Wayback machine

I will admit that I was surprised to dig up this very old bit of ephemera — a paper on online pedagogy that I presented at an ICA (International Communication Association) pre-conference in 1999(!!) — and see how much of it still made sense today. Not all of it, to be sure. If nothing else, the kind of online teaching that was “easy” to do in 1999 (assuming you were at a school and/or in a part of the world where there was strong, reliable internet access for both instructors and students) was still almost entirely text-based, since the kind of bandwidth that’s now “easy” for streaming video was definitely not in place. I’m not sure whether to be pleased with myself about how well this has aged, or depressed at how little the world has really changed in the past 20+ years . . .

Critical Pedagogy and Virtual Classrooms: Reflections on Teaching Online

This paper, like ancient Gaul, is divided into three parts. I will confess up front that this division is primarily the result of me having several different (albeit not wholly unrelated) things to say about CMP (Computer-Mediated Pedagogy), and not quite having my act together enough to craft seamless transitions between them. So please forgive the jump cuts this takes in between those parts.

I should also confess to having deviated slightly from the abstract that got distributed to everyone. In particular, once this sentence is over, Henry Giroux does not surface again in the course of this paper — at least not explicitly.

Part One

I want to start with some fairly general thoughts about education and the Internet, and then work my way up to a more detailed discussion of critical pedagogy and virtual classrooms. Mostly, I want to begin with generalities because this is the level at which much of the public discussion about teaching with and on the Internet — scholarly and otherwise — seems to have gotten stuck. And I feel the need to try and “unstick” some of the prevailing arguments about CMP — at least for today — before the rest of what I want to say can be heard.

So let me begin with a quote from techno-skeptic Clifford Stoll, who had this to say about CMP in 1995:

The computer is a barrier to close teaching relationships. When students receive assignments through e-mail and send in homework over the network, they miss out on chances to discuss things with their prof. They don’t visit her office and catch the latest news. They’re learning at arm’s length.

More recently (last October, to be precise) The Chronicle of Higher Education followed a similar train of thought in publishing an essay by Ingrid Banks that bore the panic-filled title, “Reliance on Technology Threatens the Essence of Teaching.” Banks argues that:

The classroom environment permits students to interact with each other and their teacher. When students hide behind a computer monitor, such personal engagement will be lost. . . . The classroom environment forces students to listen, whether they agree or disagree. They have to think about what their peers or professors . . . have to say. [emphasis added]

Now, to be perfectly blunt about it, I think Stoll and Banks are dead wrong — but not because the concerns that they’re expressing are unwarranted. On the contrary, I’d say that their objections to CMP are rooted in the perfectly valid recognition that CMC is not the same as face-to-face conversation and the perfectly reasonable claim that face-to-face communication includes valuable features that are difficult (at best) and impossible (at worst) to replicate online.

Where the problem arises with Stoll and Banks’ arguments is in the assumptions they make about “computers” and “networks” (on the one hand) and about “teaching” and “classrooms” (on the other). In particular, they each seem to see these as unvarying, monolithic objects: phenomena that can be accurately summed up in tidy, soundbite-sized statements about “the computer” or “the classroom environment.” So while I don’t want to dismiss the concerns that Stoll and Banks raise — by any means — I’d also like to suggest that these sorts of claims don’t adequately address the complexities and nuances of either real online experiences or real pedagogical practices.

The Internet, for instance, encompasses a broad range of different modes of communication — enough so that I’d argue it’s more accurate to think of the Net as multiple media rather than as a single medium. The Net can provide modes of communication that are synchronous or asynchronous; uni-, bi-, or multi-directional; one-to-one, one-to-many, or many-to-many. A digital copy of an assignment handout on the Web, a class listserv where students and the teacher debate course-related issues over the course of a semester, and a one-on-one meeting between a teacher and a student for “virtual office hours” in an online chat space are all forms of CMP, but they’re hardly interchangeable or identical experiences. While some of these could involve “learning at arm’s length” or “hiding behind computer monitors,” it’s by no means clear that all of them do — or that all of them must.

Similarly, teaching is hardly a uniform set of practices. Courses vary wildly in terms of size, format, content, and level. “The classroom environment” for a 12-student doctoral seminar in Media Studies is vastly different from that found in a 400-student introductory level lecture course. “Close teaching relationships” are probably unrealizable for most of the frosh in a “mass class” like Econ 101, regardless of whether that course uses computers or not — and, on the flip side, such relationships are probably hard to avoid (unless the teacher actively resists them, which is a whole different problem) in a class of a dozen, even if computers are involved.

