Synchronous-ity, Too.

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After finally shaking off the jet-lag from my red-eye return from Portland CCCC 2017, I’ve found myself able to sit down really wrap my head around all the great panels and talks I was able to attend. I heard more about transfer and library collaboration and kaltura than I ever thought I could in one week, but a lot of great ideas from a lot of talented educators have started to sink-in for me.

For the last several months, my colleagues and I have been talking our way through what for us is uncharted territory — how do we make an online FYC that doesn’t lose in translation all the wonderful things that make GMU’s FYC program so special? After CCCC, I’m both surprised and relieved to see that we are not entirely alone in this venture. Future blog posts may discuss some specific C’s panels in detail, but today I wanted to write about one concept that kept popping up in each and every conversation about online FYC — a concept that my colleagues and I had been lead to believe we needed to abandon (or at least shy away from), or had little place in digital learning, but thankfully, that seems not to be the case: synchronous online learning.

When our cohort first got together early this Fall, we asked a lot of questions — questions about technology, content delivery, structure, Blackboard, and everything else imaginable one might consider when building a course from the ground up. But we asked most of these questions, I think, largely under the assumption that our classes would or should be asynchronous. For many digital/distance/online/whatever instructors, “flexibility” is king and flexibility = asynchronous instruction.  The typical digital learning module: a pre-recorded lecture, a reading or two, instructions, activities, and time. Lots and lots of time — sometimes days, sometimes weeks between instruction and deadline, because students need (want) the flexibility to work at their own pace. With group work, it takes even longer, as students post, then read, then respond, sometimes all at distinct deadlines. You post your class, a bunch of time passes, let’s say a week, then you read and comment on your students’ posts/activities (this takes time as well, so more time passes). It’s now 5 days, 7 days, or more from the lesson to the feedback — the time that you the instructor “know” whether or not your students “got it.” And if they didnt get it? More time.

In a face-to-face class, the lesson, the feedback and the reinforcement can, if you want, happen all in a single session. With a written activity, maybe a class or two passes, but still, less time than in the online analogue. There are clear problems with this time-gap: more time when students feel lost, difficulty in building momentum moving from concept to concept, and much, much more difficulty in “reading” your students’ comprehension (you sometimes have to just hope they “got it”).

I can understand the push for 100% asynchronous digital learning — the automation is easy and transfers smoothly from term to term, the routine of it is easy to grasp for learners, and as previously noted, students can work entirely at their own pace. My concern particularly when discussing FYC (read: traditional freshmen) comes largely from losing the social and collaborative aspects that we’ve all seen drive success in FYC classes. The community, wherein students learn not just from us, but from one another (strong writers model discussion and inquiry for less-experienced writers, shy students are exposed to the work of their peers they otherwise wouldn’t have seen, etc). Some of this is possible asynchronously — discussion boards, for example, but again — time and engagement  (and comprehension) are all big question marks.

At CCCC, I was lucky to be able to talk to Casey McArdle from Michigan State (who was super generous with his time!) and the really wonderful and new OWICommunity.org and I expressed my concerns about student engagement, the loss of social interaction and communal learning. Both he and Colin Bjork* from Indiana University (and also from OWICommunity.org) expressed many of the same ideas — mainly how essential contact is (And not just with us, but with each other). It’s more than being active on discussion boards and recording slick Kaltura videos — it’s vital that students feel and are a part of a class, not just a series of  “modules” of learning. Whether this means regular Bb Collaborate sessions, required small group teleconferences, ZOOM ( a tech IU uses) sessions, or something else, I feel really strongly that synchronous meetings need to have some formal place in the online classroom.

*Colin Bjork and his IU colleagues, by the way, have been building their online curriculum for 4 years now — so I think they can be really valuable resources for us.

I know the push-back — “it isn’t what students want.” Students want to be able to do work at 3am on a wednesday or at 4 pm on the bus. I get that and maybe there are other sections for those students to take (just like there are face-to-face sections that don’t meet at 8am on Friday) — but I’m having a really hard time believing in work and instruction (and structure) that only considers what some students want and ignores what research and the majority of our teaching careers tell us that students need to be successful. When I was a student, I “wanted” a lot of things that were probably not best for my learning, but my institution demanded better of me. I also know that this requires more work for us the instructors, short-term, but I think in the long-run, with at least SOME synchronous learning built into our courses, we’d spend less time steering lost students back to the path and more time moving them forward.

Now, I know, to simply reduce the synchronous/asynchronous debate to bitter medicine vs sweet candy is cheap and unfair — we already have (and will continue to have) students who work, who are in Korea or China or maybe even New Jersey, but I also think that “flexibility = asynchronous” is equally reductive. We present our classes at Mason as digital learning, as online or distance learning, not as asynchronous learning, so I think as long as we make it clear what the expectations and requirements are, we can do this in a way that benefits our students while still allowing them the flexibility of an online education. We want our students to be good students and be strong writers and we need to do anything we can to prioritize that over treating them just as consumers. We can be flexible and our students can be flexible. We can have routine, we can have clear, smart and cleanly designed and structured course designs, but we can have synchronous learning in our classes, too. The technology allows it, other universities require it, and I think our students deserve it.

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About Brian_Fitzpatrick

Brian Fitzpatrick is a Term Assistant Professor of English at George Mason University and previously taught at George Washington University.
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