Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Online Classes and Readings

Most traditional classes have two kinds of learning: students attend lectures, and they have assigned reading from a textbook.

I say "and" but really for most undergrad students it's an either/or proposition. Lecture and readings are usually redundant, so the students who attend lecture tend to blow off the reading and those who diligently do the reading don't feel too bad about skipping class. This is a generalization; there are plenty of exceptions, students who attend class and study heavily, or classes where the reading and lecture have no common ground. But in a lot of cases, students are conditioned to study as little as possible, and this is an obvious shortcut that can free up some extra time for, say, playing games.

Without going into a discussion of how to change the culture of an entire generation, let's assume that this carries over into online classes and see what happens.

In the online classes I've taught before, there is no "lecture" per se; the lecture has been replaced by... more reading, which was written by whomever developed the online course. So students have reading from the course website, and assigned reading from a textbook. (Visual learners are probably quite happy about this, while auditory learners get screwed, but I digress.)

To a student who sees this parallel of "lecture == course website" the reading again becomes either/or: read the course website, or read the textbook. Naturally, the website wins, so any assigned reading from a textbook in an online class is likely to get ignored by a lot of people.

I never noticed this until recently, when I was grading an assignment for one of the online classes that I was teaching. Most of the students seemed to not understand a particular concept, the difference between constituative and operational rules from the Rules of Play text. It's a difficult concept, granted, but everyone seemed to be misunderstanding it in the same way. What's going on here? Well, I checked the course website to see what it had to say about this concept... and it just mentioned it in passing, giving a couple of examples to supplement the textbook but not really explaining it properly (probably because the course developer expected that students would do the reading). But here's the thing -- you wouldn't notice that the course website's material was supplemental unless you did the reading in the textbook! So all of these students thought they knew what was going on, even though they didn't.

This is, I think, a major hazard for online course development. Here are a few ways around it:
  • Warn students early and often that none of the work in the class is optional. (This probably won't work, but at least it makes it harder for students to complain when you catch them slacking.)
  • Force the issue. If the graded assignments directly reference parts of the reading that aren't on the course website, students will have to read at least those parts in order to complete the assignments.
  • Tape your lectures and put them online, instead of writing text. This requires some extra equipment and technical know-how (and not all course website packages support all kinds of video), but it does at least make it so that the students aren't just doing reading and reading and more reading. If they don't burn through their will to read on the course website, maybe they'll have a few brain cells left over that are willing to take a peek at the textbook. (Bonus: if you already teach a face-to-face class and tape it, your content is easy to develop.)


dpk said...

Of the three ways around it that you mentioned, as a student I prefer "Force the issue". As an added bonus, it makes purchasing the textbook feel like it was more worthwhile.

Chances are relatively good that many of the students don't even purchase the book to begin with, instead borrowing it from classmates or using online references. A partial solution to this: Loan the textbooks out to students while they're register for the class, and include any loan fees (other than late fees) in the tuition. This solves a lot of other problems with the college system (ex: I just bought a microeconomics book that was "customized" for one of the CCs in my area, but not the whole CC system -- it's a total scam.)

Specifically to the last option:

"Tape your lectures and put them online, instead of writing text."

FWIW: the reason I am taking online classes is because I don't always have time to sit for 2 hours straight without interruption. It's hard to skim audio to catch back up after having to take a break from it. Video is equally bad (I have a rant somewhere about videoification of the web, but it could be extended to content in general).

Notes can only go so far. Sometimes it's nice to skim the content when preparing for a final.

Lewis said...

I think online classes tend to be one of the "Big Lies" of education, but I suppose I'll leave that to another time.

Online classes I've seen (never taught one) rarely have much Web-based reading, it all depends on the textbook. So the either-or choice isn't there.

Unfortunately, students just don't read textbooks these days, though in an online class they have no alternative, so perhaps textbook reading is more common.

You can't begin to adequately teach hands-on topics (and I think most game creation topics are hands-on) online with current technology. People can teach themselves, but the teacher can have little to do with it. This contrasts with, say, introductory history or english, where the work experience of the instructor is generally not at issue.

Michael Melice said...

Having taken a bulk of online and campus courses as a student there were times when I would cut corners. I have to agree that the teaching approach, for both online and on campus, needs to be adjusted. "Especially, for students who want to play games when they get out of class"!

No student likes to listen to a lecture that parallels the book because then why read the book.

Also many students, especially in Game Design/Development programs, have learning disabilities. The best teacher I ever had did his class all hands-on. The students all followed this professors' lead in making a game from start to finish. He allowed for us to ask questions out load without raising our hands. This really help people feel comfortable to speak up and ask valuable questions once they saw there peers do the same. We also had to read the text outside class because he would grade our individual versions of the class game based on if it included concepts from the chapters assigned that week. But even this will not work for all students. The thing is everyone learns different. The easier you make it for your students to have a life outside class by providing fun classwork with small out of outside reading the better they will do and the more excited to learn they will become.

Having instructed peers who struggled in class; I realized this generation was spoon-feed by knowledge from video's and games. If you cannot teach a student at least show them ways they can teach themselves. These students need to be directed to YouTube & Web tutorials because they will learn best visually and are too lazy to touch physical text until it becomes a natural shift. I say natural because as these students start to run out of visual supplements, as there are only so many great tutorials online, they will turn to text because by that point they are hooked to learning. I have to say though, your observations are dead on!

Instead of teaching students a subject professors should focus on helping a student to learn. But, how do you teach a technology that is moving faster then it can be taught? You don't! Instead you teach people how to "learn technology," that way they can learn what they need to teach themselves as they go on. Student's must also understand this concept so they can appreciate their professor's who do care! As a student, I had thought things like, "why are we not learning C# for XNA," now I realize that all the basic C++ concepts I did learn all worked in helping me teach myself C#.

Now, I am an aspiring game programmer fresh out of school but eventually I would like to teach games myself having acquired a love this newer form of academia.