“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.