My adventures in distance education began in the mid-1980s, when I designed and taught a children's literature course for teachers and other time-pressed adults, using the most advanced technology available at the time: the U.S. Postal Service. Then, in 1991, I had another idea. What about offering creative writing as a correspondence course? My administrators at Northern Virginia Community College were enthusiastic, but they wanted me to try a more modern version of distance teaching. Look, they said, here's this online thing you can do.
I was, by then, quite familiar with word processing, but only beginning to use e-mail. I went to a workshop at our Extended Learning Institute. On a big screen, a technician showed us a section from a colleague's psychology course, in which a dialogue scrolled down the page. The class was having a discussion. Wow! I signed up to teach my own course. We could all share poems and talk about them.
That first online creative writing course was the best one I ever had. I didn't even own a modem; I did my teaching in the English Department office on campus, with passing teachers looking over my shoulder.
"Susan, what are you doing?" some would ask.
"Teaching," I would respond, smugly.
The students and I poured a lot of pioneer energy into that online class. We all felt that we were doing something on the frontier. They did read one another's stories and poems, and they did talk to one another about them.
It was so exciting that at the end of the class I invited all the students to my house. The doorbell would ring, and a stranger would be standing there. "Hi, I'm Sara, are you . . . ?"
"Sara! Yes, with the wonderful poems about New Mexico." I think nearly a dozen came, and we all had this weird sensation of meeting a stranger whom we knew curiously well. And then one young woman and one young man gave each other a long, curious look. It turned out they had done some extracurricular e-mailing. Well, by jove, there's even flirting in the online class!
Encouraged by this experience, I set out to improve the course syllabus and to incorporate online discussion into my children's literature course. But a funny thing happened along the way, and it happened in such small increments of disillusionment that I can hardly recall them one by one.
At first, I took note that not everybody in creative writing had participated much in the online discussions and that some of the comments were disappointing. "I liked your story." That's not exactly illuminating. So I built more requirements into the syllabus: You have to respond three times in this unit; your response must be at least 100 words long; and it must refer to some specific sentence in the story, or, perhaps, give the writer feedback as to whether you can "see" his character.
Sometimes these requirements would produce a lively discussion about a single story, but other pieces would be ignored.
So I had to find rules for that, and I had to define the topic of each discussion so that people wouldn't go off on meaningless tangents. As my colleague Laura said, "You have to turn your syllabus into sound bites." I knew exactly what she meant. Unlike in a regular classroom, I was teaching in such tiny, prearranged steps that it was almost impossible to explain a complicated idea and sustain any discussion of it.
Perhaps I can convey what online teaching is like by asking you to imagine a classroom conversation in which students are required to participate twice before the end of the class, using up 20 seconds each time and referring to at least one specific comment made by another student. How coherent and enlightening a discussion is this going to encourage? How sincere are your students' contributions going to be? And given that the discussion is to take place over the course of a week rather than a single class period, will you or the students care what anyone says by Friday?
I know some teachers who shuddered at these possibilities from the beginning and who have never taught online. I know others who love it. Why? I asked them. What are you doing that I'm not doing?
One intriguing answer concerned nonparticipants in the classroom. In college, there is often one exhausted or defensive student who flops into a chair in the back and throws his head down on the desk. Or occasionally there is a student who looks attentive enough but never wants to respond, or comes slouching in 15 minutes late, or rolls her eyes at the class, or never hands in assigned writing. Online, such students don't use up any of the teacher's time and energy; they just disappear. And it's quite true, in a real classroom, the slackers can be a drag. A row of nonparticipating or otherwise unhappy students has a chilling effect on everybody. Sometimes, I confess, I wish one or two would just drop the course if they don't like it. But occasionally, with enough effort on my part, they come around. And I hate to lose that chance.
There are some standard advantages to online learning that advocates cite: Everybody can hear. Students and teacher have time to think before they reply. There is more writing practice because the responses are written instead of spoken. In this impersonal atmosphere, the timid speak up, racism practically vanishes, and the discussion is free of intimidation, on one hand, and the fear of hurting others, on the other.
Well, maybe. But what I experienced was mostly disjointedness. A student in children's literature might write, "I completely agree with what Tina said about violence." And I would think, quick, who's Tina? Did I read what she said about violence? Click, click. It must be back here, oh yes, two days ago, I remember now, about how cartoons are unrealistic. Hmm, okay, hit Respond. In the text box I write: "Surely they are unrealistic, though this is a tricky concept. What is unrealistic about them? Isn't 'Jack and the Beanstalk' unrealistic also?" Click, click, next comment. About "Cinderella." The mean sisters: "Can this be considered violence?" Respond: "This depends on whether it's useful to think about physical violence as a separate issue. What do the rest of you think?" Click, click. Next comment. If there's a thread to this discussion, I've lost it.
