Since earning my MA in Educational Psychology, more than 20 years ago, I’ve taught in many different contexts and I’ve spent a good portion of my time thinking about how people think and learn. The last several years of my career have been spent primarily in the on-line classroom. Like many other college level instructors, I’ve been feeling my way…trying to figure out how best to translate a face-to-face learning experience into a digital one.
Until recently, I’ve learned more about what doesn’t work, than what does. For example, trying to plug one format into the other, without taking into consideration the true differences in communication and community (among other things) only makes for an unwieldy and frustrating experience for both student and teacher. I’ve spent a lot of my work time thinking of myself as a glorified grader and living for the semesters when I was offered face-to-face or hybrid courses, so I could have some “real” educational time with my students. For the first time ever, I was unhappy in my teaching.
This unhappiness is not something I’m used to. I’ve always loved what I do. It honestly never occurred to me that there would come a day when I didn’t. I realized that I needed to do one of two things. I either needed to quit my on-line work and find a new job teaching only face-to-face, or I needed to figure out a way to feel like a true teacher in the on-line format.
One thing I firmly believe is that education is a relational endeavor. We learn best when we’re exploring our own questions, with the help and guidance of our peers and those who are a little (or a lot) farther down the road than we are. This is something that was lacking in my on-line work. I provided the resources for my students to explore, but there was little sense of community or mutual exploration. I needed to figure out how to create this in my on-line classroom.
I’ve been exploring the use of Web 2.0 tools, playing with services like Skype, Prezi, Glogster, and Youtube. I’ve taken whatever training I could to learn more about on-line pedagogy (though there’s not much research out there yet) and I’ve explored the web for videos and articles that might help me.
This is how I stumbled upon Coursera, one of several programs which offer on-line learning opportunities called MOOCs (Massive Open On-line Course). Coursera teams up with top universities to present a wide range of courses for free. I figured it would be a good idea to try one of these courses out and see if I could learn anything new for my own teaching.
Perusing their offerings, I came across Modern and Contemporary American Poetry (affectionately termed ModPo), taught by Al Filreis, a professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania. This was one of Coursera’s first offerings in the humanities and it was going to be an interesting experiment in what is often seen as a highly subjective field…one that doesn’t lend itself to the cut and dried objectives and assessments often found in science and math.
It’s now more than ten weeks later and I don’t think it’s possible to fully sum up what I’ve learned…that language is alive and growing, being used in gorgeous ways to create the deep connect…and, at least as important to the healing of my soul, I’m learning some meaningful lessons about education…what it is and what it should be…and what I want my role in it to be.
I’ve learned that real community is not only possible but often gloriously, joyously abundant, in the digital world. I’ve learned that teachers and students can walk along side each other in the exploration of ideas, even when the ratio is 11 or 12 to over 30,000 (yes, I said 30,000). I’ve learned that deep connection can be made when we’re willing to trust that there are real people on the other side of that screen who care about what we think and say and want to know.
I’ve been trying to implement some of the ideas I’m learning into my own work, and, honestly, I’m having mixed results. Unfortunately, there’s a big difference between a group of students taking a course for credit, to fulfill a degree requirement, and a group of students who are in a course simply for the love of the learning. I do have hope, though, and I have vision and desire that I didn’t have before.
There’s a lot of conversation out there about how offering high quality courses for free to anyone will change the way our system of higher education works and I honestly don’t have an answer for that.
What I do know is that courses like these provide something vitally important for groups of people all across the world who can’t, for financial, social, or physical reasons, attend college in a brick and mortar institution. If education is a human right, then this might be the way to support that right, across the world.
I can’t decide if free on-line education is a completely new and revolutionary way to learn, or if it’s a return to a more pure and elemental kind of learning, where people gather in a public forum to speak and to listen. Either way, it’s here to stay, and I plan to be part of it…no longer grudgingly, with dragging feet and low expectations, but with anticipation and with joy.
Oh, and I’m signed up for three more classes in the Spring!