Put “the Internet” and “teaching” together and things only get messier. To take just three of many possible examples, there’s a vast difference between optional Net-based resources (e.g., putting class notes online, or providing them with links relevant to a research paper assignment), required forays online that are merely supplements to “normal” face-to-face class meetings (e.g., mandatory participation in a class listserv), and conducting an entire course online (e.g., using “learning environment” software like WebCT, Common Space, or CourseInfo to post course documents, hold “live” class meetings online, etc.). These are all examples of CMP, but claims made about one won’t necessarily hold water when applied to the others.

Put simply, the pedagogical value of the Net is highly context-specific, and the main problem with the sort of arguments against CMP presented by critics like Stoll and Banks is that they seem bent on making claims of a more universal nature than they should. For instance, I can’t imagine conducting the course I’m currently teaching — an undergraduate seminar in “Computer-Mediated Communication” — and not making sure my students get on the Net in a significant fashion: that would be like teaching a literature course without assigning any reading. But I can also imagine all sorts of teaching environments — from giant lecture classes to small “conversational German” courses — where the ultimate value of an Internet-component might be incidental, minimal, or non-existent.

Part Two

It’s also important to recognize that, as a relatively new communications technology, the Internet has yet to fully come into its own. Perhaps the most problematic assumption that critics like Stoll and Banks are making is that CMP is — and should be — nothing more than a new conduit for already existing forms of pedagogy. So they look at teaching as it currently exists (or some fraction of it anyway), see how difficult it is to capture significant parts of what they value about that form of teaching, and declare CMP a failure.

At one level, this problematic assumption shouldn’t really surprise us much. The history of new communication technologies is filled with examples of a new technology’s formative years being devoted to awkward attempts to use the new media as a simple conduit to deliver some older form of communication. So the early years of cinema, for example, often saw filmmakers place static cameras in front of traditional theatrical performances; uniquely cinematic storytelling devices — e.g., close-ups, pans, dolly shots, zooms, swipes, editing, etc. — took years to develop into the norms of a new and different medium. Similarly, though magnetic recording tape was available as early as the 1940s, it took until the ‘50s (or perhaps even the ‘60s, depending on whose history you trust most) before the music industry regularly began using the recording studio as much more than a place to try and capture an artist’s “live” sound on tape: overdubbing, multitracking, piecing together segments of different takes into a single track — these were not instant developments of the new technology.

What I want to suggest with these seemingly offbeat comparisons is that I think we’re still very much in the moment where most people — teachers and otherwise — are getting online and trying to use the Net to replicate modes and genres of communication that have worked for them in the past. And not enough people are getting online and asking questions like, “What can I do with this that I can’t do in a regular classroom? What new ways of teaching and learning does this technology potentially make possible?”

To a certain extent, this is the question that Colin Lankshear, Michael Peters, and Michele Knobel ask in their essay “Critical Pedagogy and Cyberspace” — which was on the recommended reading list for today, so I know all y’all have read it. :) — when they claim that:

Critical pedagogy is most definitely a viable educational enterprise within cyberspace. . . . [but] critical pedagogy does not . . . enjoy an easy transition from the space of conventional printed texts to that of the digitally coded ether. On the contrary, it undergoes something of a sea change: elements need to be rethought and reworked.

I want to agree with Lankshear and company that critical pedagogy and cyberspace are a good match for each other, but I would have to confess to being a bit skeptical of how much actual rethinking and reworking of critical pedagogy they manage to do, given that the bulk of their essay unpacks critical pedagogy’s modernist underpinnings and then moves on to make some truly over-the-top claims about the radical democratic potential of the Internet (e.g., “it is not at all difficult to envisage a peasant-born woman of color from a remote village conversing on equal terms with a white male professor located in one of the world’s most prestigious universities”). Sadly missing from their discussion of critical pedagogy and cyberspace is any detailed discussion of actual pedagogical techniques, tips, issues, exercises, etc. that might help real teachers make their real virtual classrooms (er, you know what I mean) more valuable learning experiences for real students. Which leads me to . . .

