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?

When I think about an on-line format, I wonder how students with lower reading skills manage. If a student can't read well, how can they read an explanation of something complicated?

I fairly often have students who haven't mastered college level reading; they don't read carefully or don't recognize higher level rhetorical signals. How do you help them master those if you're depending on reading skills?
i remember back when i was an undergrad, and i had a friend who took "Intro to Computers" via an online course. i was amazed at the irony (this was a big state school. the biggest U in the state).

i've never viewed a webinar, online class, or online training that i liked, or that really grabbed my attention. sadly, the best training/education i have ever received online were via YouTube videos that someone uploaded (either a basic 'how-to' on something, or a very polished presentation that was extremely well done).

professors aren't hired for their personalities and their teaching skills (maybe this factors in a little more at a CC, but not at a major U); they are hired for their smarts and their research potential. how are they to know how to express their material through a new medium without having someone show them the rights and wrongs? part of the problem is that professors don't have any training on HOW to teach via correspondence. there is a "trick" to it. you cannot prepare for an online course the same way you prepare for a classroom, and I don't think that most professors make the distinction.

if a professor has never taken an online course, how should they be expected to teach one?

i paid attention 20% of the time in college (engineering grad). this number is so low for 3 reasons (in order of importance):
- the professors inherently did not know how to teach (not to be confused with not knowing their subject/material. they were just awful teachers)
- most of them were non-English speaking teachers with very heavy accents that were hard to decipher
- the content in itself was boring (math is just plain-ol boring sometimes)

the first 2 are 80% of the reason my classmates and i zoned out, but at least we were in class (and we all know that counts for something). i would say that, with the problems listed above, my attention rate of an online course taught by the same professors would have been 1%-5%.
I am teaching an online course right now, that I've taught several times before just fine, and this semester I have a whole rash of students -- nearly half the class -- who simply CANNOT FOLLOW SIMPLE DIRECTIONS. I don't know if it's a literacy issue (though their e-mails are reasonably literate) or just a total lack of investment in the online class or what, but they constantly e-mail me questions that show they haven't even GLANCED at the syllabus, and we had a huge hullabaloo last week when Blackboard kept auto-inserting a broken link and I finally gave up and typed "DO NOT CLICK THIS LINK, IT IS BROKEN. Instead, follow these directions ..."

HALF THE CLASS e-mailed me demanding extra time on the assignment and absolutely frantic about it because they clicked the link and it didn't work and when was I going to fix it?

I also get a lot of demands in online classes that I provide all of the class material, including midterms and finals, NOW, so students can "work at their own pace" because "I have a lot of other classes and don't want to worry about this one." To which I always want to reply, "Well, good thing you can drop it."
Eyebrows' post is a great illustration of the main problem with asynchronous communication, which is not that it's inherently inferior to in-person meetings, but that people ASSUME it is going to take them less time, energy, and effort to deal with.

Almost everyone assumes that if you slap something online, rather than meeting in person, it will save time - and not just save time in general, but that it will save THEM time in particular. There are a lot of sub-assumptions contained in this that most people don't really question.

Like for example, the assumption that you can somehow distill an hour or two of class discussion into fifteen minutes of reading key points, for the same net value.

Or the assumption that an individual can show up on the website whenever - 3 am in their pajamas, if that's convenient! - and engage with the rest of the people in the class in the exact same way that they could if the class was all in a room with each other, talking.

I would be willing to bet that the students who take these courses are not invested in them - because they're invested in other stuff they are doing, and this is something they just want to tick off their list and have done with.

Before correspondence courses happened online, I remember hearing people talk about them in the exact same way. I knew a guy who took three in the same semester he was taking a full time load of regular courses, so he could graduate early - he figured the correspondence courses would take less time, or that he could do them in that magical time that materializes when you don't think too hard about your schedule, or something.

Frankly I think that unless the issue is that a person literally cannot leave their house for some reason, correspondence courses are a bad idea. They certainly aren't a time saver in any meaningful sense - you just can't get the same benefit in the same (or less) time spent, by putting stuff up online. Asynchronous interaction just does not work that way.
Thanks for posting your response to this, DD.

