The Limits of the Lecture, or What I Learned from Teaching Online

Molly Worthen’s “Lecture Me. Really” article in the NY Times sparked some valuable conversation this week. I won’t recap that whole thing, but if you missed it, Worthen offered an extended critique of active learning techniques in the classroom. Raging against the trend of de-emphasizing “sage on the stage” lectures, Worthen claims that quality lectures which present arguments and model critical thinking are optimal ways of teaching students, especially when this instruction is accompanied by meta-conversations about note taking and attention. I just presented her thesis in a rather favorable light as most educators would maintain the value of strategic, thoughtful lectures to enhance student learning. When you read her piece itself though, the problems are many and Josh Eyler does a comprehensive job of breaking them down here:

My intervention ties the debate here to a conversation I engaged in this week when a colleague asked me about my experience in online teaching. I taught blended and online classes for years, to the point where I became a trainer in pedagogy at my university for faculty and staff new to teaching online. While doing that work, I encountered numerous people who were highly skeptical about the value of online learning. I truly get that. First (as my colleague pointed out), the online enterprise has been stained by the impression that colleges are using these classes as a factory-style money grab to rack tuition dollars. More to pedagogy, there are concerns that online learning cannot replicate a classroom experience full of camaraderie and mentorship. If the course experience is inferior then students are the worse for it. I won’t perform the whole online vs. F2F debate, but I did become a believer in the concept of online classes. In a nutshell, there’s bad online classes and good online classes, just like face-to-face classrooms. Once you accept that online classes are “different” (not inferior) and plan for the difference, we’re off and teaching.

What I found is that (whether they admitted it or not) many instructors’ hesitation about online classes came more from what they wanted out of the experience of teaching than it did reactions to student learning. When Worthen talks about how she will “pace around, wave my arms, and call out questions to which I expect an answer,” I sense that this performance is incredibly valuable and exciting to her. She quotes another lecturer who says, “when I lecture, there’s a certain charisma. This stuff matters to me — it saved my life.” In response, it makes me want to ask “Who is this lecturing benefiting most – the professor or the students?”

As a young classroom instructor, I firmly believed that what separated me from weaker grad teachers was my comfort, experience, and insights. I could work a room, I could perform, I didn’t get nervous, I was the master of my classroom space. I was prepared and could construct a narrative from my notes. This made me successful, yes? After all, even my evaluations were high! It was only through teaching online and seeing those students learn just as much, watch them actively interrogate issues, think independently, that I realized that most of what I prided myself on had very little to do with student learning. Sure, I loved performing as an instructor and students responded to the fact that I was clearly invested, but were they learning critical skills to help them think by watching me up there?   Not as confident on that one. My charisma was not at the heart of student learning after all. Ego down.

This was challenging to accept as a graduate student. I can’t imagine what it’s like if you’re a tenured professor with years of lecturing experience, accustomed to a large of amount of intellectual deference and respect for your expertise. Abandoning the mentality that your most important job is to inspire students with the transcendence of your magnetism must be sincerely difficult.  Everyone might want to believe that he or she is Edward James Olmos, or Mr. Holland, or in a music video with Coolio, but the reality is that key parts of our job are to create opportunities for students to learn, build avenues to make connections, and present them with challenges to navigate. Basically, the tenants of active learning.

Like Josh Eyler and every reasonable academic admits, there is still a place for the lecture in academia. No babies will be exiting with the bathwater.  However (as he links extensively), there is evidence that this shouldn’t be the standard backbone of our courses. Worthen’s essay should be interrogated with a question I once had to ask myself: Is a passion for lecturing built on what excites the instructor or it is driven by what is best for student learning?

“Teaching with Twitter” Thoughts

Even with everything going on during the speeding Quarter system, it is good to remember to take time for professional development. I had the opportunity to enroll in an online course about Teaching with Twitter, and it has made a big impression upon me as I consider applications of social media in the classroom. I’ve already talked to some folks at K about their interest in this, and I should give an enthusiastic shout out to Matt Newman in Classics who has been committed to getting the most out of Twitter in his seminar.  The Hybrid Pedagogy class itself was excellent and brought me into dialogue I might otherwise have missed with scholars I would not have encountered. Navigating this topic with individuals who take pedagogy seriously while actively using these techniques at their institutions only fueled my belief in the potential of Twitter in the classroom.

What’s that sound?!? FERPA alert! Help!

Seriously, I recognize that when you mention social media in the classroom, be it Twitter, Facebook, blogging, Instagram, whatever, many instructors and administrators immediately worry about FERPA. This reaction is responsible and important. So let’s talk FERPA quickly to make room for what I want to say. There are some differing opinions on exactly how to interpret FERPA, but to save time on my own blog, here is a concise post from Faculty Focus that I find measured and helpful.
In short, with proper precaution and smart pedagogy, you can absolutely use social media in the classroom without violating FERPA.

I have found that Twitter, in particular, is now a vibrant place for scholarly discussion and a site where networking and communication can impact learning. Twitter has allowed me to access provocative conversations about pedagogy, learning, technology, and many topics relevant to my work. If you read my tweets, you’ll notice that I started using my course’s hashtag of #twittergo. If you follow that link, you’ll get a true Twitter experience of what those dialogues were like.  That’s one of the great things about Twitter – its archival nature.  Anyone following that link (I encourage you!) could jump into a conversation that flexes between synchronous and asynchronous.  The format and orientation can be daunting; it does sprawl like Deleuze and Guattari’s beloved “rhizomes,” but that is part of the unique experience and democratizing of discourse.

If I find myself teaching again, I’m going to strongly consider using Twitter as a medium for students to connect with the course. The days of being able to dismiss the platform as folks talking about their breakfast is over. It is increasingly a place where people do scholarly work, and it has become a tool for activism, learning, networking, and much more. It is one means to take our academic mission and make it open and global.  Like Kalamazoo College, Twitter is “comprehensively internationalized.”  Also, Twitter can be an effective writing tool, training someone to choose words and structure sentences carefully for maximum impact and clarity.  I’m convinced that are lots of potential strategies for using Twitter in High Ed.

If you want something in the shallow end of immersion, here is my project from the course, which was to design a Twitter assignment (forgive the blog content overlap).
Josh Moon -Twitter Assignment
I structured it intentionally so that participants don’t have to tweet personally or even register an account. Begin with some prefacing about Twitter terminology and techniques and this assignment could be a tool to think critically about social media and professional identity, a digital literacy project.

Lastly, here is miscellanea in the form of links and quotes:

“5 Tips for College Students Who Use Twitter”

“5 Reasons Twitter is Better for College Students than Facebook.”

“How to Balance Your Personal and Professional Identity on Social Media.”

“Your concepts of academic identity and academic reputation do need to expand. Twitter and social media are now a part of scholarship, as modes of communication and of scholarly practice.”
Bonnie Stewart, Coordinator of Adult Teaching, University of Prince Edward Island. @bonstewart

“When we engage on Twitter as scholars and academics, we contribute to the growing field of knowledge about networked collaboration and learning.”
Jesse Stommel, Director of Teaching & Learning Technologies, University of Mary Washington. @Jessifer