Sunday, October 11, 2009

Simultaneity in online teaching

I've meant to post for weeks about my online teaching experience, and I've never really gotten to it, in part because it's connected to a lot of larger issues that I've been considering.

But for now, a straight report: I thought it went quite well. We used the chat function in UCB's online course management system, BSpace, so it was basically a 1990s-style chat room. (Do chat rooms still exist? -- versus, say, group chat on Skype?)

The topic of discussion was a classic article on composition pedagogy by Nancy Sommers and Laura Saltz, "The Novice as Expert." I love it because it invites students to think critically about their own positions as composition students. It allows students to take what Sommers and Saltz argue is a necessary step on the road to mature writing: to take experiences and concerns that are personal and abstract them. Consequently, the students took the discussion personally in the best possible way: it was at once theoretical and applicable.

Occasionally people indulged in pronouncements about how writing should be taught (fire away, folks, but that paper's still due on Friday), but they mostly stayed on task. This was lucky, because of one feature of the online chat that I hadn't quite anticipated was the proliferation of independent conversations. The chat software enforces a linearity that promotes simultaneity.

Here's what I mean by that: in a classroom, you're engaged in speech, and speech is bound in time. If two people talk at the same time, neither will be heard properly. Students have to restrain themselves, or in some rare cases I have to restrain them, so that discussion can proceed in an orderly and audible fashion. I know I've sat on an idea in many a class, frustrated in the knowledge that by the time so-and-so stopped talking, the moment, and the idea, would have passed, and I would never get to say my piece.

This is not an issue in an online chat, because the software enforces linearity for you. You can stop listening/reading, because you can just scroll back up and catch up when you're done thinking about whatever you're thinking about. You can blurt out your idea when you have it, because the software makes it physically impossible to interrupt. The linearity of the conversation stream, which is enforced by the software, means that students are freed from time's winged chariot in composing and responding to comments. Simultaneity becomes an option for them, because the software will render the many different thoughts and conversations going on in a linear sequence on their behalf.

The result was that there were a lot of simultaneous (and vigorous) conversations going on at once, to which everyone was privy. It was difficult to change topics (as I needed to do so we could talk about their upcoming assignment) because several students were selectively paying attention to, and participating in, certain conversations.

I'd like to follow this up with the aforementioned connections, but I think it would be better for me to go grade some papers. I'll dump some names for now, and with any luck I'll get back to the topic sooner or later. Some names: Cathy Davidson, Larry Eigner, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Hillary Gravendyk, Jonathan Crary, Walter Benjamin.

By the way, regarding emoticons: it turned out that I was the primary perpetrator of smiley faces. It's much more difficult to soften a "that was incorrect" in text, I find, than face to face. So corrections and disagreements often came with smiley faces from me. I think it's important for the teacher to be aware of the chilling effects of her apparent displeasure, and in a classroom it's easy for intellectual issues to get confused with personal ones (e.g., students' common misconception that a low grade reflects a teacher's personal dislike rather than the quality of the work). Consequently, I'm okay with using goofy emoticons from time to time to defuse any misperception of disapproval.

1 comment:

skg said...

(Do chat rooms still exist? -- versus, say, group chat on Skype?)

Sure. Y!M still permits user-created chat rooms, as well as hosting a bunch I've never looked at. Their model is very much what Skype's group chat has borrowed and slightly improved.

For that matter, IRC is still going strong, although it's been yeeeeears since random undergrads had reason to learn about IRC as an alternative to person-to-person ytalk, in the days before Y!M. :P