Of the classroom, but not in it

Recently I delivered an address to a group of students. My talk took 25 minutes, and after that there were questions and answers. Nothing unusual, you might say. Except perhaps that I was sitting at my desk in my study at home, and the students were several hundred miles away in a university classroom. My image was transmitted to them via my webcam. It was, in a strange sort of way, highly unusual and highly normal. I had my cup of coffee by my side, and at one point when the students’ lecturer needed to cover some procedural aspects with them I was able to walk over to the window and look out at my garden. When I wanted to refer to a book I have on my shelves I was able to step over and get it.

Was it as good as being there, or even better? Or was it not the same thing at all? Well, all of those things. And I wonder what it would have been like if one of the students had also not been present and had been beamed in via Skype or the like. Because, as I have just read, that may also now be happening with increasing frequency. According to an article in the US Chronicle of Higher Education, 12 per cent of American professors have experimented with this and have, on occasion, allowed students to participate in a class via a computer connection.

It may be tempting to think that this sort of thing is where we are headed, given the increasing sophistication of the technology. Indeed, classes where nobody (lecturer or students) is in the same location are also now available in many distance learning programmes, but in a way that is different because that’s what the product is. But how far should virtual attendance be allowed in programmes that are supposed to be classroom based in real time? Or is the concept of such physical presence now itself out-dated?

These are hard questions to answer. For all sorts of reasons we must expect and indeed prepare for learning and teaching that is not tied to location. But on the other hand, there are still reasons for believing that a classroom experience in which everyone is present has a special pedagogical value. Teaching technology will continue to advance, and we must continue to consider how far it should go.

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13 Comments on “Of the classroom, but not in it”

  1. Ernie Ball Says:

    I find that a large fraction of the students who are actually in the room are already “attending virtually.” What appears to be “outdated” is not physical presence but rather mental presence.

      • jfryar Says:

        Ernie, did you not argue in previous posts relating to tenure and academic freedom that we should beware of anecdotal evidence and stereotypes concerning ‘lazy academics’?

        Perhaps you might extend the same courtesy to students themselves? There are tens of thousands of them.

        • Ernie Ball Says:

          Unlike those making glib claims about “lazy academics,” I have long experience of what I’m talking about. I have taught many thousands of students over the course of my career and I don’t have to do a survey to know that today’s students are significantly more distracted, less assiduous and less engaged than students in the past. But if you insist on evidence, I believe you’ll find quite a bit of it in this book, which is causing quite a stir in educational circles in the US. What it describes is identical to my experience and largely corroborated by the annual National (US) Study on Student Engagement. I have no reason to believe that Ireland is any different.

          Do you?

          • Al Says:

            Ernie
            In my opinion, quality control, or quality management of learning has had a lot to do with this.

          • jfryar Says:

            No. But that wasn’t the point of my reply. It was simply to register my concern when academics confer certain negative attributes to some makey-uppy homogenous entity referred to as ‘today’s students’ or some obscure ‘large fraction’.

          • Ernie Ball Says:

            I can’t say I’m surprised to learn that you’re unable to distinguish between considered professional judgement based on a lifetime of experience and bald-faced poppycock based on hearsay.

          • jfryar Says:

            And I can’t say I’m surprised that you won’t acknowledge that you haven’t taught every student in every field and subsequently based an argument on a sweeping generalisation of student behaviour, glibly argued that students are not ‘mentally present’ in lectures, and subsequently failed to comment on whether modern technology might be of benefit in ‘re-engaging’ those students you’ve encountered who are less focused that ‘in the past’.

  2. jfryar Says:

    I certainly think modern technology will have a profound effect on how courses can be delivered and who can ‘attend’ those courses, and that ‘physical presence’ may not necessarily be required. Mental presense is, of course, much harder to ensure!

    But, like all technology, its value will have to be assessed. It should be fully possible to evaluate remote learning in pedogogical terms and compare that to more traditional systems. I’m sure some of the contributors here will be able to comment on that specific issue.

    However, when I was giving physics lectures, I always liked to project a sense that both I and the class were on a journey together – here’s the problem we have in describing some phenomenon, what ideas do we have to solve that problem, here’s why those ideas don’t work and the people who tried them, and finally, this is how we now think about it.

    It was a style that relied on class participation, occasional inpromptu demonstrations with whatever objects I could find in the lecture hall at the time, and I freely admit occasionally making an ass of myself for laughs so the students would always remember an important point.

    I’m not sure that I could deliver the same type of lecture over the internet. And the question then is would I be more or less effective?

  3. anna notaro Says:

    forget about webcams and distance learning, what about a learning experience in virtual worlds such as Second Life (http://secondlife.com/)? This opens entirely new scenarios, as quite a few universities and educators have realised. A few perspectives available here http://terranova.blogs.com/terra_nova/2007/05/teaching_in_sec.html and here
    http://www.slideshare.net/BethRitterGuth/teaching-with-second-life

    • Jo McCafferty Says:

      I’ve worked with Illinois State Uni on geology classes in Second Life and found it to be quite rewarding. Students had mixed views but in comparison with the traditional distance learning (online notes, forums etc ) the students found the virtual world to be more engaging and enjoyable. We haven’t implemented in our School as many of our distance-learning students haven’t got the bandwidth, and the learning curve of getting into SecondLife was too steep at the time. There are some amazing builds in SecondLife, and it’s well worth a gander.

  4. Jo McCafferty Says:

    Having spent my entire career in distance learning, it’s difficult for me to compare with class-based presence experience.
    I think, however, that as we develop new learning technologies, more students are getting used to learning in a “non traditional format”. More often than not it seems to be the educators that have the difficulty with developments rather than the students.

    Anecdotal evidence, in comparing grades of class-based students and distance-learners in our school, is that there is very little difference in terms of results. I’ve had students move from distance-learning, to class-based, and back again as they found the classes were actually more of a distraction. As we develop, students are given more options on how and when they learn, and I think that is a good thing.

  5. Martin Ryan Says:

    4.6 million students in the United States (1 out of every 4) took a college-level online course at the start of the 2008/9 academic year. That figure has risen to 5.6 million students in 2009/10, according to the (recent) eighth annual Sloan Survey of Online Learning, a report which uses data from more than 2,500 colleges and universities in the United States.

    The importance of face-to-face lectures for students’ academic achievement has been demonstrated in previous economics studies such as Schmidt (1983); Romer (1993); Durden and Ellis (1995); Dolton, Marcenaro and Navarro (2003); Martins and Walker (2006) and Cohn and Johnson (2006). It should be an immediate priority to establish how online lectures compare; as online learning seems inevitable in the future.

    While virtual class-rooms do not means that recorded lecture-material is automatically available for repeat viewing, it is worth noting the possibility that the availability of online materials may discourage attendance. According to the results of a MIT survey, the penalty to not going to a lecture is reduced by the presence of online learning materials (Clay and Breslow, 2006).


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