If online students aren’t engaged, blame their teacher

March 31, 2013
March 31, 2013

Todd Tauber’s piece last week on the need for online learning to innovate and meet the changing needs of students drew many responses. Here’s one from an educator:

A very wise old online professor, Bill Pelz, once told me that the lecture is the most efficient way to pass important concepts and theories from the professor’s notepad to the student’s iPad without going through either brain.

So, I am very curious. Why do students fail to engage in discussions/interactions? What went wrong in the discussion activity? We need to think about this from students’ perspective.

What makes something boring? What makes something engaging? Can you cause someone to learn? How might you apply the principles of andragogy (strategies for adult learning) to inform solutions for this situation?

Lots of faculty complain and tell horror stories about how impolite and distracted their students are with their devices in the classroom. You know what? I don’t buy it. I am completely against removing the internet or cell phones and other devices from any classroom. It’s closed-minded and reactionary. I don’t buy that the internet is worse than daydreaming, or doodling, or that it is a distraction. The internet simply is. If you are distracted by it, then that is on you.

In the classroom or online, you can’t make people be polite any more than you can make them learn, or make them want to learn for that matter. That you learn and what you learn is entirely up to you.

Of course “netiquette” needs to be addressed and managed by the online instructor—it’s part of the role. But assuming that everyone agrees on acceptable “behavior” in the learning environment, and everyone there is interested/willing/able to learn, if I am not able to engage you, then I consider it my failure, not yours. It is my job to design a learning experience in which you can engage.

I think there are a lot of boring professors out there who would much rather blame the internet for the lack of attention of their students, than turn a critical eye on themselves to ask: How do I engage my students?  How relevant am I to my students? How relevant is a liberal arts education today? Will it get them a job? How much debt will this education incur? Are students well-informed and well-advised about their chosen degree programs, and the demand for jobs, or expected career paths and salaries?

If you are putting students to sleep in the classroom, how do you think that will play online? Do you want to sit there and watch a talking head on video for three hours? Some faculty like to lecture. You might even be good at it. You might exude passion, drama, enthusiasm and feel like you have captivated your audience. But it is not about your passion. It is about catalyzing that passion and learning in your students.

So, here is a truth: If you are boring in the classroom, you will be boring online. Here is another truth: you can’t duplicate what you do in the classroom in an online environment. (You can try, but it will not go well).  I get it. You are used to doing things the way they always have done. Perhaps you use the same textbook, same lecture notes, same multiple choice tests, same jokes, etc. It is too much work to rethink how to present content, how to facilitate interaction, and collaboration between you, your students, and the content, and it is way too hard to come up with authentic ways of evaluating and assessing student learning. Nevertheless, if you want to be good online—effective, successful, efficient—you will have to rethink how you achieve your learning objectives given the options and limitations of the online teaching and learning environment.

There is a huge disconnect with how things in higher education have always been, and how they need to change today to be relevant. Students don’t want to be entertained, they want to be engaged.

This post originally appeared on Alexandra’s blog. We welcome your comments at ideas@qz.com.  

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