02 June 2009

Virtual Students = Poor Instructors

On Sunday, the Star reprinted a story from the Chronicle of Higher Education, describing how some professors teaching cyber-ed courses pose as so-called virtual students, acting as online agents provocateurs to stimulate student discussion and participation.
Professors who use these puppets argue they have a serious purpose. Barbara Christe, an associate professor of biomedical-engineering technology at Indiana University-Purdue University at Indianapolis, invented "Bill Reed" because she felt disconnected from her online students. Other proponents say fake students can bridge the isolation that students feel sitting alone at their computers. They stimulate participation. They build learning communities. And the ultimate hope is that they help keep students from dropping out, a serious concern of distance educators.
It's easy for fogey-generation professors to feel disconnected in the cyber world. As I talk about in many of my keynotes, we in the fogey generation have had to adopt and adapt to those technologies that create ubiquitous connectivity and pervasive proximity. For us, it's a disconnection from the world in which we were socialized and acculturated.

But there's something else at stake here - something that may well be many professors' dirty little secret: They don't know how to teach. Many will assume that reasonable benign course evaluations, or even those that laud the course material, are signs of being a good teacher. If professors rely on their physical presence and being able to, as the article describes, "invite students in when you hear them grumbling in the hall," then perhaps they haven't got the skills to truly promote conversations in their classes, as opposed to transactional monologues from students to teacher. Such professors may relish the role of "sage on the stage," but that's not what adult education - and arguably higher education - is all about.

The minority opinions in the literature on cyber-ed support this position. Most of the cyber-ed literature - and often the so-called best practices - call for more enforcement through coercive marking schemes, and laud short-essay formats for what should legitimately be conversations. The highly touted online discussion forums can be shown to promote anything but discussions. Rather than participating in anything that resembles true collaborative knowledge creation, students effectively state their own opinion for the benefit of the instructor (not to mention the benefit of their marks that are assigned by the instructor), without drawing from the collective knowledge and views of their cyber-classmates, as would often happen in face-to-face engagement in a physical classroom. Writing in the Journal of Computer Assisted Learning in 2002, Matthew Thomas sums up these observations by stating:
There was little on-going development and exchange of ideas in any of the discussion themes. Rather, the disjointed and fragmented individual contributions were abstracted in space and time from other students’ contributions. … This incoherent structure of the discussion threads is not compatible with a truly conversational mode of learning. From this analysis it is evident that the virtual learning space of the online discussion forum does not promote the interactive dialogue of conversation, but rather leads students towards poorly interrelated monologues.
Other authors describe how most threads die out with no responses, and that the vast majority of responses in their respective studies were, in fact, single interactions between student and teacher. (In a forthcoming chapter on cyber-education that I co-authored with Marilyn Laiken, I argue that the threaded forum technology itself has a lot to do with encouraging bad teaching practice: the medium is the message, after all.)

Hiding as the wolf-in-sheep's-clothing of storybook fame is not the answer. Professors learning how to become co-learners in the enterprise of collective knowledge construction, rather than being the sole purveyor of golden words of wisdom, is the sustainable and ethical answer to disconnected professors, be they online or in physical presence, among students who seem to be more interested in Facebook than face-to-face with a droning prof.

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