TEP logoThe C- Words: Communication, Clarity, Community « Teaching Effectiveness Program

The C- Words: Communication, Clarity, Community

So, we’ve been running an all online course for instructors here at the UO. It’s a online course about designing online courses, so meta. And because of this, I have been thinking about what is the most challenging part of teaching online, and the greatest difference between face to face an online teaching. Personally, I find the most difficulty in communicating, and listening with text as the only tool. I’m sure this is something we’ve all experienced, in a small way. Have you ever received a brief email and wondered if you should “read” the tone as concise or curt? Or have you ended up sending a series of fifteen emails to clear up confusion that would take two minutes to suss out in person? In my experience, teaching online, for all it’s advantages, is fraught with this kind of potential miscommunication.

Every time I start an online course process I look at my list of content pieces to make, and say ” That shouldn’t be too hard.” And every time I am wrong. Maybe I should rephrase that. It’s not that creating content is difficult, per say, just time-consuming. I find that every small clarification, every easily-stated side note, every extra thought and further detail—everything that would be easy to remember and integrate into my spoken lectures—now has to be expressed in text and integrated into the larger lecture. I suddenly realize how much more difficult it is to write than to speak. And I think this has to do with a reduction in the kinds of information that are available to you as an online learner and/or instructor.

When you are teaching online, you can’t use your inflection, your body language, gestures, and you’re limited in the way you use visual aids— it’s difficult to point to things, etc. You also lose all of that feedback from students: Do they look like they understand?, Should I clarify?, Is she reading the newspaper?, etc.

Without this easy flow of information on multiple channels, you have to kick the one channel you have up quite a bit. So there’s a lot of time invested in the creation of documents and text for all over the site. A lot of time invested in making sure everything is clear, consistent and available in several places. And, of course, doing this—writing everything I might have said in a 90 minute class—takes a lot more time than just preparing my notes for a 90 minute class.

The other thing I’ve been thinking about lately is community, and building community online. Similar limitations apply for building community. In my experience as a student, a lot of the classroom community is built through mutual presence: getting everyone together in the same room, laughing at a funny part of lecture, concentrating on the same difficult problems, seeing each other react to the lecture and the homework problems, reading body language.

I don’t know another way to say it besides this slightly hippie way: There’s a different vibe when you take a class face to face—even if you do no collaborative work—than there is when you take the same course online. There’s less of a feeling of camaraderie and collective experience when you never enter the same room. So how do you create this collective vibe in an online classroom using only asynchronous tools? And more importantly, does it matter? We spend so much time thinking of ways to create classroom community, but do we really know how much a sense of community contributes to learning? I know it makes a difference for me—but I will freely admit I’m a social learner. I wonder what activities make you feel that you are part of a classroom activity, and how does that change ( or improve) your experience online?

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