how students and teachers react most positively to the technology.
(Hart, Graeme, “Creating an online teaching space”. Australian Journal of Educational Technology, 1996, 12(2), 79-93.)
Difficulties correcting papers
Finally we have to briefly also think about the difficulties that instructors have to confront. We mentioned already the issue of keeping truck of the evolution of technologies. One of these difficulties is the issue of correcting papers online. There are several tools created in platforms where an application is created to record a typical answer that can be easily included in the instructor feedback. This technique/application can be easily reproduced by archiving the suggestions and then copied on the feedback. However, all these automatized techniques are not always useful or even recommended since the students gets an un-personalized and automatized answer that distanced him/her emotionally from the instructor.
 I wrote an article about this topic: Banga, Fabian. “Network of networks, análisis de la metáfora de lo global y lo local en el internet.” Tinta, University of California Santa Barbara, Santa Barbara, 2000.