Monday, October 19, 2015

On-Line Road to Where?

I love the scene in The Matrix when Neo is rudely disconnected from his devices and flushed into the sewer. Morpheus is there when he comes to and gives Neo the bad news of where he is: "Welcome to the desert of the real."

We aren't in a sci-fi matrix, but more and more, teaching, along with social interactions of all kinds, is going on line.

There are some great advantages to this, believe me. I can contact my class off campus about changes to the syllabus, post links to cool videos, interviews, articles. The access to information is sweet. It, as they say, is not merely the medium, it is all what we do with it.

And, there are questions about the limitations of on-line instruction, especially something as complex as writing. I've had my BS detector on for a while, and it's starting to go "ping" "ping" "ping."

First of all, I learned from my writing teachers, in part, by picking up on non-verbal cues and face-to-face relationships. We digressed into areas not specific to my writing when I went to see them during office hours. I learned how to stay focused on a piece of writing in long, detailed workshops. I had faces and voices to attach to written comments on my work. I had to overcome a desire to run in the face of criticism because I was accountable to be there in the class, to suck it up because that is what civil people do when they have face-to-face conversations. There was so much more going on than mere transmission of content.

It seems that studies are beginning to measure some of what my intuition has been telling me for quite a while. Specifically, students in an on-line environment develop far less empathy, ability to be alone with their thoughts, and to participate meaningfully in conversation.

Sherry Turkle's book Reclaiming Conversation in the Digital Age, for instance, looks at studies done on student abilities to empathize, to be alone with their own thoughts, and ability to sustain conversation. Here's a link to an interview:

I have noticed that the more my courses go on-line, the more time I spent with students talking about what's been posted, difficulties with the technology, and nit-picking over trivial grade items. That is time that has been taken away from talking about their writing.

Yes, it all looks cleaner, like a PowerPoint is cleaner than a white board, but clean, illuminated, bullet-pointed, and color-coded is not the same as effective. The medium is not so much the point as what education is supposed to achieve.

What I wanted from my writing classes was to learn to think, to explore and express my way of seeing the world, to discover, in part who I was as a human being, to learn to listen to other points of view, see other worlds though eyes that see what I would never see on my own, to empathize.

What I see now in teaching is reduced to skills and information. I don't see much attention to who the students are, what they bring to our courses, or ways to embrace that as we moved forward into more complex ways of communicating. I don't see much critique of why we do what we do.

I am trying to stay open, to be teachable, to learn new tricks. I really am. I keep telling myself to be that worker bee that just gets his job done well and doesn't slack.

I am not saying that there is no place for on-line courses. There are courses that are primarily content-based that could work very well. I just don't yet see the benefits of on-line writing classes.

The BS detector keeps pinging away. My world feels radioactive. 

There is more, much more, but I don't feel like moving faster than dragging my feet down the road into the digital landscape.

I guess I just find it too hard to let go of the desert of the real.

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