Thursday, February 20, 2020

Reflections from Both Sides of Online Learning (Student and Professor)

For some, graduate school flows naturally from their undergraduate experience.  I’ve completed the “pre-med” slate of courses, so I will go straight to medical school.  I’m sure I want to practice law, so I’ll head for law school.  For others, myself included, the path is less obvious.  Having attended private school my entire life, I convinced myself I needed schooling from the “real world” beyond the peaceable kingdoms of my formal education before picking an area for deeper study. 

That decision proved to be correct.  I took a journalism job with NPR and learned about inequity in schools and neighborhoods, the ins and outs of land use and zoning, tradeoffs in transportation, and the impact of the rise and fall of bedrock industries.  I also encountered one particular story out of the ordinary: the re-emergence of conversations about a shooting involving the Ku Klux Klan and anti-Klan labor organizers on the streets of Greensboro, North Carolina in 1979.  I had never heard of the incident before living in the Greensboro area, and no wonder—it occupied the front page of newspapers for one day, followed immediately thereafter by the Iran hostage crisis.  More importantly, the five shooting deaths captured by television cameras embarrassed Greensboro, many of whose residents dismissed it as the work of outsiders using their community as a battlefield. 

But it was more than the historical aspect of the shooting and its aftermath that interested me; it was the decision of a local grassroots committee to create America’s first “truth and reconciliation commission (TRC).”  Patterned after similar commissions in South Africa and elsewhere, Greensboro’s TRC engaged seven volunteers (rather than judges or jurors) to hear voluntarily provided testimony in private and public and deliver a report documenting their findings and recommendations.  I covered the story for NPR and focused less on the shooting and more on the divided opinion over the notion of a truth and reconciliation commission.  Why dredge this up again? argued some, including the then-Mayor.  We can’t afford not to, argued others. 

The eventual formation of the Greensboro TRC and the completion of its work over the next two years remained a fascination for me.  Eventually, after a job change, I realized I had a broader fascination with resolving conflict, and that led me to explore graduate schooling in that field—one I hadn’t known existed when I graduated from college.  I later discovered that while the number of conflict resolution degree programs today is substantial, there were fewer such programs ten years ago.  I also was newly married and settled into a home, with hopes (later realized) of starting a family, so the notion of relocating to a new city for study felt impractical and unwise. 

Those considerations drew me to Nova Southeastern University’s online master’s (and eventually PhD) in conflict analysis and resolution.  As it turned out, NSU was a pioneer in distance learning and had one of the first degree programs in conflict resolution.  Its main campus also happened to be around the corner from my in-laws’ home.  But the notion that I could participate in classes from anywhere and, in some cases, at any time of the week or semester was very appealing.  I also met and befriended students from all corners of the world—from Saudi Arabia to Sudan—who may never have been able to enroll in a program that required a visa.  Our twice yearly “residential institutes” gave us unique opportunities to interact and practice our skills in person, and I was fortunate to receive some tuition reimbursement and paid time off (without sacrificing vacation days) to attend. 

All of that said, online education as I experienced it as a student came with challenges and limitations.  Some professors chose to have no “live” sessions or provide any significant course content beyond the assignment of readings, online discussion board posts, and a final paper.  Other professors would post written lectures but not interact with students except for a short session at the residential institute.  Still others used their “live” sessions online to review the contents of our assigned reading or to deliver a lecture with limited or no student interaction.  Some of this may have had to do with the particular online platform we were using and its limitations, or it could have related to the difficulty of creating a more interactive class session in the face of all the other responsibilities facing a full-time professor with other, face-to-face classes to prepare for and teach.

As someone who has designed an online graduate school course and delivered or hosted numerous webinars, I now believe that online education holds tremendous promise and power, along with challenges that educators and students must work to overcome. I believe that just as in face-to-face educational opportunities, interaction in an online setting is key—whether through poll questions, a chat window, or the solicitation of comments from students who can be seen and heard (or a combination of these).  I also believe that most learners in any setting benefit greatly from small group discussion.  Despite the potential for an online classroom to accommodate even larger crowds than a physical lecture hall, it is critical to make use of online “breakout rooms” to allow for deeper and more meaningful interaction than is ever possible in a bigger group. 

It is worth considering the blend of live and asynchronous content as well.  Most professors who lecture, which in my view remains a valuable teaching tool, do so without interruption for questions or discussion.  This content could easily be recorded and viewed whenever convenient for the student, with perhaps a quiz included to check comprehension.  That said, students learn from each other differently than they learn from a professor; in fact, the best professor helps stimulate and facilitate that form of peer-to-peer learning.  As such, any live/real-time gathering of students online should include opportunities for them to learn from one another. 

I also think that the traditional notion of “office hours” common on college campuses should endure online—perhaps in the form of an online “room” that one can enter (log in) at a designated weekly time to meet with the professor, perhaps in the company of classmates.  This form of informal learning can be deeply valuable, even in ways not possible in the formal class session, and online technology should accommodate it. 

I also want to make mention of the technical aspects of the online education experience.  While many of us, including you reading this blog, have easy access to the Internet, many around the world do not.  Some may also only have access to the Internet via a mobile phone or a public space like an Internet café or public library.  This demands of those of us in online education to consider how a web-based application might work on a mobile (whether there is a mobile app, for example, or at least a mobile friendly website).  But we also have to consider the possibility that someone may only be able to login briefly each day or each week, so our content should be easy to print or download for review at another time.  Furthermore, we have to consider that some of those students whom we want to reach simply cannot access the Internet.  Most of them, however, will have access to text messaging or telephone calls, and they can interact with their classmates and professors via group texts, conference calls, and perhaps materials sent by mail.  As archaic as this may sound to some, it remains an important consideration if this form of education is to live up to its promise of broadening access to education.

We must also consider the amount of time often wasted (in my view) on technical difficulties encountered by teachers/presenters and students alike in an online setting.  While I have encountered these myself and occasionally technical difficulties cannot be avoided or predicted, they nearly always can, and it is incumbent upon anyone hosting such a session to make time for students and presenters to test their technology.  We also must ensure that the technology required to participate is either limited to that which comes with most computers or mobile phones, or is made widely available to the students whom we want to reach. 

I am pleased to have taken advantage of the opportunity to study in an online program with a face-to-face component and to have the opportunity to teach online.  All of us who have either learned, taught, or experienced online learning can easily see its potential to help more of us learn.  We must only ensure that access to the education we provide online remains widespread, and that we maintain a commitment to student-to-teacher and student-to-student interaction. 

About Blog Author Dr. Larry Schooler:
After an award-winning career as a journalist across the globe, Larry Schooler became a mediator, facilitator, public engagement consultant, and educator. He works with agencies around the world to resolve disputes, build consensus, and involve the public and stakeholders in decisions that will affect them. He also specializes in land use mediation, strategic planning, and visioning.  Dr. Schooler holds a bachelor’s degree in history from Yale and a doctoral degree in conflict resolution from Nova Southeastern University.  He is the author of a manual entitled “Keys to an Effective Public Meeting” and a forthcoming book on truth and reconciliation commissions.  Larry is married to award-winning businesswoman Jolie Schooler and father to Sammy & Robby.  

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