First, I think you're right that the typical measures for figuring out whether such classes work probably do come out about the same as regular classes. BUT. I'm not sure whether that really gives us the information we're asking for, particularly if the evaluations of online (or hybrid) courses don't have specific questions about the technology and how the course worked in that particular medium. At any rate, that's the "objective" info that's not being collected at my shop, and so all I have to go on is what my students tell me, which is something along the lines of:

a) I'm only taking online classes because my schedule is so jam packed with other stuff.

b) Your online course is the only one I've taken (for those who've taken others) that expects any interaction between the classmates.

c) I really don't like online courses, but whatever. I'm just trying to graduate.

Now, on the one hand, I'm all about trying to meet students' scheduling needs to help them get to graduation in a timely fashion. But it does strike me if that's the one thing that students say universally that they're getting from online courses then we're probably doing something wrong pedagogically. I'd say, from my perspective as a teacher, that strong pedagogy should drive instruction, not scheduling needs (of either faculty or students, because I'll freely admit that one of the reasons I agreed to teach online in the first place was to free up MY schedule, and that is really, really lame, but this is not to say that I spend less time on the online class - lots of time I think I spend way more - but it has allowed me to shift my "on-campus" schedule to one that is less brutal.)

Anyway. A few things I've done, with greater and lesser degrees of success depending on the group of students:

1) a course blog, where students are responsible both for posting and commenting. The guidelines for this assignment are LENGTHY so that there is actual interaction that is generated in that forum.

2) Regularly scheduled synchronous chats, where we can brainstorm, touch base about how things are going with the material, and deal with any questions students have about upcoming assignments. Students are not required to attend all of these, but they are required to attend some of them.

I've been teaching online for 2 years, and I think I'm ok at it, but I really don't think, at least as far as I've experienced it over that time, that it's as good a pedagogical environment as the face to face classroom, at least not for my talents as a teacher and for the kind of material I teach. After this semester, I won't be teaching online for the foreseeable future, though I suspect I'll try it again at some point, as dissatisfying as I and the students I've spoken with about online courses seem to find classes in that environment.
Back in the day, I took English 101 online. It was fantastic. Better than didactic non-Honors courses onsite. (Honors courses at community college were a special interactive joy and *did* often surpass any other format at any institution).
We did a *lot* of peer editing, which has served me well as I've advanced in a career with many colleagues whose native language is not English.
A certain level of contribution to the discussion board was required, and I think that helped.

It should be noted that I also took calc 101 online, and while I got some awesome exposure to Mathematica, I stalled out on integrals and did not pass the course (I later took it in person, in a 'small group learning' format, and it wasn't awful, though if I'd taken it concurrently with physics I probably would have gotten the point much sooner).

And finally, I took a regular old physics course with significant online supplementation.

So based on these experiences, I think online courses can be great if you've got a very interactive set of assignments (possibly especially for writing classes, since you invariably get extra practice writing that you would get speaking in a standard format class). In addition, it's great to add online components to a regular class.
HOWEVER, even if the course is well designed it can fail utterly for some students, particularly those that struggle with the material (so you never want to make it the sole way to take a course, if you can help it).
I teach an online math course once every semester. HAve to agree w/ Dr. Crazy re: synchronous lectures/chat. I've used synchronous lectures with quite successfully (you can also use WizIQ). These platforms allow me to use and annotate PPT slides and give an audio lecture at the same time (why our Blackboard does not have this feature, I do not know). Students interact with me via text chat. I put out questions, pause for questions from students. I do not make these virtual lectures mandatory, but a good portion of the class always turns up.

I did have to self teach pointers about voice modulation and ways keep lectures from droning on (tough to do in math:-) I tried setting up a facebook groupe for participation, but that was not a success. I was the only one posting anything! Well, it didn't have points attached to it - maybe that's why.
The single-greatest problem with many courses taught online in higher education? The teacher selection process.

The second single-greatest problem? The course development process.

There is now significant research that shows students are more successful in online courses than in f2f courses. Interestingly, the most successful, according to a meta-analysis of studies, is a blended environment.

That being said, there are teachers/professors that are absolutely convinced that online could not be as good as the lecture that they just delivered. Online courses can use audio (podcasts), video (youtube, vimeo), interactive whiteboards, group discussion rooms, and on and on. While there are certainly instructors that do so, they are not in great numbers.

