I’ve been thinking a lot this week about my students’ attitudes about technology. They are firmly within the Millennial/Digital Native demographic, born during the 1990’s, and very attached to their devices, particularly their smart phones. Our class begins at 7:45am, and when I come to unlock the door, nearly all of them are looking at their phones. When we get into the classroom, they transition from their small screens to the large ones — the terminals set up in the classroom. I don’t buy the “Digital Native/Digital Immigrant” split, though I do find it convenient as a way to think. Still, my students do have an interest in and ease with technology that fits the Digital Native label.
As we have been working our way through the EDC MOOC, a lot of our discussion has been about technology and its positive and negative aspects. We’ve had several discussions about technology and education, and they have taken place face-to-face, and online, both in synchronous and asynchronous formats.
Some fascinating, complex stuff has come out of it.
First, my students aren’t good at face-to-face discussions. I joke with them about how hard it is to get them to talk. I recognize that our classroom isn’t the best for encouraging this. It was designed poorly, with tables in a rectangle, students facing one another, but with terminals on the table, blocking their views of one another. The technology provides a distraction, but also a literal barrier between them. A few have something to say during our discussions, but they die out quickly.
And yet, if, while we are in class, I ask them to have a discussion on TodaysMeet, they have lots to say. (TodaysMeet is a twitter-like online application, with its 140 character limits, but with a set time limit, so that it disappears after an hour, or two hours, or a week (though one can save a transcript of the discussion). So while our face-to-face discussions die out, our synchronous online discussion — which takes place while we are all in the same room — goes on strong. I project the TodaysMeet discussion on a screen in the classroom, so everyone can see what is happening (similar to a twitter feed being projected at a conference session). At one point last week, I was essentially having a discussion with the screen: no one was talking out loud, but students were posting comments, and responded to them out loud. It was very strange.
Also strange: We looked at some of the online discussions for EDC MOOC together: the MOOC Discussion Forums, the EDC MOOC Facebook group, the Twitter feed, the YouTube comments. And I pointed out that several times, people in the class were responding to other people in the class, and having interesting conversations online. But here’s the strange part: a lot of them didn’t realize that they were conversing with people in the class. They are on a MOOC Discussion Forum, exchanging ideas online, with someone who the day before was sitting a few feet away from them, and they didn’t realize it. It’s not that the screen name was a pseudonym; they just had no idea what that person’s name is.
Now, as much as my classroom has physical barriers, it also has lots of opportunities for face-to-face interaction. In nearly every class session, students work in groups on some exercise or other. They do lots of work online all semester, but I try to take advantage of our face-to-face time to have some physical interaction. But they don’t know one another.
Now, I’m not a Luddite or a Techno-Alarmist, and I tend to see the utopian side of technology more than the dystopian side. And I don’t think the world is going to crumble because young people are online so much.
Because I do think my students crave interaction with one another. As much as they love their screens, they want to interact with people — and not just online.
I asked students about their experiences with hybrid/blended, online, and MOOC classes (EDC MOOC is the first MOOC class for all of them), and most said that they like the convenience that online learning provides, but they mostly prefer having a face-to-face teacher. They seem to be enjoying the resources and discussions on the EDC MOOC (and a few of them are really enjoying interacting with people from all over the world), but many said they would rather have a class where the teacher knew them by name; the scale of the class makes it frustrating for them.
So what we have here, I think, is a big ball of complexity. I won’t call it a ball of contradictions, where students seem to want certain things (connection to others; online convenience) but also seem to be rejecting them (not knowing classmates; not liking online classes). I much prefer to think of this as complexity, more than just a one-or-the-other way of thinking about technology.
I read something this morning that may help me sort through this idea. Inside Higher Ed published a piece by Joshua kim called “6 Big Takeaways From the EdX Global Forum,” where he describes what he learned from the conference for EdX MOOC designers and teachers. One of them was, interestingly, how much MOOCs are contributing to onground (what he calls “campus-based”) education. He says in part:
What our students want is to be taught by their own professors. They want to form relationships with the people teaching them. What MOOCs have done is raise the quality bar for residential teaching. It is no longer acceptable to have (expensive) residential classes built on a model of information transmission. The price of academic content delivery has quickly dropped to zero, thanks to the MOOCs, meaning that the value add that colleges and universities provide to students must be above and beyond content delivery. That value add is the personalized learning, coaching, and mentoring that comes with relationships. That value add is the educator getting to know the learner as an individual. The paradox (or irony) is that MOOCs make the faculty member more valuable than ever.
It says a lot about what my students want, and why they want it.
And it says a lot about why I like my campus-based hybrid/blended classes, as challenging as they can be sometimes.
And it may say a lot about why blended MOOCs might have a future: online convenience with onground connections.
Even if we end up using an online, synchronous discussion while we sit in the same dark room….