Monday, March 29, 2010

A Follow-Up on Webinars

In a comment to my post asking why webinars always suck, Dr. Crazy brought up a great point:

What's really interesting to me about this post (and I agree that webinars DO suck) is that your complaints sound very similar to my *students'* complaints about web-based courses. They take them because they fit their scheduling needs or because they are only offered on the web (as is true of some courses within some majors at my institution, one of which I teach), and yet, their experiences are, from their reports, sucky in comparison with their experiences in F2F classes. And yet, many institutions push online teaching as the solution to a great many things - space problems and budget crunches primary among them - without offering instructors the support they need to make sure these classes DON'T suck, and without ever asking students what their experiences in these courses actually are.

I suppose what I'm wondering is whether we can use a critique of webinars to help shed some light on some of the problems with taking classes in an online environment for students?

Have to admit, I haven't been able to shake this one.

On my campus, the course completion rates for online classes matches the rate for onsite classes. Pass rates, student evaluations, and all of the 'objective' numerical stuff matches within a margin of error, so based on the admittedly-reductionist measures to which I have access, things seem reasonably fine.

Of course, it took a few years to get there, and my campus hasn't made some of the mistakes with online classes that others have. Faculty get paid the same either way, and the course caps are either identical or slightly lower for online sections. The budget savings, to the extent we have any, are restricted to not having to add classrooms. (Given the expense of building, heating, and maintaining classrooms, that's not to be sneezed at.) We have some online tutoring -- not as much as I'd like, but some -- and a relatively robust (for our size) support system. We've also followed a policy of not assigning online classes to anybody who doesn't want to teach them, so the faculty have self-selected. Given the patterns of student demand, I don't know if we'll be able to maintain that policy forever, but it's not in any imminent danger.

Every so often we lose a semester's momentum to a platform migration -- ditching Blackboard for Sakai, for example -- but that hasn't proven fatal.

All of that said, though, I've never heard a student say she prefers online classes. I've heard some say that they'd never take one, or that they took one and hated it, and I've heard some say that they're fine, but I've never heard one seek one out for any reason other than scheduling. (I hear the 'scheduling' one a lot.) I hadn't put that together until now.

That doesn't hold true for some of the other formats we use. I've heard students seek out Learning Communities by name, and occasionally someone will ask about Honors. But I've never heard a non-logistical preference for online.

When I taught a 'hybrid' class -- some onsite, some online -- the online part worked fairly well for certain kinds of exposition, but the discussion frequently lagged. Part of that was inconsistent writing ability among the students, but part of it seemed to inhere in asynchronous communication. When the discussion got confused, it was much quicker and easier to clear it up in the subsequent class meeting, since everybody was present at the same time. In class, I could also read facial expressions and intonations -- as could the students -- which obviously didn't hold for the online part. That didn't matter much for basic information, but it mattered a great deal when the subject shifted from 'here's what it is' to 'what do you think?'

In the webinars in which I've participated -- more accurately, to which I've been subjected -- a similar pattern held. The relatively straightforward expository part wasn't awful, even if it didn't usually amount to much more than looking at some prose-heavy PowerPoint slides and listening to echo-y audio with lots of 'um's.' But the mechanisms for interaction were so clunky and delayed that they might as well not have been there. If you've had the pleasure of enduring a webinar in a group, you've probably noticed that the intramural conversation in the room quickly becomes far livelier -- and often funnier -- than the bad AM radio sound coming from wherever. After a while, it starts to take on a Mystery Science Theater vibe, in which the dangerously bored audience starts an increasingly acidic commentary on the hopelessly out-of-touch performance.

The literature I've seen on the subject has noted that students learn the most in 'hybrid' formats, in which different elements of the class are apportioned to either online or onsite, and that makes sense to me. I could easily imagine a lab science class working beautifully in a hybrid format -- put the expository lectures online, and hold the labs in labs. Any subject that lends itself to a split between relatively neutral "here's what it is" presentation and more thoughtful discussion could probably do this mode well. But on the campuses I've seen, students avoid hybrid classes like the plague.

Since I'm more removed from daily instruction than many of my wise and worldly readers, I'll turn it over to you. Have you found ways to make online class discussions as good as onsite? Alternately, have you learned anything from the earthly purgatory of webinars that helped you improve an online class?