I am now almost two weeks into my online course (“How to teach an online class”), and my thoughts regarding online teaching is starting to become a little clearer. Although it is of course almost impossible to draw any wide-ranging conclusions based on just two weeks of instruction, I have noticed a few trends.
For one, the collaborative aspect of online learning can be quite powerful. Our teacher has us post reflections on various topics by Tuesday, and then we have until Friday to comment on the posts of others. Although this type of discussion is not as spontaneous and intimate as in a face-to-face setting, there are some advantages to the online version. Because there is more time between posts, students have additional time to formulate their thoughts on a particular topic. In our case, this has led to some very insightful and complex discussions, which would have been much more difficult to accomplish in a 45 minute class period. Hence, I think that though our exchanges are not as spontaneous, they could very well be more substantive.
In addition, despite the fact that I have only interacted with my fellow students a few times, I do feel as if I am starting to get to know them a little bit. Again, because the discussion posts are written pieces that students have (hopefully) spent much time planning and writing, I am able to catch glimpses of what I believe to be their personalities. (Or, at least their online personalities, but that is a topic for a different blog post…). I must admit that I was surprised at how quickly I started to recognize patterns of thoughts and ideas among my fellow students. Of course, this is not to say that I feel as if I know my peers in this class on an intimate basis. An online relationship, no matter how deeply invested all parties are, is by nature different and should never replace face to face relationships. However, I do think this dovetails nicely with my view on online teaching as a whole: it can never replace face to face teaching, but if done well, it can serve as a nice compliment.
The last observation stems from an observation one of my fellow students made. She claimed that there are flaws to the argument that the quiet students will feel more comfortable and will be able to interact more with their peers in an online environment. The main problem with this argument is that it assumes that the quiet student is a good writer who finds it easy and comfortable to express him/herself in writing. To me, this is an important point that drives at a larger issue with online teaching. Based on my limited experience, good writing skills seems to be a key component to a successful online learning experience, even more so than in the traditional classroom. Of course, there it is nothing wrong with this, after all, good writing is a very useful skill to have, but it does raise the question whether all students are equally suitable for online learning. It is no surprise that self-motivated students tend to perform better in an online environment, but there might be an additional factor at play here. It certainly seems to me that in most online classes (with the possible exception of math), there will be a large emphasis on good writing, and students with better writing skills might find it easier to succeed than the ones who are not as skilled in this area.
Of course, that argument can also be turned around: online learning can be a great place for students to practice their writing… In the end, this leads me back to the point that I keep returning to: online teaching, when done right, can be a great supplement to face to face teaching, but it can never replace it. After two weeks of online learning, I still believe this to be true.