Unlike my other three posts that address the E-Cultures and Digital Learning MOOC I'm participating in, this post is more practical in nature, and is a reflection on something that happened this week in the online course I'm teaching. I welcome feedback (criticism and otherwise) to this situation.
This semester, I'm teaching a cross-listed (not only graduate and undergraduate, but also interdisciplinary) course on race, gender, and professional and technical writing. The course covers not only race and gender theory but also technical writing theory - which for many of my students is new, and like many theoretical undertakings can be difficult to maneuver.
In the discussion boards for this week's readings, a few students had similar problems interpreting the claims made by one of the authors; specifically, they understood her to be saying the exact opposite of what she actually said.
This situation left me in a dilemma: I suffer from politeness, and not just any politeness, but Midwestern, female-driven politeness. Take almost all of the stereotypes of Midwesterners and all of the arguments about women's politeness, and smash them together. I, in other words, do not like confrontation, even when I know I'm correct.
The dilemma: Do I post, publicly, the correct interpretation and explain it. Or, do I email each individual student and explain the mistake in private.
In a classroom, I would not hesitate to correct the students: I can frame it as a learning opportunity, ask questions to figure out how they got to the position they did, and hopefully, lead them to the (correct) answer themselves. In other words, I can help them save "face." Moreover, the students can tell from my intonation, body language, and relationship that I have built with them, that my corrections are meant as learning opportunities.
The online environment, however, does not provide those opportunities in the same way. Asking questions leads to a long, drawn-out thread that doesn't necessarily make sense. The relationship between teacher and student in an online course is different; they cannot see my facial expressions or hear my intonation. The ability to save "face" is more difficult.
I chose to provide an explanation in the public forum - and this is why: So many students made similar interpretative errors. I felt it prudent to explain the mistake publicly so that all of the students could learn from it.
Responding to students (and students responding to other student responses) in an asynchronous discussion board can be a wonderful thing: students have time to think through their ideas; they have time to organize them in interesting ways that may not come up during class discussion; they may feel (though I cannot be certain) more free to share personal experiences even though the people are essentially anonymous. Many good discussions have come up this semester, and as we move into race and gender theory, I expect nothing less. I, similarly, have time to respond thoughtfully and thoroughly to their ideas, look for patterns and point them out, and give those students who might be quiet in a face-to-face classroom setting the opportunity to share.
The asynchronicity of it all, though, can take away from the experience we as teachers who teach regularly in face-to-face classrooms are used to - it leaves me wondering about the relationship I have built with my students - and how they will respond to my criticism. My good friend at The Arnoldian Project wrote an insightful post about treating students as if you are in a relationship with them - challenging them and encouraging them. Danny may have put it best: "I like to think of it [education] as an energetic, unpredictable mix of sharing,
mentoring, and mean-spirited badgering. All because we love our students
so dearly, and we want them to become something better than they are."
We all want our students to "become something better than they are." As an online instructor, I struggle, and will continue to struggle and explore how to do that online where I do not always know who my students are, or how they will take my comments, or even have the ability to make it clear what my comments should mean and how they should be interpreted.