Online Learning: A 2-Voiced Case for Ambivalence

Wading into the rip currents of online learning evangelism and countersurging cries of alarm about the corporatization of higher ed, Steve Mentz and Christopher Schaberg seek steady footing.

December 4, 2018
 
 
Istockphoto.com/Jane_Kelly

Should we teach online? Our chairs and directors are asking us to do so, as they weigh student demand for online courses with the existing supply of face-to-face classes. These decisions about pedagogy often come in a rush, obfuscated by institutional pressures, departmental habits or day-to-day operations. What does the choice mean for students and instructors?

Pausing in the midst of the hubbub, we two professors at different higher education institutions decided to reflect on our own ambivalence about online learning and whether and how we might best venture into this still-new learning environment. For those of us who were trained to teach face-to-face classes, is it now time to (also) teach online?

Chris says “maybe.” I’ve come to realize after some stubborn resistance that I should try to teach an online course at my university. And I have one in mind. My students have been requesting that I bring back a particular senior-level undergraduate class that I haven’t taught in a couple years. It’s called Interpretive Approaches -- basically an introduction to critical inquiry from Marx and Freud up to more current readings in postcolonial studies and queer theory.

Why would I teach this particular course online, beyond just the fact of everything being on the internet these days?

Because many of my students end up working two or more jobs by the time they are seniors, and demands on their time can make it difficult for them to carve out 75 minutes twice a week to come to the campus for class. If I offered the course online, I could facilitate our spirited discussions there and even offer a generous window of optional office hours to meet with students in person to untangle the knottier passages or philosophical conundrums. Maybe those office hours would even become microseminars, with multiple students coming to hash out the readings together.

Teaching this difficult course online could create an opportunity for more students to succeed in it, replacing what can at times be freewheeling discussions with written -- searchable and rereadable -- transcripts of our dialogue and inquiry. And instead of my normal grueling passage identification and explication exams, I could create a way of assessing students that would have them writing together on a platform in which they are already comfortable conversing. Offering this course online could revamp and re-energize how I teach it.

Steve says “ugh.” I’ll probably teach another online grad class this summer, but before the process starts, I’m mulling my usual pregame regrets. Every year before I teach this class, I have the same flashback to my first semester as a new teacher in a high school classroom in Los Angeles in the early 1990s. I was fresh out of college and getting advice from an experienced colleague. “Steve,” he said to me in a solemn voice, “you can only teach them what they are ready to learn that day.”

“But Alan,” I importuned back, all earnest idealism, “how do you know what that is?”

“You don’t know” -- he smiled back -- “until you see the whites of their eyes.”

It was a joke, of course, and a playful response to my new-teacher nervousness. But it comes back to me every year before I teach online, when my only view of student eyes comes in the profile photos of the university personnel system’s electronic record. Are those even their real eyes? How can I see my students if we’re each typing alone, focusing intermittently on the present tense of black cursor on white e-page, churning emptiness into language?

Teaching at its core responds to human encounters and makes its turns and dives forward through shared human feelings. “There’s nothing I hate more,” I announce each face-to-face semester to a new room of slightly bemused students, “than a room in which everyone thinks the same thing. There is no right answer to the questions that I’ll ask in this class -- only a wide variety of true ones.” Every year I think these thoughts, feel this proleptic regret and wonder about what flashes and connections the online medium will make us miss, misread or simply not recognize.

Chris wants more. I can’t shake the feeling that the current pushes for online education are about more, and something more insidious, than providing opportunities for learning to wider audiences. While I recognize that people can be incredibly creative on the internet, I also know that using digital media platforms -- especially on a mass scale -- funnels staggering amounts of capital in one direction: toward the owners of the technologies that make online communication possible in the first place. I worry that as online education encroaches on traditional classroom space and time, it reflects pervasive trends wherein we would prefer to see people on their digital devices everywhere and always.

This is no conspiracy theory. My dentist now wants me to track my brushing on my iPhone, and my banking “just got easier” (read: less costly for the bank) thanks to a mobile app. Such things save people time and money, of course, but they also tether human activity to infrastructures and systems that often remain hidden, beyond direct access.

I’m not advocating wholesale alarmism. I mentor my students to become savvy social media users, and I just taught a face-to-face class where 100 percent of the writing took place on Amazon through student reviews. Online education is a part of our modern, media-entangled ecosystem -- I get it.

