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    Online Grammar Course


John Sklute. PhD
Educational Technology One
Fall, 2003
Sabri Bebawi, Instructor


In part, the readings assigned for this essay are a review of what I already know; in part the articles are preaching to the choir, for, by the persuasive power of Melanie Levinson, I have come to believe in the value of on-line education, particularly in writing.  Most important for me, therefore are the technological and academic matters that the writings speak to and some matters that the writings do not. 

With respect to technology, these readings address the significant aspects of on-line education that have been practiced in this very Educational Technology One course—planning a syllabus in terms of modules, creating shells and filling them with introductory materials and critical thinking questions, establishing bulletin boards, creating chat rooms for generating and manipulating information and communication.  

From an academic point of view, the readings deal with the value of on-line courses in comparison to the same courses as taught in the classroom.  They deal, for instance, with identifying the kind of student who would, or would not, thrive in such a course, the responsibilities of students, the ways in which this different medium of delivery both demands student in-put (a very keen and valuable point, especially in lecture-type courses) but equally well allows for asynchronous communication, usually at the student’s convenience.  Further, from an academic perspective, there even is discussion of administrative and accreditation issues—how many units is a course worth in terms of instructor input, for instance, and how justly to articulate an instructor’s time spent on-line according to standard methods of classroom loading. 

These readings thus convince of the value of on-line education and the effectiveness of on-line courses.  Any course, presumably, can be equally well presented in the on-line format and in the classroom format; the method of evaluation can be even better done on-line, for this format allows for direct revision of student writing; also, the tempo of the syllabus can be established and altered according to need throughout the term as well in on-line courses as in the classroom. 

Despite the value of what the articles do present, they do not address certain crucial procedural issues and affective matters that instructors, especially veteran instructors like me, would find useful to know when moving from classroom presentation of material to on-line presentation, procedures that would reassure instructors even more skeptical than I that their established and presumably successful courses could be equally as successful on line.   The procedural matters have to do with course form and the time-line for course preparation.  The affective matters have to do with what, for want of  better terms, I will call the je ne sais quoi or charisma of the live performance, the effects of which create a student following from semester to semester, generate a good professorial reputation, and educate students well.

The readings not unreasonably assume that the method of delivery in the live classroom is in the form of lecture, so they address and contrast on-line methods with it.  The writings do not, however, address how other course forms might fit on-line procedures.  In my case the course form I have been using since the 1980s is commonly called the seminar—wherein students sit in a discussion circle and take turns questioning the texts that have been assigned, the responsibility of answering resting with the other students in the class.  This kind of student focused course form has gained increasing popularity in the past decades, and in addition to me are utilized by several members of the English Dept., Marty Kendall, Michelle Blair in particular.

Instructors of such a seminar course form could find on-line teaching directly applicable to their method, for chat rooms enable and require input from all students to the topic at hand.  The instructor as the facilitator can in advance call upon one student to ask the group a question, then direct the answers in a quay (I carefully select and keep track of who is called, how often, who answers and how often).  Everyone thus gets a chance to respond to or answer that student’s question. 

Thus there is an advantage in the ability to have asynchronous answering, which gives all students the opportunity to state their perceptions without the limitations of a time-bound classroom.  There is also the strengthening effect of creating side conversations between two or more students of similar or even opposing opinions, which cannot take place even in a seminar method form, for it would disrupt procedures. 

However, what happens to the subtle but  kind of communication by body language and tone of voice, which that often enormously revealing in a discussion circle?  It never ceases to amaze me that the way a student sits or raises his or her voice during a discussion ignites kinds of curiosity (sometimes enthusiasm, sometimes hostility) in the rest of the group, which is pedagogically useful, especially in critical thinking courses.   An on-line course can (at this point in technology) only express all of this communication through language, through style.  Assuming that one accepts physical phenomena as a part of the rhetoric of  communication, I cannot figure out how an on-line format can experience the community feeling that happens in the workshop mode of the seminar form, especially not when the feeling is generated spontaneously. Perhaps there is an article that can help me with this matter, one that might be pointing to using, perhaps methods of videoconferencing.

Of less mystery to me than how to reproduce the rhetoric of body language and vocal tone for educational effect is the time-line issue of creating on-line courses.  Although the preparation time for an on-line course is presumably equal to preparation time for a classroom course, the time-line of the preparation is different, and this difference may be crucial to instructors.  Typically I have selected my texts significantly before the semester began.  This is also done in on-line courses.  Typically as well the syllabus for my courses, or some reasonable facsimile thereof, has been blocked out, even written, before the course begins.  However, not until shortly before the class hour itself--sometimes a day, sometimes an hour—have I really focused on how to deliver significant information or how to reach the specific goal of that that particular class, and, more subtly, what route I will take to get there.  Especially when teaching a piece of rich literature, my goals during a class have frequently changed, depending on the particular needs of the class, its background knowledge.  Thus the flexibility of class preparation has been essential to my success as an instructor.  When I delivered lectures to several hundred students at Berkeley, for instance, I usually planned (but never wrote) my lectures the night before they were given.  In the case of seminar method courses, that I have been using in community colleges, on the other hand, I’ve used my long commute as a time to play around in my mind with focus, or direction, or pace of the upcoming class.

