Online Pedagogy and the problems it brings

Posted: June 2, 2010 in Uncategorized
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This entry is going to cover two articles. There’s Anonymity versus Commitment: the dangers of education on the Internet by Hubert L. Dreyfus (2002), and Respond Now! E-mail, Acceleration, and a Pedagogy of Patience by Jeffrey Andrew Weinstock (2004). So there is at least a common theme: online pedagogy. Which I’m interested in. I included the years because in a field like this, things change really fast, and so I need to remind myself to read these guys on their own terms, not the way the world is  six or eight years later.

Let’s look first at the dangerous. One of the problems Dreyfus puts forth is the lack of hierarchy; that is, on the internet, everything is just as accessible as everything else. And, according to Dreyfus, that’s bad. He writes “When information is organised [sic]  in a traditional hierarchical database, the user is forced to commit to a certain class of information before viewing more specific data that fall under that class” (370) meaning that students need to build a base of familiarity with a subject before getting into the complexity. But that’s not what happens. “When information is given in hypertext, as it is on the Web, however, instead of the privileged relations between a class and its members, the organising [sic] principle is the interconnectedness of all knowledge.” (370). So online, we can go anywhere, and there’s no distinction organizing the way subjects interconnect. A student can jump from one idea to the next, without worrying about learning the basis in between.

And, as Dreyfus says, that is the point. “The goal of hyptertext is to allow the user to easily get from one data entry to any other, as long as they are related in at least some tenuous fashion” (370-371). Certainly, with hypertext we can jump from one place to another very quickly. Dreyfus thinks this is wrong, and I think that people who watch a teenager on Wikipedia will, at first, agree with him. They will agree that “Quantity of connections has replaced judgment as to the quality of those connections” (371, italics in original). People are able to see more information, but they are not learning the best information anymore. I would disagree with this; while I see where Dreyfus is coming from, I can speak both from personal experience and anecdotal evidence that the ability to jump from one topic to another tends to drastically increase what is learned, and more importantly, what is retained. The constant movement seems to keep the brain working, which, for me at least, lets me process things better. A lot of my students seem the same way, so it seems like maybe the quantity is providing quality.

Dreyfus pushes back when talking about expertise. He says “since expertise can only be acquired through involved engagement with actual situations, the possibility of acquiring expertise is lost in the disengaged discussions and deracinated knowledge acquisition characteristic of the Net” (374). First and foremost: Deracinated means displaced or uprooted. I had to look it up.

But as for the quote itself, it seems to me like Dreyfus is pushing the same things Quintillion pushed so long ago: in order to be an expert, you have to practice. I don’t want to disagree with that; practice does make perfect. I know the more I do something, the better I get at it. But I disagree that this is the only way to acquire expertise. If someone is actively engaged in a Q&A forum for long enough, they will gain a certain level of expertise on many of the subjects discussed there, even if those discussions are displaced, disengaged, and existing only on the web as opposed to in actual situations.

Dreyfus then moves into a very interesting idea about teaching that I completely disagree with. He says that “Since skills cannot be captured and transmitted in rules, and the attraction of a life of risk and commitment cannot be fully portrayed by narratives, education at its best must be based on apprenticeship” and that “learning by apprenticeship can work only in the nearness of the classroom and the laboratory; never in cyberspace” (377). First, I disagree that skills can’t be captured and transmitted in rules. Acounting works that way. So does computer programming. And Logic. You can teach yourself many of these skills with nothing more than a textbook (a captured and transmitted set of rules). Secondly, claiming that the attraction of a life of risk and commitment being unable to be portrayed in narrative suggests to me a need to read more fiction. How many people wanted to live the lives of risk and adventure after reading a good book (or, for that matter, seeing a good movie)? The highest recruitment drive in the Navy’s history occurred when they set up booths outside movie theaters playing Top Gun. There’s risk AND commitment.

As for education as apprenticeship, that’s hard to argue. It can be very helpful to have someone there to teach you the ropes, to hold your hand when you need it and get you ready to do things on your own. Our university system is often built on such things: students have advisors, after all. But can that apprenticeship only work face to face? I don’t think so.

Leaving aside technology that wasn’t around (like easy video conferencing, say), there was still e-mail. Sometimes the best advising I can get is comments on my work, or long e-mails explaining my professor’s thinking. There are things that you can take the time to say in an e-mail that would feel redundant and dull if said in person. With written comments, you don’t have to worry about remembering things, and there’s less concern about personal feelings. I can put the comments aside for a bit, until I feel better about them, then look at them fresh.

