Friday, August 01, 2014

The Valley of the Uncan

This pun is available for adaptation, by the way ("The ICANNy Valley," e.g.).

The time is drawing near when I will be asked to consider technology and instruction again. I have never stopped thinking about it, of course, but once upon a time I was payed to be aware of the issues, even if no one actually wanted to hear what I had to say. (I blame myself. I probably didn't say it very clearly.) Now, though, I'm going to be caught between the cruising speed icebergs of capital and capitalized tech purchases and will need to explain why education, instruction, and the latest purchase aren't always aligned.

I got a new laptop, and for once, I'm current in software. I'm indistinguishable from consumer class, and it only took thirty years to get there. This means that there is a video camera built into the lid of the laptop, and both the NSA and Microsoft can turn it on at any time without my knowledge. Fortunately, there is a high tech defense against this. For a fee, I can relate the specs to you on the wireless network enabled BLACKTAAPE (TM) (Pat pending). By getting the properly designed, wholly chemical free and Y2K compliant BLACKTAAPE, you can place this device in front of the lens of the camera and be certain that no one is seeing anything you don't want to show.

Anyway, even if you don't keep up with college education, you know that the trend is for online classes. This trend is driven by consumer impulses and a flood of G.I. benefits, an exponential growth of for-profit colleges, and, most of all, colleges and universities seeking ways of gaining revenues by reducing labor costs and facilities expenditures. Sometimes, schools try to own the online classes teachers create, claiming that the professors surrendered their intellectual property and copyrights by using college/university computers. Even when that's not the case, the colleges frequently pay less for online classes and demand more.

In general, they are exceptionally unpopular among faculty. (Yes, commenter: you love them. That's great. I don't hate them. I'm talking about the general feeling.) Faculty generally figure out that exploitation is in the offing.

I want to talk about one small subsection of the phenomenon, though, and that's the technology of the online classroom.

Assume a class size of 15. Assume the class will involve laying out background information and process instruction. In fact, let's go ahead and stipulate a mid-point class, like "Survey of British Literature 2: 1750 - 1945." To teach a class like that, there will be
  • Historical background, genre background, biographical background, thematic background for major authors; construction of either a thematic narrative or an historical narrative to unite the material selected into an arc that will allow the students to frame the things they read.
  • Discussion with students of individual works to encourage close reading and strengthen student close reading skills; class investigations of longer works so that the students get to pioneer the exploration and discover when a reading has and lacks support.
  • Explanation of "how to write on literature." A survey class is structured as a first step in a major, so one needs to teach students how to write about literature with an awareness of critical perspectives; students need to know how to read criticism without being adversarial or slavish.
Now, ignore for a moment what technology you must use. What technology would you choose to use for these tasks -- provided that "in seat class time" is not allowed?

No very good teacher is ever one-way about teaching. Giving background is close to one-way information flow, as the information in the background goes in one direction. However, the delivery, in person, is two-way. In a physical classroom, lecturers watch students, listen to whispers and groans, make personal asides to punctuate the depth of the information, slow down when students get behind, etc. However, this, and only this, can be replaced with a set of web pages or a video. Students can "watch a You Tube" of the professor and get an 80% experience, perhaps.

The third thing -- "how to write the paper" and "how to take the test" -- seems as if it is just as susceptible to one-way, static replication, but it is not. Even in highly selective schools, where students have relatively uniform backgrounds, a class of fifteen students will have ten different misapprehensions about how to approach writing about literature. This is inevitable, because the task is at the heart of the college major. In other words, students will be uniformly heterogeneous because they're not college majors. A single talk or web page on "how to write a literature paper" that addresses the misapprehensions of students will either be a work of inexplicable genius or unreproducible luck.

It's the second bullet point that's the hell.

Should I be on video, with fifteen small thumbnails of the students, to "meet" with my class? Is that better than a large chat window?

There is an irony here, because video contact is worse at reproducing the classroom than a flat text window. It is worse for my students, and much worse for me, to have video and video to recreate the in-person classroom than to have no pictorial representation at all in favor of text windows.

Think about what happens when you speak to a conference room. Think about what the people around the table are doing. The non-verbal communication is much greater than the verbal communication, and people will inaudibly negotiate a mood and behavior. This is why one class can be "mean" and another "sweet" -- with the same material presented by the same teacher, the students themselves will negotiate a mood among themselves without even knowing it, and this collective voice will hold until disturbed. This social harmonizing prevents the most egregious behaviors. (It also intimidates some students and prevents their asking for help.)

When fifteen students are fifteen picture-in-pictures, they are fifteen individuals -- fifteen television sets. They don't negotiate with one another, and each is engaged in the social behavior of "watching video."

You may think "video connection is allowing me to connect to my students," but each student has a history of viewing "video" on a laptop or desktop computer. There are conventions for YouTube and the others that overwrites the actual use made of the video link.  "Watching video" is a fundamentally solitary behavior that is subject to the egoism of consumerism. "Watching video" comes with a "like" or "dislike" button, has a comments field, and invites "snark" or forwarding to Facebook. These conventions are everywhere except the online class, so the students, at best, experience contradictory signals from the media. More likely, each of the fifteen students conceives of herself as a solo entity and the professor as disembodied, if not a commodity, and the commodity experience (i.e. monetized routine found in advertising and placed in journalism) of "watching video" acts as interference against the perception of the professor as a teacher.

The instructor for his or her part, will see fifteen separate, distracting behaviors across the screen. There will not be the corporate behavior one gets in person.

On the other hand, if students engage a large text box, the experience pre-dating the activity is "writing a text" or "reading." This is an individual experience as well, but it is what McLuhan called a "cool medium." The cool medium of reading/writing allows or forces analytical thinking. While the video presentation should replicate "conversation," the technology by which it is arriving has already etched out a set of expectation that instead dominate the intended effect.

Thus, it seems, just as it becomes more possible to have a video link with a class, it is less and less useful -- more and more counterproductive, in fact -- to do so, because the ubiquity of YouTube, Vine, Vimeo, and the rest automatically carry methods of interpretation in the very act of appearing by video.


Clyde P. said...

Is your institution about to start pushing remote attendance to cut costs? "She Who Must Be Obeyed" is at this very moment trying to avoid being assigned to some video classes at her community college.

The Geogre said...

My institution long ago went that route. However, as a department, we drew a line: service classes cannot be done in this manner. That's not arbitrary, either. Since our institution can't afford a pay front end, we're on Google's tools. They're great for adjunctive tech, but they don't do that Big Chat Window for synchronous classes very well. Cool with me.

A service class, where students have to do a task, do a task, do a task, doesn't work this way. Or, rather, it works as well as it does as a correspondence class. The more information/content oriented the class, the more you can utilize remote access for part of it. Therefore, we've agreed to classes of N = 7 < that are all online, and we'll do pure hybrids for content, but not surveys or the 101, 102. Since the institution only makes money from 101, 102, they don't much ask for others.

Oh, I did offer "Advanced Literary Theory" that way. No one signed up. :-) Some people think I knew that that would be the outcome.