Thursday, April 10, 2003

At the two meetings I attended recently where online learning was discussed, one common thread involved how long it takes to teach using the electronic delivery method. Those of us who are proponents of online classes rarely dispute that the time commitment is greater than in traditional classroom teaching. Developing a new course is particularly time consuming, and it does become easier with experience, but even routine course management takes a long time.

On the other hand, I have learned that teaching, in general, takes a big commitment, if you want to do a good job. Sure, there are tricks to streamline things, but there's no getting around that you need to invest a lot of energy to achieve a good result. One method that helps a little with the burden, in both the online and in-person appraoches, is group work. Plus, everyone agrees that having students learn to work in groups is beneficial for learning, and for adapting to what will be expected in the land of jobs. Everyone, that is, besides a significant number of students. Some students like group work, but some hate it.

I was among those who hated group work when I was a student. But I respect research, and research is persuasive on this point. So this year I decided to add it to my classes, using the suggestions in the research to address student (and my) concerns. If find it is a challenge to design a worthy assignment, both for the on campus and online sections. I had to adjust both after last semester; although on campus the vast majority of students felt the group experience was favorable, I was not all that satisfied with the results. Online, I felt the outcomes were excellent, but most of the students intensely disliked the group project. The students in the classroom now have all semester to prepare for an end-of-semester presentation day, rather than having a short time to whip something up, with each group presenting once during the semester. And in the online class, I have taken a more visible role in terms of facilitating. The instructor is privy to much more of the process in the online world, and the students know that. So being hands-off is not really possible.

I'm pleased to report that so far, both classes seem to be performing much better in the group work. This is a generalization, of course; recently there was a minor melt-down in one of the online groups. In the end they pulled it off, but it did take my intervention. This (my involvement, not the melt-down) is not likely to have happened in the classroom, because the instructor does not have as much access to the process, and students have gotten the message from years of group assignments that working out difficulties is the group's problem, too bad, go away. So on presentation day they suck it up and will muddle through somehow.

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