And when you add the technology back in, there are tons of ways to teach online without ever meeting in the classroom. Not all of them are great, and they do take some getting used to. Which brings me to the next article.

Respond Now! E-mail, Accelertion, and a Pedagogy of Patience talks about one of the biggest hurdles to get over when it comes to teaching online: speed. The internet is so fast that answers can in theory be given right away. And students think that they should. But Weinstock tells us that “responsible pedagogy is a ‘pedagogy of patience’ – pedagogy that both exercises and teaches patience … it may well be that among the most valuable things we can teach our students is when and how to wait” (366). Which means that the impetus for dealing with this urgency issue falls not just on the students, but on the teachers as well. If they think they don’t need to wait, they won’t want to.

Part of where this impatience crops up, according to Weinstock, is in communication. “When compared with traditional or formal writing, e-mail evidences a disregard for both English grammar and polite discourse” (367). I think that’s easy to agree with. Many e-mails are a single word, or a sentence fragment. Punctuation and capitalization are rarely paid attention to, and the sentences don’t always even need to make sense. Read as they are written, the tone tends to come off as, at best, abbrasive, and at worst downright rude.

Why does this happen? According to Weinstock, “E-mail evades secondary censorship because learned strategies of composition encourage an affect-laden, stream-of-consciousness-like writing practice, and the temporality of e-mail and its perceived immateriality allow the message to be transmitted before it is reviewed and reconsidered. The e-mail message is gone before the superego kicks in, so to speak, before one loses one’s nerves” (371). People write and send e-mails so quickly, without taking the time to calm down from what may be imagined sleights, or without taking the time to remove things that could be interpreted as such, that e-mails end up far more brusque than conversation would.

The next question is how to deal with it. Weinstock suggests that we ‘teach e-mail’ so to speak, and has several ideas on how to do. He says that “Students should be reminded that e-mail messages can be archived, downloaded, and printed. Furthermore, e-mail messages easily can be forwarded to third parties without the original author’s knowledge” and suggests that “Instructors may desire to mention in the syllabus or on the first day of class that offensive or abusive e-mail messages will be retained” (377). And while this method, basically a threat, may be effective, it seems like warning them of the permanency and transitivity of e-mail may just inspire students to avoid it entirely, which isn’t the point.

Sometimes, we want the e-mails, even the negative ones. Weinstock says “Students should be made aware that, in some cases, communicating one’s discontent or ire can achieve positive results … However, students need to be asked to consider in what situations communicating one’s feelings and/or constructive criticism is desireable and what rhetorical strategy is likely to have the most productive outcome in light of the students’ present and future objectives” (379). So we should encourage students to send e-mails, but ask them to consider what they expect to get out of a response to those e-mails, and whether the response will be helpful or hindering for their goals.

All in all, what we need to remember is just that e-mail is important. “Responsible pedagogy needs to take e-mail seriously as a new medium of communication defined by an accelerated temporality–a temporality that has the potential to outstrip productive discourse” (380). E-mail matters, but we have to remember that sometimes it can go so fast that we end up moving ahead when it would have been better to stop and think for a while.

That makes sense to me.

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Comments
  1. Ivan_Freeman says:

    I changed across your site a couple of months ago when I did a search on P.J. Corbett. I’m an undergrad English major attending a community college that offers a wide range of online classes, a few of which I’ve taken myself. I must say, for my part, anecdotally, I have experienced frustration with online courses because of the lack of a traditional “hierarchy” of an on campus course. Being able to interact in person with one’s teacher with a fixed course layout and fellow students rather than a discussion broad is , at least for me, more engaging and captivating in that I feel involved in the motions of a learning process whereby the material being taught anchors itself concretely in one’s mind. With online courses, there seems to be a disconnect that prevents this process. And from my brief reading of your post, I find that “apprenticeship,” or perhaps a mentor, is indeed a great advantage in the classroom to facilitate the learning process. In essence, from my experience as a student who has taken online courses, online courses are really self study courses, and as such lack a sense of direction, particularly if one is not familiar with the subject matter, so a vast “Quantity” of connections or information will be meaningless unless there is a sort of direction to ground, I suppose one may say hierarchy, the student from which grounding to approach his study into the subject matter.

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