Quite differently, an on-line course must be written out in advance of the class, often in advance of the course itself, or at least modules (or weeks) before.  This difference has been the single most significant factor in keeping me from putting courses on line heretofore.  Given my work schedule, especially since teaching at community colleges, I have simply been unable to put away enough time in advance of the course to develop lectures, class questions, introductions, and advisories on how to read or understand a text in advance of the course itself.  This has especially been true in courses that I have been developing, such as the Short Story, or the Lesbian/Gay Literature, where initial research of an essential, sometimes extensive, bibliography has been necessary.  

I am aware that one doesn’t have to write an entire course before the course is given on line, that a few modules at a time will work so long as one keeps a few weeks ahead of the students in the preparation of the syllabus.  Nonetheless, the crucial difference for the instructor in class preparation of the two kinds of courses under discussion is necessary lead-time.  An on-line course must be both written, and written in advance of the class, whereas the classroom course can be organized, reorganized, thought out, re-thought out,  on the way to the class itself.

In addition, because of the asynchronic nature of delivery in an on-line class, the

 introductory lectures have to be posted in advance, and once the lecture or

 introduction is written and posted, there is no way to make ON THE SPOT,

 changes the way an instructor in a classroom structure might, no way to

 introduce spontaneously historical or factual matters that the class might need.

 Admittedly, after the fact, changes can be made and information provided, but I

 think such a way of providing information, if used too often, would be

 ineffective pedagogy.

Finally, there is the issue of what I have called the je ne sais quoi or charisma of the teacher.  It is often remarked that teachers especially at the college level are frustrated actors, hams, one might say.  In my own university education, I remember being drawn to courses not simply because of the content—within a major course of study one usually has leeway to choose from a list—but because the professor was renowned to be an excellent teacher.  And I have profited from such an experience insofar as I have modeled my own methods on those of the most effective teachers I myself have had.  Who I am as a teacher is more than an amount of knowledge that I can deliver to or evince from students.  And what I can teach them is more than facts and content. 

Of course, one shows personality in writing, and writing can carry with it liveliness, depth, provocation, sympathy, wit, etc.  But insofar as the medium is the message, the written medium cannot fully produce “the smiles, the frowns, the ups, the downs” of a live presentation or performance. 

Moreover, a live performance gains enormously from silences, carefully controlled to manipulate an audience into thinking about a point.  Even in seminar method classes, where my profile is considerably lower than in lecture courses, I have found that after a student has asked a question or challenged a response, my sitting silently without saying a word has created a useful discomfort in the class that frequently has caused students to rethink their assumptions.  In other words, silence is a powerful tool for causing students to think critically.  I have not figured out how this can be done on-line, and I would love to see an article that addresses these powerful methods of teaching.

There is yet another aspect to this issue of je ne sais quoi or charisma that I have been unable to foresee developing from an on-line course:  Just as my own practice as an instructor (and ham) have been modeled after the excellent teachers I have had, so too have other students (God help them!) have modeled themselves after me.  When students return or write years later to tell me that their lives have changed because of studying with me, I know it is not necessarily Thoreau, or Aristotle, or even Shakespeare who have changed their lives but the ways in which they have been led into textual analysis and the identification of their own prejudices and points of view in the reading of Thoreau, or Aristotle, or even Shakespeare.   Try as I might, I do not understand how an on-line course can deliver that richness.

Having brought up these issues that are not discussed in the texts, issues directly related to instructional methods and forms of classes, I aver that I am still convinced that certain courses are possible on line, especially writing courses.  Your article on the way in which reading can be taught on line is alluring as well.  I would like to believe that other kinds of courses can successfully be taught on line, and Melanie’s course in American Literature certainly gives the lie to the notion that literature can’t effectively be taught on line.  Nonetheless, it would be enormously encouraging to me and to others like me if there were an article for instructors, different from those addressing “how to” construct the course, if there were an article that spoke directly to the practical issue of preparation and if there were an article, more philosophical perhaps in orientation, that spoke to the issue of professorial charisma.

As a further consideration of matters with respect to on-line courses, I’m wondering how functional and in what ways Video streaming might be used in teaching an on line course.  In my own imagination, the instructor can be talking to the cam live, something like those old fashioned video courses like the Sunrise Semester that were popular in the 60s, but enlivened by the ability to stream the presentation asynchronously as well as to have chats, etc.  In such a circumstance, the instructor might even have a “studio audience”-- always useful in enlivening television shows-- of, say, a half dozen students, who might themselves channel for the larger on-line group something of the alchemy that takes place in a live classroom.  


Guidelines for Good Practice: Technology Mediated Instruction:  http://www.sabri.org/EDTECH-01/good-practice.htm 

Implementing Effective Technology Integration: http://www.sabri.org/EDTECH-01/Assignments.htm   

In Defense of Computer Assisted Reading Instruction: http://www.sabri.org/EDTECH-01/Cari.html  

Online Learning in Brief : http://www.sabri.org/EDTECH-01/online-learning.htm  

What is Online Education? http://www.sabri.org/EDTECH-01/Definition.htm  

Who Should Attend Online Courses : http://www.sabri.org/EDTECH-01/who_should_attend.htm