I teach online courses for graduate students. Time and again, they assert that they prefer them. One of the reasons being time and place (as we get students from all over the country), but also because of the interactive nature.
The best advice I ever got in planning my on-line courses was from a woman who taught online but for her entire teaching career never learned how to use PowerPoint. "Don't expect to just do online what you do in a regular classroom,” she told me, “it just won’t work.”

Interactivity in an on-line environment will never be the same as it is F2F. We choose methods that meet the needs of our students - noone chooses distance ed to increase interactivity - they choose it to solve other problems. The major advantages of synchronous online courses in my experience are as follows. Online courses offer access to a larger number of students over a given geographic area. This means that you can pull together students to make a section big enough to be profitable, even if the subject would only support a full section every other year at the home campus - or make a small but expensive program grow to have more enrollment. It also allows those in rural areas a chance to participate in courses even if they are not near a university. You sacrifice some pedegogical purity on the alter of access. You also (in my case) better meet the needs of your rural clinical sites.

Online courses force students to interact by writing to each other – whether it is via e-mail, on wikis or in blogs – teachers in on-line courses, even if they are synchronous, tend to require more of this type of interaction. This helped my scientist students - they had few other courses that required any writing. Online courses also allow students to work in small groups even if they are geographically separated from each other which mixes things up – one of the most successful things I ever did was have my students write case studies for each other to solve live in class. Even our camera operator had fun with that class.

I make my students jump certain hurdles fairly early in the course to weed out those who aren’t going to make it before the drop deadline. I set up my course so that they can’t get the outline or powerpoint slides until after they have passed a quiz about the syllabus and downloaded and turned in a short assignment. This makes them use every aspect of the website during the first three – four days of the course. If there is a problem, we troubleshoot early enough that it can be fixed or we can work around it. The first class period, I make them use all of the aspects of our on-line meeting room that we will use during the course. This compromises the amount of content we can learn the first week but it forces them to interact through the chat room and breakout rooms early enough that again, I can troubleshoot with those who are truly left behind.

It’s no surprise to me that hybrid courses are not popular at a CC – they combine the disadvantages of both formats in an environment where time and presence are at a premium. I think for students on the edge, those who are struggling with college that the F2F relationship is important. My students were in clinical rotations 32 hours a week and just needed help organizing the material they needed to study for the board exam – a completely different set of needs and skills. They might be better served by sitting in lecture with me each week instead of joining the course on-line. They might also be better served by individual tutoring from experts one-on-one but they're not going to get that either. We do what we can with what we have.
Wikipedia is an example of online learning that works. During the couple of years that I was a high-edit-count editor, I learned at an accelerated pace. There's nothing as motivating as arguing with a @#$%# whom you're determined to prove wrong.

Working on the Muhammad article (which I have since abandoned, as dangerous to my sanity) required a crash course in early Islamic history and led to the acquisition of approximately eight shelf-feet of specialist literature.

I don't know if you could replicate that in a class, but if you could -- if students had to learn the course material in order to engage in fierce argumentation -- you'd have the most successful online classes EVAR.
Disclaimer: I have neither taken nor taught a completely online class. I've avoided them as a student because I find that I learn best by hearing myself talk, so I need to be in an environment where I can ask questions in class (when appropriate) and form an in-person study group outside of class if I'm going to be at my best in something. (I don't even mind "carrying" the study group, since I retain it a lot better if I have to explain it again a time or two after I think I "get" it, so it's usually not too hard for me to form one.) I've never had the chance to teach a class entirely online (I'm at the middle and high school level), but would probably duck it if they wanted me to be responsible for whether or not the kids actually did the work since I think I'm more motivating in person.

As a student, I had one hybrid class that was mostly in-person but required two discussion board posts a week, at least one of which had to be a reply to another student's post. (These were on certain prompts for each week.) I thought that was a pretty effective use of online tools for the course. This was in a pretty obnoxiously PC "diversity issues in education" class which was kind of a multiple-rotating-adjunct trainwreck in-class, but I noticed that a different group of students were active on the discussion board rather than in class. (There were a few vocal students in class who sucked up a lot of discussion time and the main adjunct wasn't very good at reigning in off-topic conversations that were still about diversity issues, particularly his personal hot-button one.) For students who have a hard time getting a word in edgewise face-to-face (this does not describe me at all, I have trouble shutting up in in-person debates and lose interest quickly online) the online message board seemed to be a good way to be heard. This probably wouldn't work at all in a class like calculus, but for a discussion and debate centered class it seemed to really reach additional people.

