Reflections on an Online Class

As I mentioned in a previous post, I personally view the summer “online only” session of Art265 as a success.  My measurement of success is perhaps over simplified: the work produced by the students was at or above the quality of the same daytime “classroom-based” Art265 sessions I have taught previously.  The students also generally achieved the same course goals, as per the same evaluation methods used in my classroom-based version of this course.

Fundamentally, this was the same class, with a different delivery mechanism and different systems of communication used.  As a continually learning instructor, I’m sure I could improve my technique in both scenarios.

My small single session was not broad enough to get useful data for the purpose of analyzing a comparison in quality of student experience.  In fact, I found the traditional end-of-semester course evaluation to be nearly useless when applied to an online course.  This will have to be addressed by a larger group if more online classes are to be offered at Albright. For now, I crafted a very small anonymous exit questionnaire to get feedback on my delivery of the material.

The online tools I used did allow me some advantages over the traditional classroom.  Moodle and other digital-based tools allow us to see when materials are accessed, how often, and in some cases for what duration.  This information can be viewed on a per-student basis or for the group as a whole.  This allowed me to adjust the course “on the fly” in response to students spending too little time on some sections, or feeling the need to repeatedly access past lessons and information.  It also allowed me to better understand my students’ time-management issues and see patterns in how information was accessed, as compared to assigned due-dates for graded elements.

It was initially unclear to me what the impact of reduced “face-time” would be for this class, so I gave continuous opportunities for any student to schedule an in-person session to review material, or discuss other issues as needed.  Surprisingly, I had only one student take advantage of that option.  This single session was in an effort to get credit for assignments missed early in the session because of outside time conflicts.

I have mixed feelings about the result of substituting online forums for live class discussions and critiques.  A higher percent of students participated in discussions than in the same discussions held verbally in a classroom during previous semesters.  I believe this is a result of students viewing that participation as a “written assignment,” placing the same value on it as a short paper or summary.  That said, the discussions covered less content and diversity of idea. This may be a result of the time-impact of writing all of these thoughts, or it may be the result of self-editing before submitting ideas (something that doesn’t always happen in a verbal classroom discussion).  There are technologies that would allow for a more real-time verbal discussion in these scenarios, and I am willing to try them in the future.

***

Since I am again teaching a classroom-based session of Art265 this semester, I have decided to use some of these new delivery mechanisms in the daytime course. Though the new delivery is far away from turning it into a “hybrid” class, it has changed how I present information.

Many teachers in my field have students work on tutorials in class, mimicking the idea of a “flipped class” in other fields.  Using the tutorial systems employed over the summer allow me to closely monitor tutorials and time management outside the classroom, theoretically allowing more time for synthesis based work in the class. This has not created a system where ALL of the students do their homework ALL of the time, but it does allow me monitor their out-of-classroom time more closely and hopefully catch individual issues earlier.

I have also implemented a new technique to verbal discussions in the classroom, where the students write some thoughts down before a discussion begins.  The written document is then collected as a portion of the graded activity.  I’ve already seen livelier discussions result from this, and will continue to use versions of this technique in the future.

I’m sure there will continue to be heated debate over the validity of online classes and the impact on student experience. In my particular field (the validity of which is also still debated at times), I see a lot of room for this type of delivery, and a potential for broader student experience. There is little doubt in my mind that many of our students will move forward to face digital tools and changes in information exchange methods. I believe the students from this summer Art265 are now a bit more prepared for their next encounter with digitally-based art AND digital communication systems.

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