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?