As a teacher, I love using online course management software for in-person technology classes because it makes my life a lot easier. I used to use Moodle when I taught middle school technology in a computer lab, and it made it very easy to assign and collect work - no paper to keep track of and I could add/change assignments on the fly as needed. I'm pretty sure it would have been a giant mess if the kids hadn't been in the same room with me, though. I'd be happy to try this format for math as well if I ever get the chance to teach it in a computer lab. I could see it going pretty well as a textbook/worksheet replacement. This is definitely a different kettle of fish than an asynchronous or unsupervised online course, though. I don't think most middle school students would have the self-discipline to do an online class without supervision, but I guess I've never tried it either.
I instruct an online mathematics itinerary once each semester. Have to be of the same mind w/ Dr. Crazy re: synchronous lectures/chat. I've worn synchronous lecture by way of reasonably productively. These platform consent to me to use and make notes on PPT slides and give an audio harangue at the same. Students interrelate with me via text chat. I lay out questions, pause for questions preparatory students. I do not create these effective lectures obligatory, but a good fraction of the class for eternity turns up.

I did have to self educate pointer about voice inflection and ways keep lecture from droning on (sturdy to do in math :-) I tried setting up a face book group for involvement, but that was not a success. I was the only one redeployment anything! Well, it didn't have points emotionally involved to it - perhaps that's why.
At our CC, hybrid classes are less popular than both face to face classes and online instruction. My guess is that this is because the hybrid form combines the biggest hassles of both forms... all the problems of online instruction, combined with the scheduling joys of meeting *sometimes* with serious weight on attendance.

Thanks, Dr. Crazy. Excellent advice on improving participation in online classes.
I'm an Academic Advisor at a university where I work with both undergraduate and gradaute students. Part of my population consists of local students who take almost exclusively F2F courses, while another part of my population consists of purely online students. Most of my F2F students would fall into the category you describe and view online courses purely as a scheduling convenience, or, in some of their words, necessary evil, in order to successfully complete their coursework.

I've always had my own personal opinions about online classes and have been able to articulate what I saw as some of the advantages and disadvantages of them, but I will have to say that the single best opportunity I've had to get a true understanding for the advantages and disadvantages of both the F2F and online teaching formats was when I enrolled as an online student myself. While many of my previously held conceptions about online courses have proved to be true, I've found many others to be completely wrong.

One of the most common misconceptions I've found among students is that F2F courses provide for more interaction and discussion than online courses. I used to think this was true, but about a year into taking online courses in my current degree program, I decided to take a F2F course for a change of pace and also to have a more rounded experience so that I could speak in a more informed manner when talking to my students about the two learning formats, and the experience totally changed my mind about this view. If you think about it, in a F2F course, there's actually a very limited amount of F2F time during which discussions can take place. Given the amount of material that most instructors have to cover, there isn't time for every student to contribute to every point of discussion. In contrast, in a well structured online course that makes good use of asynchronous discussion board activities, a student can potentially have very involved and detailed discussions with as many other students as he/she desires. Yes, the discussion takes a different form (i.e., written versus verbal), but even that has advantages, as it allows the participants in the conversation to spend more time formulating and fleshing out the contributions they make to the discussion.

Most students perceive online courses as being harder or requiring more work, and I will say that in my experience I have definitely found this to be true. However, the increased workload, in my opinion, is offset by the increased flexibility that most online courses provide. I love the chance to choose when I do my work (as long as I'm meeting my course's weekly assignment deadlines). I also love the chance to choose how much work to do at any one given time (i.e., it's up to me if I work for an hour or four hours in a given day). My university teaches our F2F courses in a somewhat non-traditional format, as we cater largely to the non-traditional student (though I hate that term). F2F courses can meet for four hours in a single day, and I, for one, have a hard time maintaining focus for that long of a period of time.

More than anything what I strive to do with my students is break down the misconceptions about what online courses are like, talk to them about what their own personal learning goals are, and help them make a good decision about whether online courses are a good match for them. Like any course, online or otherwise, a good learning experience depends on a good instructor, good support from the university, and a solid committment to learning from the student.
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