Teaching with Pixels: A Free Form Meditation

The second week (of eight) of my online course begins today. Things are going well both logistically and in terms of learning, I think. My own learning especially. There are fifteen students, though it looks like one may drop, & that feels like a good number for this sort of course online. When I teach Understanding Vietnam in a regular classroom I let the enrollment go as high as 75 students because I use a lot of movies & slides to supplement lectures and reading. But the fact is, in a regular classroom, a large percentage of students remain passive vessels, even when we have Q & A after a lecture. In the online course, where they are required to participate in discussion boards, the teaching seems much more direct. Also more detailed and responsive to particular students rather than responsive to the whole class or just the feeling in the room. The Blackboard software is beastly, often requiring both students & instructor to click five times when twice would be enough in a decent UI. What I really don't like about Blackboard, though, is the way it forces me to chunk information up into discrete parcels & "deliver" them as units. The strength of the program is that it allows for extensive threaded discussions; I like the gradebook function, too, though it is not as well designed as the one in Turnitin's system. Clearly, the heart of the course is going to be the discussion boards & the students who dive into them are going to benefit. I wish there were a smoother way to present the course material. The Blackboard look & feel is so ugly that I have resorted to uploading Powerpoint slides -- I can at least do a little minimal design in that format. An there are some Flash tools that I've looked at that would be better, but what's lacking is an over-all environment. Next time around, I'd rather use a WordPress weblog with pages for each unit, a running commentary on the blog, and a Turnitin link for papers & grades. In a small class, I'd set the blog up so that everyone could post, but my main content pages would be protected from editing. Well, this post has just been a random brain dump or initial reactions. I'm happy to be doing this because I think that with the right tools & the right expectations, students could be be very well served by online classes. I love the classroom & would never abandon it -- well, I will retire at some point -- but there is, weirdly, a directness of communication in the online course that I find invigorating. In the classroom -- this will sound strange -- I am easily intimidated by students. Perhaps I want to be liked too much. I tend to take a very loose attitude toward deadlines & requirements & probably, too, toward sufficiently critical thinking. I'm tougher in the online environment, though friendly & supportive. I hate pomposity & self-importance in anyone, but particularly in teachers. So the online teaching experience is going to influence my meat world teaching, I think. For the better. Online, the element of performance is reduced -- replaced by . . . what? Some kind of more fully-conscious rhetorical encounter. At least on my part. As with any teaching situation, you can never really know what is getting across to students. As I've been writing this, I've had Kenneth Burke in the back of my mind, with his notion that drama is central to understanding. I understand the drama of the classroom -- after twenty-five years I still get nervous before class -- but I wonder what sort of drama I am now enacting through the Blackboard UI with my students & even as I am acting the drama, I am thinking about how the medium could be modified to make a better production. I need to think more systematically what I mean by "better" in that last sentence. There is a trope in American popular culture of the actor stuck in a limiting role, endlessly touring the same play through provincial towns (Derived from Eugene O'Neill's father's biography?) that is applicable to teaching. For me, hell would be playing Mortimer Brewster, or even Hamlet or Lear, every working day for the rest of my life. I've never taught the same course the same way twice in a row, but this online course is a fundamentally different kind of drama. I want to perform well, but I also want to see what I can take back to the traditional classroom. I am a perpetual beginner.

Author: jd

Joseph Duemer is Professor of Literature Emeritus at Clarkson University in northern New York state. His most recent book of poems is Magical Thinking from Ohio State University Press. Since the mid-1990s he has spent a good deal of time in Vietnam, mostly Hanoi. He lives with his wife Carole & five terriers (four Jack Russells & one Patterdale) on the stony bank of the Raquette River in South Colton.

5 thoughts on “Teaching with Pixels: A Free Form Meditation”

  1. I’ve been looking at online learning systems in preparation for my upcoming courses and thought that Moodle looked like a nice package. It’s open-source and takes a modular approach that allows you to turn completely off any module that you don’t want to see or deal with.

    It’s paradoxical that you feel a more immediate connection with your students online than in person, but perhaps that stems from your long experience blogging (and there’s as well), where you’ve worked out the questions and difficulties of intimacy that the apparent distance that one would expect a mediated experience would create. Certainly, it has been true for me that I can feel like I know someone better from reading their website than I do about people I see at the office every day. Perhaps if you were knew to being online, it would seem more strained to you.

    I think, too, that the written word is more intimate in many ways than any other sort of encounter, because it provides enough anonymity (even when you use your real name) to allow you to expose yourself in ways you might not otherwise. It allows you to reveal your thoughts directly (but only your thoughts).

  2. Andru, for me it is the intimacy of the written word that has this effect, I think. I’m both a blogger & a poet, so when I write a response to a student online, it feels very close & real. Or maybe I feel more in control of the dramatization in written form. Words on the page are more stable than words in the air.

    And I’ve read a little about Moodle without having tried it. I will take a closer look. One of the problems with open source ironically is that institutional IT people are leery of supporting them.

  3. I highly recommend doing a little podcasting. I used Audacity to record some audio files for my students last summer, not formal lectures but informal reflections on ideas I particularly wanted them to think about. They loved them, I think because otherwise the experience is so very visual. I haven’t revised my course for second summer session this year yet but you can see some examples at this location if you page down to the schedule. I link that syllabus into Blackboard and so most of my content is on regular web pages but students can access it through blackboard.

  4. Pam, thanks for the link & for the advice about podcasts. I have Audacity & would like to add some audio. Did you also have to install the LAME converter to make mp3 files?

  5. The Blackboard software is beastly, often requiring both students & instructor to click five times when twice would be enough in a decent UI.

    Blackboard is beastly. The less I use it the happier I am.

    Nice idea on using podcasts.

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