Three years ago, I agreed to give online teaching one last try -- a composition class that met in person for three hours every other week, with the intervening week used for online discussion and exercises. We call these hybrid classes. It seemed like an interesting compromise.
The class got off to a bad start. By that time, the software had become more sophisticated and secure, and nearly everyone had a computer at home. But most still encountered problems logging on at first. The face-to-face sessions were supposed to be scheduled in a classroom with a cable connection, but they weren't. The students were supposed to know when they registered that the course involved Internet use, but they didn't. I don't want to make too much of these startup problems because most were quickly overcome, but, one way or another, about half the class dropped out.
If a student missed a classroom week, then a month intervened between our face-to-face contacts, and I would forget the student's name; sometimes I thought the student had nearly forgotten mine, too. If a student failed to do the online work -- a common occurrence -- I would have to spend part of the classroom time teaching what was supposed to have been learned earlier. We didn't cover much that semester. Class members never really got to know or trust one another.
We were supposed to be studying the use of evidence in good persuasive writing. One of my students was a regular visitor to alien-abduction Web sites, which seemed like a good enough place to begin a discussion. I tried to talk to him about anecdotal evidence, about the things people think they see, about the likelihood of events that seem to occur contrary to physics. But I was drowned out by the cacophony of Web sites that told him differently -- and I was only a Web site, too. Our infrequent personal meetings had little influence on him.
At the same time, I had several students with second-language issues who found the Web impersonal and hard to negotiate and who relied wholly on our face-to-face meetings. I was secretly on their side. I didn't know how to teach them to think online. I wanted to watch their faces while I talked; I wanted to hear their answers in real time; I wanted to challenge their replies, but with softness in my voice; I wanted my teacher fix: seeing a face light up with understanding.
I love classrooms. I love the physical presence of students in all their variety. I love the way people at a community college have to sit next to people they might not otherwise smile at on the street. Here is one student, a large, pleasant Hispanic father and soccer coach, sitting next to another, who came from Senegal three years ago and doesn't want to say anything, but who listens with her whole body. And here's a small, smiling Asian fellow who scowls when I mention evolution. There's an ex-con in the back making eyes at the prettiest young woman in the room. She's tall and graceful with black curls and snappy dark eyes. I watch her go sit by him, pretending indifference. And over on that side we have the guy in the wheelchair and the hunting cap beside the shy young woman who rounds her body into a ball and lets the hair fall across her face, sitting next to a gregarious classmate who waves his hand to answer every question, although he never does the reading.
I love the stimulating threat of the first day, as we look at one another uncertainly. I love the ways in which we gradually reveal ourselves. I love how our racism, sexism, gay phobias and anxieties of all sorts have to meet up with real people. Here we are, in our little corner of America, talking across our differences. I love setting out a new topic on the blackboard, and I love the unexpected. Look, I say, do we really know that cigarettes cause cancer? Is the evidence good? How do we know that?
"Because it's written right on the side of the package," says Tina, waggling her elegant leather boot at me. And we all laugh.
I was never surprised online, and I never laughed, and I never learned all those incidental but fundamental things about my students: who rolls his eyes, whose face will tell me when to stop talking and who will certainly disagree if I call on her.
While at a conference, I attended another workshop about online teaching because I thought I might be missing something good. And surely such classes represent the future of college teaching, like them or not.
Some boosterish teachers at the session were explaining how very specific you have to make the requirements for responses, and inwardly I cringed. And how you have to go online six or seven times a day, and I cringed. And how you have to keep huge logs of all the responses, and I cringed. Then a bright young teacher said: "Actually, it's not hard at all, getting online so often, because the course is all set up. I don't even have to think!"
Maybe that was the moment when I knew I wasn't going to teach online anymore. I know the teacher probably didn't mean it that way. At least, I hope he didn't. But his comment epitomized what my experience had been like -- the courses were too canned, too defined, too lacking in discovery; the students and, finally, I were just going through the motions.
My wonderful, robust, alive community college is facing a quandary. There isn't enough classroom space for all the students who want to come to us. We don't want to charge more tuition to build more classrooms. It's not just us; education is too expensive, and a lot of administrators across the country are hoping that technology can provide some of the efficiency that it has brought to other workplaces. But as long as I can get away with it, I'm sticking with a white-haired teacher I met outside the conference room after that last workshop I attended.
"Are you teaching online?" I asked.
"No," she said stoutly. "I want to look my students right in the eyeball."
Susan Sharpe has taught English at Northern Virginia Community College for 30 years. She lives in Arlington.