Hang Out with Me After Class and Chat (And Other Aspects of Traditional Classes I Miss Teaching Entirely Online)

I teach fully online. Not hybrid or via ITV in an actual classroom, but 100% virtually from my home office. Only on rare occasions do I get the pleasure of physically meeting my students. Even then, that's typically at graduation and there's precious little time to spend with them at such an event. They, rightfully so, should be with their loved ones, basking in the glory of that achievement, not hanging out with their nerdy professor.

Teaching online is wonderful. It provides this neophile an opportunity to play with new technologies and delivery methods otherwise unavailable. It lets me meet, teach, and learn from students so geographically distant that I never would have otherwise. It affords students the temporal freedom of self-pacing (most of the time) and me the freedom to grade in my pajamas. 

Having said all that, online education within a traditional university, as opposed to entities like Khan Academy, can be problematic. Here's the spark for this:

Nostalgia percolated. (Not for Pulp Fiction, though I really should rewatch it soon.) It occurred to me that this represents something that I miss about traditional face-to-face classes, though not directly. (Incidentally, I'm not generally anxious but I've seen conference talks and symposia suffering from similar attendance and just thinking about it is discomforting. Awk-ward.)

We never "meet" face-to-face for class though we do have frequent video meetings (my classes are relatively small) so there's never a chance for us to hang out afterward or meet for lunch beforehand. We're all over the world so going to a brown-bag or symposium like the one jokingly referenced to in the tweet isn't an option (unless it's a webinar, I suppose). Students don't have the option to stay behind after class dismisses and chat with me about class and life (which was always one of my favorite parts of the college experience; maybe I was "that student," I don't know). Initially this was self-imposed as we were designed but not required to be fully online. Now we're included in a fully online campus that by design provides no face-to-face physical meetings.

This is not to say an online program or class can't be social. Far from it. There's even a framework for course design and implementation that has the social aspect built right in (CoI). Behavior and thoughtful decision can improve the social experience for students in online environments and certainly has been proven as such. It's still not the same. Nor is it supposed to be. These are different modalities with different expectations and affordances.

In my experience, two things mainly happen when students are on the other side of a computer rather than a desk and aren't fully comfortable being 'digital,' as it were: they either clam up and become incredibly passive or they can go overboard with the 'bravery of being out of range.' (No, not that Bravery of Being Out of Range, but let's listen, anyway.) Digital interaction either emboldens or silences, often. One way to mitigate this is to force a layer of personalization by requiring the use of video chat in classes but this is problematic for a number of potential reasons: 

  1. Ever tried doing a Google Hangout with more than six people? It can be unbearable. Doing a video-chat meeting in a class with 400 students is both technically and practically impossible. (While Hangouts On Air is an option it removes the two-way communication that the video chat is trying to accomplish in the first place.) Remember, I'm specifically talking about video conferences where all users are simultaneously using video. Hangouts is limited to 25 people, Skype is limited to 10 in the free version (though Microsoft suggests 5 for the optimum experience). Zoom's limit is 50 but I'd be curious to see just how noisy that can get. Even Slack limits video calls to 15 people.
  2. While online programs provide education access to students that may live in extreme rural areas that often comes with bandwidth limitations. This is also something to consider when having students create or download large files. Believe it or not, some folks still use dial-up (through no fault of their own). But broadband as a human right s something I've talked about before so I'll leave it at that.
  3. Another draw of fully online programs is access to education for those with severe anxiety or socialization hurdles. In my experience, such students often product superior academic work but stumble when required to speak aloud or join video chats in a classroom setting.
  4. Time differences for synchronous video classes is also a hurdle. I've had a class before that included students from 5 different time zones and every hemisphere. Even right now one of the instructors in our program is teaching from the other side of the planet, making a usual 6pm class in Arizona a 3am class in Belgium. Complicate this with students actively stationed in the military, moving from location to location (on top of their network connectivity restrictions) and you've got a recipe for a grab bag of different learner experiences while maintaining the same expectations of work.

In no way do I wish what I'm saying here to be construed as derision or disappointment about the online teaching experience. Quite the opposite: it's thrilling, enjoyable, and life-changing for many students (as well as many instructors, myself included). I simply want to point out some aspects about fully online programs that I believe we should not simply accept as shortcomings but begin to actively address. One way I've been inching toward shoring up the social presence in my classes, program, and campus is the use of Slack to provide everyone--students, instructors, administrators, the whole shebang--with a common platform and location to communicate and virtually exist.

What about you? Do you teach or study in a fully online program? What do you think about the lack of physical social interaction? Tweet at me and let me know.