Sunday, September 10, 2017


Kinda/Sorta Online

Several years ago, back at Holyoke, a professor asked me why we required every January intersession class to have an online component.  He was prepared to rebut arguments from technophilia, futurism, and pedagogy, but he wasn’t prepared for the answer I gave:

Snow days.

In January in New England, it’s reasonable to expect snowstorms.  A bad one might close schools for two or three days at a time.  When intersession is only two or three weeks, losing several consecutive days could be educationally devastating.  A year or so later, that actually happened: we had a nasty storm that closed the college for two days during intersession.  Had it not been for the mandatory online component, some classes would have been thrown for loops.  Students who couldn’t make it to campus could still go online, so it was still possible to have some sort of educationally substantive interaction.

This Fall, the barrage of hurricanes is making the point even more strongly that an online component to a class can be part of a resilience plan.  But that involves getting over the strict binary that so many people assume about online teaching.  Classes can be entirely online, entirely onsite, or some of both.  That last category has real benefits.

On campus, we distinguish between “hybrid” or “blended” classes on one side and “web-enhanced” classes on the other.  The former involves reducing the amount of required class time and replacing it with online activities; the latter involves having a “shell” of the class online, but still conducting the regular onsite class in the regular onsite timeslot.  

The advantage of the fully blended format is that it allows for different activities to be offered in different formats, ideally allowing for the best of both worlds.  But student demand for those classes tends to be modest at best; they don’t recognize it as either fish or fowl, so they stay away.  

Web-enhanced classes fly below the radar of popular discussion, even though they also offer some real advantages.  At a really basic level, having course documents on the LMS means that the professor doesn’t have to keep bringing copies to class, and students can’t lose them.  The LMS option also allows for classes to accomplish something of substance when the professor gets sick, or observes a religious holiday, or has some sort of personal life obstacle (car trouble, often) that prevents showing up on a given day.  It offers an easy way for students to track their grades over the course of the semester, and, should a professor have to step away from the course due to illness, provides the substitute with some basis for moving forward.

And yes, it’s a nifty and effective backup for campus closures due to weather or other external conditions.

The backup option isn’t perfect, of course.  It relies on every instructor to make a good-faith effort to use the LMS effectively; most do, but we have some holdouts.  It assumes that whatever the weather event was didn’t affect electricity, which is usually true, but not always.  And it assumes that every student has reliable access, which is truer than it used to be, but still not a given.

Still, getting past the binary of “onsite” or “online” classes and recognizing that the two modes can complement each other, even in the same course, offers benefits that look like they might come in handier as the weather gets hairier.

Wise and worldly readers who teach web-enhanced classes, have you found other benefits to that format?

If the handouts and assignments are public, rather than buried behind an LMS wall of secrecy, then the documents are useful to advisers and students trying to determine readiness for a particular course. They can also help a student who wants to study ahead before taking a course, to avoid falling behind in the event of "life events".
Is it really that students don't recognize the hybrid as useful, or is it that hybrid really DOESN'T fit their needs?

A student who needs all- or mostly-online because they can't get to campus every day will not want a class that requires campus class time + online.
A student who needs to minimize online requirement because their situation doesn't include reliable internet access will not want a class that requires significant online components + campus class time.

Weather resilience may convince staff and faculty who need to do both anyway, but students can and will choose one. And they ought to be able to.
"Web enhanced" sounds a lot like just what we all do at this point anyway. But one of the real advantages of the LMS that I hadn't thought of until I started doing it--- students can turn in work on days that class doesn't meet, and are MUCH more likely to read my comments than when they were written in the margins of paper copies.
Having an online component to "a" class is not enough. As you note in your example, you must have a significant online component to every class if that online component is going to suffice when the college is physically closed. If you include a lab class that must meet physically on campus, the hybrid part that we have for our lab classes will not replace the actual experiment. (You also need off-site hosting in a place that is not affected by the event, if the devastation is like it is for the college down in the Keys. But even that can backfire: my OER text is hosted by Rice in, you guessed it, Houston. The book was alive, but bandwidth was reduced.)

I have been doing "web enhanced" classes since the 1990s, and I keep part of that because I like the fact that students can be sent there before classes start. A single link is better than a long e-mail, although neither is any guarantee that most students will see the message. (The same applies to notices sent after a storm. I have data on the fraction who did the on-line assignment and were ready for the open-notes quiz after we reopened. Less than 10%.) That said, I agree that an LMS has huge advantages with respect to submitting homework at a time and from a place that is convenient.

That said, the value of a good LMS, like the utility of hybrid classes versus 100% on-line classes, is a completely separate issue. My department's response to "Unknown @6:47AM" above is that success rates in fully on-line classes are significantly lower than in the same class taught in hybrid or f2f format. Until we find a filter (that can be enforced at registration) that solves that problem, giving students an easier way to fail is not a primary goal of our department.
Agreed - I orient students to using Adobe Connect every semester so that we can meet virtually in real time when there are snow days or (here down South) hurricanes as long as the power doesn't go out. My adult students who are working full time and commuting from Atlanta value the ability for us to meet virtually a few times a semester in addition to some face to face meetings.
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