Part Three

So what does the Internet do for us as teachers — or for our students as learners — that’s new and bold and different enough to make some form of CMP worth trying? Let me offer four possibilities here — in the full recognition that (a) this isn’t an exhaustive list and (b) all of these potential benefits involve their own downsides and trade-offs — losses that, for some teachers, students, and/or circumstances, might very well outweigh what’s gained. Your mileage, as they say, may vary. All of these benefits, however, add up to something very much in the spirit of critical pedagogy, insofar as they encourage students to see themselves as active, critically-engaged participants in the learning process.

(1) Unlike face-to-face classroom settings, both synchronous and asynchronous online discussions make it possible for more than one person to “speak” at once and still be “heard.” One of the drawbacks to “real” classrooms is that only one person can effectively hold the floor at once — which is great if your goal is to lecture, but even in a small-ish class of 20, it can serve to stifle conversation and disempower students. A complaint I often hear from my classes is that, during active in-class discussions (when it’s not uncommon for 7-8 people to all want to contribute at once), by the time their turn has come to speak, my students have lost their thought or the conversation has shifted far enough away from the point where they had wanted to say something that they don’t feel they can steer things back. Online, those same 7-8 people can all post to a class listserv — or even type comments in a “live” chat environment — simultaneously and still have their ideas “heard” by the rest of the group. So one potential benefit of CMP is that, at least in some contexts, it can increase the number of students whose voices can be heard.

(2) I’ve found on several occasions that requiring students to participate in an online forum of some sort has actually increased the willingness and ability of otherwise shy students to speak up in class. The typical scenario in these cases is that such students are reticent about speaking up in class for fear that their ideas aren’t well thought out enough to share with the group, but they’re willing to post messages to a course listserv or online discussion board because they have the luxury of extra time to gather and compose their thoughts. Having given voice to their ideas online, however, and seeing them thoughtfully responded to by their peers can help to reassure them that what they have to say is worth saying and thus help to ease their worries about speaking up in class as well.

(3) While I don’t have “hard evidence” to back this up, it’s my general impression that requiring my students to go online in the various ways that I have (i.e., listservs, discussion boards, chat-room-based class discussions, etc.) has helped to improve their writing skills. For one thing, it gives them more actual practice writing: to do these things, they need to sit down in front of a keyboard and turn their thoughts into at least semi-legible prose. And while typing up 200-word listserv posts is certainly not the same sort of writing as composing a 4-page expository essay, one of the crucial differences between the two is that this sort of online writing is part of a collaborative, semi-public enterprise. Online writing gives them an audience of more than just me, which (in my experience, anyway) often helps them to see their own prose as something that needs to be truly persuasive.

(4) The use of an online forum also provides an opportunity for students to participate in class discussions on a 24/7 basis throughout the semester. In-class discussions are typically limited to three hours a week, and the need to push through a syllabus worth of material often means that threads from “old” conversations can’t be picked up and continued later in the semester. Online, such time restraints pretty much disappear. Some of the most interesting and productive threads in my classes’ online forums have taken place when, several weeks after the fact, someone was suddenly struck by a new insight from an earlier reading or discussion and decided to post about it. Not surprisingly, this facet of CMP also helps students to see and make connections between different sections of a course that they might not otherwise make.

By way of conclusion, let me throw two quick caveats on the table (there could be more here, but I’d like to make sure we have time left for discussion). First, for all of its flexibility and multi-faceted nature, the Net is not an all-purpose tool. There are certain genres of teaching that won’t work well online and that are unlikely to be replaced by any form of CMP. Perhaps the obvious example here is a good lecture course. After all, it’s one thing to expect students to log into an online chat space and actively engage in a group discussion; quite another to expect them to log in and watch silently while someone types at them for 90 minutes. And a more asynchronous reproduction of a lecture is ultimately nothing more than a typed transcript on a screen.

Second, CMP requires teachers to be fairly familiar and comfortable with the particular genres of CMC that they’re hoping to use: nothing instills students with a lack of confidence in their instructor quite like fumbling with a network interface that you expect to make them use to earn their grades. My own forays into CMP began with nothing more complicated than asking composition students to send me their writing journals via e-mail. From there, my involvement in CMP grew as my own comfort levels with the technology did, so that CMC course of mine that I mentioned before is being conducted entirely online. This is not, however, where I’d recommend newcomers to CMP to start. :)

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