Making Up for Lost Face-Time

The first thing I noticed when I started teaching DE sections of 302 (concurrently with some traditional face-to-face sections) is what I think of as the “communication lag.”

Teaching writing and research F2F has its own set of drawbacks — pedagogy can be limited by the physical writing space of the classroom, the technology or lack thereof, attendance can dwindle at the most inopportune times, and it somehow feels simultaneously both too short (so much to cover) and too long (after a while, you run out of “teaching” topics and just have to get down to writing), but the big advantage of F2F writing instruction is the instant feedback.

In the classroom, you can give a lecture, answer a question, explain an example, and generally get a sense of the room immediately — who gets it, who is still unsure, who is avoiding eye-contact in hopes that you’ll just move on. I can liken it to performing on stage, live for an audience — they cheer or they boo, but you know right away that they heard you.  Teaching online, if I’m to stick to my lazy metaphor, is like recording your performance in a studio, sending it to the printer, shipping it to stores, and hoping everyone buys the album. You’ll hear from some of them, but not all of them and it takes much longer to hear back.

We experience this communication lag in a lot of ways teaching digitally — not knowing if students are “getting” it and having less/no opportunity to read their faces, losing days in email/discussion board back-and-forth with an issue that would have taken minutes in-person, or just losing students to attrition with what feels like little or no warning. I’ve learned to deal with some of this teaching 302 students ( typically older students, either upperclassmen or even non-traditional or returning students) who, for the most part, “get” the whole “college thing” and CAN navigate the slightly more difficult channels of communication, but sometimes choose not to. That is, I’ve tried to do what I can — “meeting” students early on in the semester via Skype or conferences, being active on our Bb page, reaching out to students via email or comments on work when I notice some slipping; but I also have come to accept that part of the reason some (many?) of these students are taking my class in a DE/DL format is because they don’t care as much about the kind of fluid communication and connection that one gets in a F2F classroom. They value flexibility over “access” (to me, to their peers) and some may even want the distance — I’ve certainly had some “desert island” students who just turn in the work and I never really hear from them all term.

Here is my concern: While it’s almost certain there will be a contingent of freshmen (or transfers) who WANT the freedom/distance of online education in 101, there will also be a large (larger?) group who take 101 as hybrid or DE out lack of other options. The social element of all classes, even, maybe especially, DE is an integral part of student (and teacher) success. There’s a nice rundown/lit review in Jennifer Cunningham’s “Mechanizing People and Pedagogy: Social Presence in the Online Classroom” which details the methods and benefits — enhanced engagement, lower attrition, achieved learning outcomes, etc. With 101 though, especially in the typical freshmen-heavy class, it feels different. There is the same need for a sort of academic-social connection — collaboration, sharing of methods and sources, etc, but it also feels like there is something else. Something less quantifiable.

When we teach 101 (and to a lesser extent, 302, mostly due to transfers/returning students who are perhaps new to Mason) we sort of teach 2 classes — a Writing/Research class and a “Welcome to College” class. Our classrooms are one of, if not the only in which the instructor knows their name, will notice if they are absent, will expect them to make mistakes, etc, etc. What happens when we lose this valuable purely social element from decreased (hybrid) or absent (DE/DL) seat time?

I’ve been inspired by Kerry’s post and our group talks so far and instead of looking at this as a pitfall, I’m trying to instead view this blank canvas of ours as an opportunity. So, how can we take advantage of the opportunity we have to re-imagine seat-time with our students?

After doing a bit of preliminary research, there are some options which point to some positive outcomes, but may be difficult/strenuous to pull-off with a large course load. Hopefully Dr. Kuo and the DL office can help us put these into action, but some possible options:

Synchronous Writing Groups Using Chat Functionality, VOIP and/or Web Conferencing (the new Bb Collaborate?) — “Nontraditional Students Online: Composition, Collaboration, and Community” by Cheryl Hawkinson Melkun (2012) showed that the dialogic nature of these programs allows for higher student engagement, better metacognition, and even had the added benefit of students focusing on more higher order concerns rather than text/sentence specific issues, because both critic and critiqued could seek elaboration/explanation.

