Going online the 19th-20th century way

Given current discussions about moving on-site classes into an online environment as an emergency response, I’m going to go out on a limb and say: don’t worry about pedagogy.

Current Learning Management Systems have simplified online instruction to an extreme degree. Despite decades of research and experience in various active learning online techniques, our current systems still encourage the basic triumvirate: reading/information, discussion, and assessment.

An on-site class already has assigned reading, so these can be moved online if necessary. Discussion that took place in class can be placed on a discussion board if desired, or one can easily just answer questions through messaging or email. And assessment can be moved online using the built-in quizzes. The fact is that most on-site teachers moving online will focus on these three things. They will need to learn how to upload their readings, set up a discussion board, and retype their assessments into the system if they don’t know how to use a tool like Respondus (or are on a Mac). The fourth big task will be learning to use the gradebook, which is more difficult than handing back a piece of paper with a grade and comments.

These preparations will take far more time than classroom teaching, and will already cause massive workload issues. These concerns will be added to student confusion on assignments and grades, basic worry about managing ones professional tasks in isolation, and trying to ensure enough income and food to keep ones family comfortable.

In other words, pedagogy, universal design, student equity, and other considerations will become instantly irrelevant.

Synchronous lectures, especially at a college without teaching assistants, may be well beyond instructors’ capabilities, and if not, the stress of doing it may be overwhelming. Even discussion boards, which require design of some sort, may be beyond the abilities of many instructors while everything else is going on. That would leave us with: read the textbook, take the test.

This might sound terrible, but it isn’t. It’s the way distance learning was done in its earliest incarnations, through the mail and televised courses. It is the way the earliest online classes were conducted, over email. In other words, read/inform and test was considered adequate for education for many years, particularly for subjects not requiring laboratory work. And it’s the pattern for every publisher’s course cartridge I’ve ever seen.

Certainly it’s ironic that after so many decades of active learning, student-centered techniques, just-in-time education, constructivism, and inquiry-based models, a single emergency would mean a return to the old style.

If this emergency goes on for a long time, several things could happen. The following could well drop out of college: students who only have their phone for a computer, students who cannot motivate themselves and stay on task, students who require personal contact with others in order to learn, students who require that teachers take a deep personal interest in their lives, students who can only learn in groups of other students, and students who are unprepared for college work. While all of these problems can be dealt with effectively in the online environment, there will be no time to work on the methods for doing so. This is particularly the case for faculty who’ve never taught online, or posted more than a minimum of resources in an LMS.

The remaining students, those who can do well under these read-and-test conditions, will be more similar to students of the 19th and 20th centuries. During these years, educational reformers were striving to make sure there were spots available for students who were capable but financially disadvantaged. The ability to read and test, and ask good questions, was essential to student success. It might prove interesting if it were that way again.


4 thoughts to “Going online the 19th-20th century way”

  1. Interesting indeed. Today one of my students said “If this college goes online, I’m going to flunk all my classes. There’s no way I can keep myself working if I’m not having to go to class.” Much as I’d love to eliminate my long commute, I’m not happy about the prospect of shoehorning my classes into a Canvas shell.

    1. You may not have to shoehorn much, if the current rumors are right that we’ll have to do live Zoom meetings or we won’t be able to satisfy weekly contact hours requirements. So we can add video lecture to reading and assessment!

      1. An interesting study down the road will be if the capability to watch videos at 1.5 or double speed enhanced or detracted from learning … or had no effect. These are interesting times!

        1. Most of the Zoom meetings I’ve been in could have used a “live” double speed! 😉

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