Online Learning: A Disastrous Beginning

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“This is nice. I get to relax on my fluffy couch, be in comfy clothes, light a few scented candles, and have a snack while I participate in my online class. I think I’m going to like this online learning thing!” say I to myself as the first online class starts for the evening. It’s strange that I’m in an on-campus program and two out of three classes that I’m taking are online, but if this is where modern education is headed, I should get used to it. After all, I get to learn from the comfort of my own home. However, one hour into my first class, I wake-up to my classmates introducing themselves, and my professor never calls my name. Uh-oh. I must have slept through my turn for the introductions! I hear her call out a few other students’ names, and when they didn’t respond, there was a comment about “technical difficulties”. Whew. Looks like I got by with it this time, but this is not going to be easy.

Fast-forward to the second online class for the week, the next day. This time I am more awake, had a Diet Coke (for the caffeine), and am ready to pay attention. The class was starting late because of technical difficulties, so I decide to pop some popcorn as a snack. “This is great,” I think. “I can even eat popcorn during class! Maybe online learning is really going to be for me!” However, just as soon as the class starts up again, I race to the microwave because I realized that instead of smelling popcorn, I’m breathing in popcorn smoke! Smoke alarms going off and the whole house now having that lovely burnt popcorn smell, I try to air out the house while paying attention to what my professor is saying. Strike two for me and online learning.

Apparently, I wasn’t the only one having a hard time adjusting to online learning. Later on in the class, we divided up into groups to discuss the readings that were assigned for our very first session. There were four people in my group, but only two of us were able to discuss the article. One guy types in the chat box that he can’t hear anything, so he’ll just post something on Moodle later. Another guy never responded to our inquiries at all, so we had no idea what happened to him. As myself and the only other person able to use the software correctly try to discuss the article, there are lots of awkward pauses due to the fact that only one person can talk at a time without getting major echoes and feedback. After an entire twenty minutes, we only managed to discuss the article for about five of those minutes. Maybe my group members didn’t accidentally fall asleep on their couch or distract themselves with burnt snacks, but we all were finding it difficult to engage fully in the class.

During week two of my online courses, I knew I had to approach them differently. No snacks, no reclining on the couch with soft pillows and stretchy pants. Instead, I sat at my desk with a pen and notebook in hand, headphones in to drown out other noise going on in the house, and ready to engage my mind. I was listening intently, taking notes, nodding and “hmmm”-ing when something interested me. Then, it hit me—my professor had no idea that I was actively engaged in the lecture, just like she had no idea that I had fallen asleep the previous week. When I had a question or wanted her to expand a little more on an idea, it felt strange to interrupt the lecture that I was listening to. Because I couldn’t see her face, I didn’t have any visual cues as to when she was going to take a breath or break in the lecture so that I could insert an opinion or remark. I also realized that staring at a blank screen, or a PowerPoint slide with words on it, was not keeping my attention. I was not only learning online—I was learning blindly.

I continue to struggle as I learn how to learn online. My identity as a student, as I’ve discovered, has a lot to do with my physical reactions: verbal feedback, nodding, facial expressions, etc. When I have a question or want to discuss an idea, I don’t think in well-thought-out phrases or use a high level of academic vocabulary; when I’m learning, I think and speak in short phrases, and depend on interaction with others in order to verbally process those thoughts, questions, and ideas. Online learning is totally different. My professors mainly gauge my interest and activity in class through written posts later on in the week. My posts need to be well written, well articulated, and use a certain rhetoric that is far from conversational (at least, that is the caliber of posts that have been happening in these two courses). I feel that they do not get a sense of who I am, which, I’ve discovered recently, is important to me as a student.

Interestingly, this is not my first online class experience: I teach an online class a few times per year. The biggest difference for me, apart from being in the learner’s seat, is that when I teach, I meet with my students on Skype at least once per week. The course content I teach is different, and requires brief face-to-face meetings (involving advising the language learning process and teaching different phonetic sounds). There’s no doubt that having those video Skype sessions with my students gives a more personal feel to the course. However, I do have more sympathy for my students who, for the majority of the course, have to listen to pre-recorded lectures and do other online activities. While we have seen many benefits to moving this course online versus teaching it in person, I do now understand more of the disadvantages to online learning from a student perspective.

As it’s only one month into my online courses, I might change my opinion. I’m applying new strategies, including meeting in person with the few on-campus classmates in my courses to discuss assignments and readings. As time goes by, I’m re-learning how to be engaged in courses like these, and learning how to make my posts more “me”, including more personal stories, etc. While it may not end up being my favorite form of education, it certainly is inevitable, and I’m glad to be involved in these courses not only for the content (I do LOVE what we’re learning), but also for the shared experience of online classes in a more globalized and digital age of learning.