The challenge to the above is 1) getting students to collaborate on any kind of schedule. We would have to build in a fairly loose schedule to allow students to work this into their calendars. Perhaps, (and this is maybe a big compromise) instead of arranging groups by content/major, we allow them to sign up by times on a google doc. Then we know who is available when. Secondly, technology — having all students’ tech capabilities (their brains and computers) working at the same level throughout the term can be a challenge. Third, would be oversight/accountability. An “off-sight” meeting like Google Hangout, or Skype would either require instructors to view/participate live (which would be incredibly time-consuming if not impossible, depending on schedule and total students) or just trust that students are all participating. While I’m competant at a lot of Bb tech, I’m admittedly clueless about Bb Collaborate Ultra (mega? super?). The old Collaborate always crashed on me so I gave up, but maybe we could get a thorough tutorial.
I suppose a solution to off-site “hangouts” could be a sort of “debriefing” document, where each group member peer-reviews the meeting itself for our eyes. Melkun (2012) also recommends chat programs that allow users to save/print a transcript, which would not only be helpful for instructors but also for students to return to for their feedback.

More Frequent (but smaller) Meetings — This is something I think we discussed in our last meeting, but it’s possible to help students feel more connected to the communal classroom and perhaps one another if we were to have frequent small/low-stakes class modules — 20 min freewrite here, 5 min video there, 10 min quiz the next day, etc. I worry about doing this with any kind of irregularity (part of me feels strongly about 101 students needing firm structure and it makes me feel like an old man) but perhaps the time/dates that work would “drop” stay consistent, but time needed to dedicate to the work could (mildly) fluctuate? I’d love to hear more from folks on this.

Using “Seat” Days (F2F) in a Hybrid class as 1-2 small group meetings, which rotate weekly —At GW, we had Hybrid classes (we had a 3 day schedule — MWF or TRF where Friday was 50 mins compared to 90 for the other days), but they weren’t explicitly a F2F/DE hybrid. Some met each week at a historical site, a museum, a food bank, wherever, but many instructors used  their Hybrid day (often Fridays) to hold long/50min conferences with 4-5 person groups who had prepared writing/comments/discussions beforehand. We could potentially have a MWF or MW hybrid course where after the first few weeks of orientating, Monday is “Online” and Wednesday is 35 mins with Group 1 and 35 with Group 2. Next week is 35 with Groups 3 and 4, etc. Meetings need not even be in the classroom, if space is an issue, but maybe in the JC or Starbucks, or wherever would be appropriate. These could potentially be even more intimate learning/workshop sessions than we’d get with 20+ person F2F sessions, though less frequent.

Other things that (no surprises here) have been shown to help in DE/DL success (Mostly from Cunningham, 2015):

Direct communication with students and teacher, social presence of instructor, collaboration with students.

I feel like I’ve gone on too long already and have lots more to say about some of this research and all, but I’ll save it for next time.

Anyway, ideas for getting the benefits of F2F social-interaction (less attrition, more engagement, more student satisfaction, etc) through Digital/Distance means?


References I’m checking out:

Cunningham, J. M. (2015). Mechanizing People and Pedagogy: Establishing Social Presence in the Online Classroom. Online Learning, 19(3), 34-47.

Hsu, S., & Sammons, M. (1998). The Invisible Barriers in Teaching at a Distance.

Melkun, C. H. (2012). Nontraditional Students Online: Composition, Collaboration, and Community. Journal Of Continuing Higher Education, 60(1), 33-39.

Montagne, L. (2012, January 1). Student Learning Outcomes and Pedagogy in Online and Face-to-Face College English Composition: A Mixed Methods Study. ProQuest LLC.

Ross, J. (2000). My ENG 102 Class Has Gone to HEC: Creating the Hybrid Electronic Course.

(Here’s a link to the full-text of the Ross Conference Paper — it’s 16 years old, so the tech issues are pretty different, but worth a look for trial/error purposes. It’s available on ERIC.



About Brian_Fitzpatrick

Brian Fitzpatrick is a Term Assistant Professor of English at George Mason University and previously taught at George Washington University.
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2 Responses to Making Up for Lost Face-Time

  1. kerryfolan says:

    Great post, Brian. You bring up something I am thinking a lot about these days as I design my hybrid 101 class — what ARE our students’ goals in taking online or hybrid class (and/or how can we find out)? Also, what’s our responsibility as educators to respond to those goals?

  2. Pingback: Brainstorming, Problem Solving, and Design Thinking | Digital Didact

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