But I also wonder about the future world that online education presages. Can internet-based education foster the very ideas that may lead to an alternative future that radically revises our current patterns of being online? I remain skeptical that digital tools can be used to dismantle this economic structure that projects itself into the future as the ultimate horizon of human progress. There is no getting around this: every click generates profit, for someone. Now that I explain it this way, I guess it sounds like a case for a college-level inquiry. We’ll have to mull over this -- and in person. I think I’ll teach my class on the ground, after all.

Steve says “yes.” I remember being a bit taken aback, sometime in the late 2000s, when an academic who was senior to me and whom I greatly admire said to me, with no irony, “I love -- love -- my iPhone.” At that time, I had not yet plunged into smartphonia, but I would soon, and it didn’t take me long to figure out what she was talking about. Even for old-guy professors like me, living in the 21st century means processing emotions and human relationships through screens.

I’ve read the books that rail against the internet and its stupefying effects. They echo jeremiads written against newfangled print culture when it was sweeping across 15th-century Europe. Maybe smartphones are bad for us in the same way Socrates thought writing was bad -- because these technologies cause memory to atrophy.

But digital screens populate the mediated media oceans we all swim in now. When my students take an online class with me, they work in an electronically mediated system of communication and identity formation that they are going to be living and working in throughout their personal and professional lives.

Many of my students arrive in my classes as social media virtuosos, although a surprisingly visible cohort pledges allegiance to King Lud. In the online class, I ask all of us to build and cultivate a virtual community. Over the years, I’ve used various software programs like Coursekit.com, Lore.com, PBwiki, WordPress and, most recently, Google Classroom. I spend significant time and teaching labor thinking about community building in online space. (Community building is the most important thing I think about regarding face-to-face classrooms, too.)

Teaching requires us to fashion a community into some in-process knowledge of itself and our shared world. I worry about finding the best way to do that in the corporatized world of online learning, and I also worry about building intellectual community in the corporatized culture of the 21st-century university. All classroom conversations happen in dialogue with our wider culture and its corporate and mediated structures. We can’t go back to pristine pre-internet days, even if there are things about pedagogy, especially shared concentration and collective thinking about difficult questions, that partly resist the e-verse of constant distraction. Teaching online locates our virtual classrooms where our students live, inside the e-belly of the beast. Surely, that’s a good, albeit sometimes unsettling, thing?

Chris’s thesis: If I’m going to teach online, it will probably be a blended course, which I see as the best version of online learning. But I say this admitting my relative privilege to be able to prefer such a thing. Blended courses require investment in permanent faculty members who have offices, the ability to mentor students over multiple semesters and the like. I’m not yet convinced that my own teaching efficacy would be enhanced or improved through strictly online instruction.

Steve’s antithesis: Not every course should be the same, and sometimes things that aren’t “the best” can still be worthwhile -- even necessary. Blended courses are ideal, and so are blended programs. Our students should graduate having worked in traditional seminars, lecture/discussion courses, hybrid digital structures and fully online environments. That’s the way to prepare them, and ourselves, for the plural media landscapes of the 21st century.

Chris and Steve’s synthesis: Engaged ambivalence is the slightly conflicted way we approach online teaching. We aim to empower our students with what digital networks offer while shielding them to a degree from its problems. We don’t expect we’ll get it exactly right every time. We’ll keep trying.

Inconclusive postscript: Our educational missions and training were mostly articulated before the rise of the internet. Teaching today may require us to incorporate online learning into our practices, but we do not want to surrender our pedagogy to corporate control, monetization or groupthink.

Plenty of open questions remain about how best to extend our attention, time and energy into online pedagogy. How might we embrace the opportunities of online learning, and when should we redouble our efforts to defend face-to-face instruction?

We don’t assume easy answers or quick solutions, and we recognize that university bureaucracies have budgetary and recruiting imperatives that, while perhaps necessary for the larger system’s functioning, should not control our focus when we think about pedagogy. Online teaching requires us to change and learn, to be uncomfortable and disoriented in this new space into which we invite our students. One of the most important things about entering a new pedagogic space is not assuming we already know the things we’ll discover when we go there -- while also staying wary in the face of initiatives that are presented as panaceas for institutional health.

Bio

Steve Mentz is professor of English at St. John’s University and the author, most recently, of Shipwreck Modernity: Ecologies of Globalization, 1550-1719 (University of Minnesota Press, 2015). Christopher Schaberg is Dorothy Harrell Brown Distinguished Professor of English at Loyola University New Orleans and the author, most recently, of The Work of Literature in an Age of Post-Truth (Bloomsbury, 2018).

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