 

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Work Smarter, Not Harder

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From the beginnings of considering a PhD, my mentality has been to finish the degree as fast as possible. For one, starting a PhD at the age of 30 definitely feels like I’m in the category of “better late than never”. I feel my mental capacity to remember things slipping through my proverbial fingers, and already am realizing that it’s going to take a little more effort to finish this degree than it did to get either a bachelor’s or a master’s, simply because I’m going to have to work a little harder to learn the material. Does this really happen at 30 years old? Am I really already talking about feeling “older”? Evidently, yes and yes.

Secondly, I want to do other things with my life besides get degrees, like have a family, and make a difference in my career and field. I know it’s not entirely true, but the thought of simultaneously pursuing a PhD and doing either of those things seems like something only a crazy person would do. I do know a few “crazy” people, and know that it can be done, but still—let’s just get through this thing before I turn 35. That seems like a reasonable goal.

Being a planner, and having this goal of finishing my degree in Education Policy in under four years, one of the main frustrations is that I’ve yet to nail down my advisor for a meeting. Having been a faculty member (of sorts—I just held the title of Lecturer) for the past four years, I understand the barrage of emails and requests to meet. That being said, I need a little guidance here. So, I’m kind of shooting from the hip, signed-up for random courses, and through some elementary math of my own, have come to the conclusion that I can probably do it—all with the help and approval of my advisor (insert *sigh*…he’s a nice man, he really is). As I signed-up for courses and started making a degree completion plan, the obvious choice for me was to take as many credit hours as possible during my first two years so that I would be freed up to write my dissertation at the end. 16 credit hours? Sure. Dare I squeeze in 20? I mean, I’m only working 67% in my job (former job, current assistantship) right now. It could be humanly possible, right? Maybe just 16 credit hours. Ok, that sounds reasonable. I also put in many, many volunteer hours for my church and service projects on the side, but hey—I’m single, no children, and what else am I doing with my time? Must. Finish. PhD. ASAP. And, not to be forgotten—Must. Avoid. Grad. Student. Poverty.

Enter a panel of experienced grad students in my field during an intro course. “Work smarter, not harder”. I don’t remember who said it, and I remember hearing it before, but I don’t remember ever being so ready to take a random piece of advice from someone I don’t know. I was already feeling overwhelmed to the point of breaking. Two of my four classes are being taught online, which is definitely not a mode of instruction I’m comfortable with. Teaching online is different than learning online. My professors can’t see my facial expressions. I can’t interject my verbal opinions, or easily ask a question to show that I’m engaged, interested, and dare I say—intelligent. Learning to learn online has been tough. My third class, Ethnography in Global Context, basically has us reading one book per week plus teaching the class (“leading class discussion”) once per week, as there were only seven students in the class. I also quickly realized that I didn’t really know what Ethnography was when I registered for the class, and now that I know what it is, I know that I don’t want to do it. Eeek.

On top of that, my department called me in to say that they would like for me to teach a regular, full semester course. They would pay me 67% both semesters, but I wouldn’t have to teach at all the second semester. This would be in addition to my administrative position of Cultural Engagement Coordinator (which involves heading-up an internship, coordinating a volunteer program, and fun things like schedule a picnic for 250 people two times in one month because both dates got rained out). This would also be on top of an online class I teach with a different university during the fall semester. I must have had the look of death on my face when they asked me, because I got a call the next day asking if I really was ok with that assignment, and did I want to back out. Anxiety, stress, fear of disappointing my boss, afraid that my backing out would mean a very busy semester for someone else…I was truly at a breaking point and wanted to say yes, but couldn’t because of the crack in my voice.

“Work smarter, not harder.” Someone said that taking many courses at the same time would only mean having to go back at a later point and re-read the things that I would have only had time to skim. Going faster through courses at the beginning did not mean checking off my requirements; it could and would probably mean that I would have to add some time on later devoted to re-reading the material from the courses. At that point, I started scribbling long-addition (is that even a thing?) on my notebook. Could I actually only take 12 credit hours this semester and still graduate in under four years? Did I remember any of the readings I had done for my courses last week, not to mention learn anything through them? I was already on my way to skimming through the first two years of the PhD program. I decided then and there, after re-working my terrible addition and multiplication about five times, that I would drop my Ethnography course and that I wouldn’t teach this semester.

Then and there, I realized the one thing that would have to be different about this degree than my previous ones: I would need to remember what I read for longer than the next paper or test, because the “final” paper or test would actually not be for four years.

Work smarter, not harder. Thanks for the advice, whoever you were. I’m testing it out.

It’s a Project

  • Started because of a final project in an “intro to grad school” course
  • Continuing because I have to practice writing
  • Content: Old posts, new posts, funny posts, academic posts, guest posts, contemplative posts, etc.
  • Goal: Blog once a week until I deposit my dissertation
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