online teaching and teaching online (more GCHE posts)

This is an archived version of my online participation in a Graduate Certificate of Higher Education, this is from a post on the experience and challenges of 'online' teaching.

One of the biggest challenges as a tutor and new unit chair at Deakin has been the diverse student population spread across the multiple campuses, or the Deakin archipelago, as Prof Paul Carter described it. Making sure all students have access to the same information at the same time, and can make use of it in the same way is an unrealistic dream, one that no MOOC or LMS can fulfill on their own but is this a feature or a bug?

The D2L platform, like Blackboard, is a woefully inadequate walled garden, a legacy of the centralisation and control over student and staff activity. Granted it embeds html in a much more user friendly manner (allowing YouTube, Delicious, Scribd, Prezi and other platform integration, see below) than the predecessor, but the dropbox, discussion thread focus, student/staff profile and content management features are not an improvement.

We may see radical changes, as older structures are disassembled and effaced by new innovations and innovators to emerge from the top-down institutional challenge of the ‘cloud’ (whenever hearing that term I am tempted to quote Inigo from The Princess Bride: “I do not think that word means what you think it means), but a system is only as good as its users.

The distinction between online and offline teaching is of course a furphy, much like the division between the notions of offline and online in general. It’s a meme-like paradigm that has dominated thinking about digitally networked communication and human-computer interaction since their inception (the notion of the ‘online’ as virtual rather than digital is largely a result of cyberpunk fiction seeping into the mainstream), one that rejects the fully embodied nature of technology use and the broader phenomenology of the cyborg relationship between the human bodies, graphic and haptic interfaces, computation process and networked communications.

We are already fully ‘online’ as teachers (and students in this case), like the other parts of our lives, our activities and processes are dominated by ‘online’ activities, connections, products, services and media. Try getting by without your email, phone, PC, laptop, mobile device,internet or library database in in your daily teaching (if you can please let me know the secret).

In the “move to online teaching” or even the mythical’ cloud’, what we are talking about is the diminishing role of the lecture and the tutorial as the primary physical interface between teachers and students, and students and students (see more on this from the always impressive edu-blogger Music for Deckchairs)

Online tools support various kinds of replacements and expansions to traditional learning environments and as we move to cloud teaching, in its Deakinised hybrid form, I was encouraged by the atmosphere of experimentation and it was by pure chance I realised an opportunity to bring off campus and non-Burwood students physically into the tutorials I was teaching.

Google’s social network might be less popular than alternatives like Facebook and Twitter, but the clutter-free interface makes the G+ Hangout feature an extremely useful, free and mobile video conferencing app that can automatically upload the interaction to YouTube for later reviewing.

Check out the Web TV producer Felicia Day’s intringinly titled book club ‘Vaginal Fantasy’ hangout (SFW – safe for work video and link, mostly) which gave me the idea to try the use the app to bring off-campus and non-Burwood students into the live tutorial experience. Notice how the video feed switches automatically to the person talking, which prompts turn taking. (None of the tutorials this trimester were uploaded to YouTube, as we are still working out the public/private ethical and Deakin policy issues involved in this, but hopefully it will be practical to implement and embed in the DSO next year).

Students are required to sign up to Google mail to participate. This also gives students a constant connection to me as a tutor/unit chair as the Skype-like features of Gmail mean students can text, chat, email, and otherwise contact me when I’m online and using status updates like ‘available for consultation’: this allows me to roll some administration, email, consultation and student support time together into more regular and consistent hours, although it can be more work than traditional measures to become established.

At the start of the tutorial I use the ‘circles’ social network feature of the G+ system to invite students enrolled in the unit to participate in the video conference ‘Hangout’ via a laptop. Using the laptop I can face the webcam towards the whiteboard, especially when using the material on the web (does that make tutes online?) and during discussion small group work etc, I can swivel the laptop around to be another set of voices in the discussions and students can accompany me as I move to between individual, small group and class interactions.

The trial with G+ during this trimester has been ‘successful’, frustrated only by the vagaries of the WiFi at the Burwood campus. As I have found experimenting with other platforms and practices, like Facebook, Twitter, Online Video, Podcasting, Social Bookmarking and Blogging (the list goes on), these early failures are typical and useful stepping stones towards a more reliable and informed use.

The philosophy of teaching here is one of expertise in content, and context, to a degree, but not in the technology (being examined or implemented), which requires the student to become an expert in the relevant digital literacies involved; calling on them to provide peer-based technical support, the active sharing of knowledge, making recommendation on use, guidelines, sharing information, combat cheating and plagiarism, and reviewing implementation that can be crucial to the use and improvement of the technology in supporting not an online or offline, but an ‘enlivened’ and connected student and teacher experience.