While the so-called flipped classroom may be all the rage right now*, I want to take a minute to talk about flipping the instructors and the designers of instruction. When I talk about flipped instructors**, what I mean is this: instructors who are simultaneously now students again, and who are required by that experience to confront the effects of their teaching methods and behaviors on their students.
What I also mean to say, in my own narcissistic way, is this: I am learning a lot about my own online teaching work from the things that drive me absolutely bonkers about the classes I am taking and have taken. Note that my intent is not to bag on my teachers here — it’s more mea culpa than j’accuse, because I understand what I’m seeing from their side, too (and have done exactly the same things). I absolutely recommend to anyone who either is teaching/designing an online class or is planning to do so that s/he take at least one (preferably more than one, and of more than one kind) online class. The experience is enlightening.
What I’m most interested in right now is sources of anxiety. My online students, in my experience, have often seemed to me to be in many ways much more in need of order, reassurance, guidance, and a sense of the big picture of the class than my face-to-face students. At first, I attributed their tendency to be extra-anxious to differences in educational experience and tech experience, but I’m beginning to understand that these things are only a part of the problem. There are also at least three things that an instructor and/or a course designer online might be doing that can cause considerable stress in a student (and I say this as someone who is comfortable with the technology and not particularly intimidated by mostly self-motivated study). All three, I think, begin from a tension between the student expectation that online study can be, to at least some degree, more self-guided and controlled, and the instructional norm that expects teachers to set up structures to guide the learning experience in ways that pure self-guidance might not be capable of enabling.
1. Organizational Obscurity
One thing that I personally find pretty rage-inducing at times as a student is an online class that is either difficult to navigate or incompletely presented. Because the LMS is the main point of interaction between student(s) and content, it’s really unpleasant to find oneself unable to reach said content or unable to understand how to interact with it because it either isn’t all there or it isn’t organized in a way that facilitates easy use.*** If the course is incompletely presented, then it’s difficult to figure out how to manage one’s interactions with it. Having assignments only appear on a schedule or only become available conditional on the completion of other tasks is fine (and is sometimes absolutely necessary for pedagogical reasons), but if that fact and the process of eventual accessibility is unclear to the student, things get tense on the learner end of the business. If there are instructions for or descriptions of an assignment that don’t actually match up with how the student may access and interact with the assignment, things get really tense.
I get it (I’ve done it) — sometimes, especially with a new course, a wholly redesigned course, or a change to a new LMS, we put up as much as we can in order to get going on a very tight schedule. We TBA things like later-term due dates and some assignment details or edits. We copy-paste or import material from elsewhere and leave it stand, unedited for its new home, so that people at least have something to work with, as a promissory note for later clarification. The incompleteness of the presentation and organization is often a sign of a good-faith attempt to get students the information they need.
Problem: In the online class experience, partial information is sometimes worse than no information at all. Why? On to point 2…
2. Failing to Understand the Experience of Time Online
One of the oft-touted great advantages of online learning over conventional face-to-face college classes is the way in which it is supposed to give students more control of their time, especially in asynchronous learning arrangements. This is why online classes may be so attractive to people trying to attend school part-time while still working, caring for family, etc. — one can work more or less at one’s own pace, owning one’s own time. Obviously this ownership of time is easier for a totally asynchronous and relatively un-timed MOOC than for a tighter-scheduled 8-week or 15-week online class that may include more definite deadlines and occasional required synchronous communication events. Students who do best online are typically those who are capable of managing their own time without being held externally accountable by rigid scheduling on the part of the instructor.
When this relative structural freedom is combined with the way in which online interaction time can feel simultaneously expanded and contracted — it’s all so fast now that a minute of waiting feels like forever — the act of trying to manage one’s time in class and on task becomes a bit…stressful, especially when the assignments and course organization are incomplete. Interacting with a course in an LMS gives the student the opportunity to control her time pretty closely, and if the course is fully developed and clear, it makes it very easy for the student to plan her work within online learning’s more flexible deadline arrangements. A course that is incompletely realized or badly organized makes the student’s time management efforts difficult, effectively negating the advantage that self-motivated learners might gain from having the opportunity to work in a less rigidly time-bound environment. The result is anxiety and irritation, rooted to at least some degree in a sense of lost control over an experience that is supposed to be student-guided and is yet in many ways entirely outside of student control (as technological interactions at any distance often are — the same reason we often get mad at the computer, a thing we think we should be able to control and sometimes just can’t).
Still worse is an online course adapted from face-to-face material in which the designer insists on preserving the time structures and limits of a F2F course and doesn’t adapt to fit an asynchronous online learning environment. In person, and for some subjects, it’s important to require students to go through material in order; online, however, it is sometimes better to make it possible for students to work ahead in an asynchronous online environment, either in order or not, as a part of supporting their control over their own time. Course design or organization that frustrates that kind of work can be…unpleasant, to say the least.
The problem with letting go of absolute time control on the part of instructors, however, isn’t just a difficulty of learning order — it’s also a practical workflow difficulty. It is easier to grade (and to gain valuable information about one’s student cohort via grade assessment) when everyone in the class is working on more or less the same schedule. Letting everyone hand things in whenever can make the assessment/grading process incredibly inconvenient and more work-intensive for the instructor.
The trick, I think, is somehow to create a happy medium — to organize well enough ahead of time that it’s possible to give students at least the perception of more control over their own workflow without seriously undermining the instructor’s ability to do the same. What this trick needs, though, is careful decisions about my next point…
3. Communication Problems
The problems I have in mind here go beyond things like reading comprehension issues or the difficulties of clear expression in online forms (which can be addressed in a number of different ways, including Skype/Collaborate/Hangout sessions, recordings, etc.). Incomplete or poor organization in the LMS is a communication problem. Failure to remember how time feels online is a communication problem, especially for students working at a distance from their instructors who don’t feel like they have control over the learning process in which they are attempting to engage.
Improved communication can also be the cure. Anticipating questions and pre-arranging easily discovered answers to them makes everything less stressful for a student in this kind of learning environment. Even if details haven’t been filled in, providing partial information that is correct, up-to-date, and clear can go a long way toward alleviating anxiety about the work, especially if the information provided accounts for time properly. Providing a publicly stated and specific deadline for oneself about the A in that TBA and meeting it is incredibly reassuring. Making room for students to develop a whole picture of the course and being clear about time expectations can make the process of waiting for a response make more sense. Heck, just a note about one’s usual email interaction or discussion forum interaction schedules can go a long way — if I know you typically look at certain issues on Fridays, then I’m not going to freak out if I message you about them on Wednesday and don’t immediately hear from you. Let me in on the schedule!
Obviously, instructors with heavy loads and tight schedules can’t always get it all done right the first time (boy, howdy, ain’t that the truth). Little deadlines for one’s own completion and communication, though, can make life a little less miserable for all. Oddly enough, while it may make student lives easier to loosen up a bit about time in an asynchronous online environment, managing this stuff is a lot easier for the instructor if she keeps herself pretty rigidly scheduled and communicates clearly about it.
*Although, to be honest, some of us have been doing this or something like it since loooong before the language about it got all brand-sexy.
**Flipping instructors, man. What is UP with them, amirite?
***I’ve talked about this at greater length elsewhere.