November 30, 2004

From Gerald R. Lucas

Online Literature: A Response

I recently received a letter from a colleague that asks some pertinent questions concerning my difficulties with teaching literature online. I have been sloth in responding, but answering his questions might help and encourage me to think about these issues a bit more. I will quote parts of the letter and make responses.

A good question, and one that I have, frankly, not given too much thought to. I think there are two concerns here:

  1. how can we tell if the student is plagiarizing, and
  2. how can we tell if the student submitting the work is the student signed up for the course?

I think the first issue is one that we educators in English Studies have been battling for years, though the internet has made our jobs a bit easier. There’s nothing like a Google search to track down suspicious verses in a student essay. There are also subscription services like Turn It In that assist in tracking down potentially plagiarized essays.

However, the more pressing question might be the latter: just who is doing the work. Now maybe I’m being blithe, but I’m not sure this should be a concern of ours. Might this be analogous to asking how do I know if the essay Johnny just turned into me is his own work? Now if Johnny turns in a first essay that is polished enough to receive the praise of his professor, but a second essay that has obvious grammatical and stylistic errors that are inconsistent with the first submission, then something is awry. In fact, online submission might even make this evaluation easier, since the first essay is still available to review.

Yet, these inconsistencies that come from cheating would not be evident if the student cheated the same way all semester, something that might be less obvious in an online course than it would be in-class. In the latter, there are opportunities for impromptu evaluations, but not so in online courses.

I guess one can never be sure. Does anyone have other ideas?

I understand these concerns very well. In fact, they are the same that I have been struggling with for a while. Aren't I more effective in the classroom, especially in a literature course? Now, I understand that some courses work better online, like those that require memorization—where there are right and wrong answers. I can see how a composition course, like English Composition I, Professional Communication, or Technical Writing, could be successfully delivered at a distance. Yet, courses that require more interpretation from a community are difficult to achieve with our current technology.

I see some solutions:

  1. make those courses that require more textual analysis more like the courses that rely on the learning of facts; or
  2. develop a hybrid approach that makes part of the course available at a distance while part remains in-class;
  3. use various digital tools to facilitate all types of learners to acquire the knowledge on their own. Maybe a combination of the three would be beneficial.

I have always thought that students learn more when they are a part of the learning process. That is, students need some guidance, but most of the learning that they do—the lessons that remain with them the longest—are those that they find themselves. Perhaps if we are not so rigid with what we decide is education and how that education should be achieved, then maybe an online approach would be more beneficial. Why can’t a student begin her study of the Iliad by researching the education of Achilles or the curse of the House of Atreus? Won’t self-guided searching lead to a more profound knowledge of a text? Is it necessary that the whole of the Iliad be known cursorily rather than a specific portion in detail?

What if all those portions came together in an online venue, like a wiki. Then the accrued knowledge of several generations of students might assist others on similar quests. Isn't this what academics and education is all about? We should use the strengths of the medium for our teaching: if what we have does not work with our tradition, then perhaps the traditions need to be reevaluated?

I have not been very successful with online literature courses, yet. However, I do keep trying. I have tried MOOs, bulletin boards, web sites, mailing lists, blogs, and numerous other media, and all have remained dubious in their pedagogical efficacy. Here are some things that do work:

Organization. Students love clarity and simplicity, so I try to give them both. This is especially important for an online course, where the students will be struggling with the texts, so they will not want to struggle with the technology. However, with this said, there is a learning curve when using new technologies, or any new system. We cannot eliminate all of this cognitive dissonance, but we can mitigate it by utilizing with technologies that are familiar to our students. Therefore, I try to make everything web-based.

Structure. Students like to be told what to do. I think this is what our educational system trains them to want: not to be self-thinkers and self-motivators, but to be told precisely what is expected of them and how to accomplish that goal. This is an unfortunate reality that will require us to reevaluate our entire educational system. Perhaps technology will precipitate this reevaluation more quickly than we might think, for it seems that an intrinsic quality of our current networked microprocessing technologies is their ability to make information available in such a way as to reward those who are persistent, who make their own paths through the knowledge. Yet this also discourages those who lack the drive or persistence to research. One might suggest that the latter should not be in college. I tend to think that the educational system might need to take more responsibility.

Anyway, I give just enough structure to those that need it, but I encourage students to find their own ways to the material. I never discourage routes that might seem questionable, and I always reward the original. We have to be more flexible when teaching online.

Consistency. I think part of making the students engage the material is being consistent. Part of this consistency comes with the simplicity of requirements and goals. I have never been very successful with this, but I have made progress. For example, instead of organizing my online World Literature course like its in-class sister, I have broken the work down into units that students may complete at their own pace. Each unit has the same requirements, so students always know what is expected of them. However, I advocate free thinking here, as well. If a student has a proposal for her own requirements, I'm always keen to consider.

Participation. I have struggled with this one. On one hand, I do not want to stifle the class interaction by imposing my words into the conversation, but on the other, many students need the structuring voice of the professor—the one who is presumed to know the right and wrong of the material. In the past, I have tried to be laissez faire, but many students needed my input. I have tried to be vocal, but that seemed frequently to stifle conversation and interaction. I have found that as long as I am consistent and timely in evaluation, that students will carry on well themselves. At least that’s been the case this term.

We also have to remember that not all students can handle an online course. I try to make that as clear as possible the first night of class, yet the problem here remains that many do not show up the first night of class because our college does not have any consistency in their rules for online courses. Online courses are difficult enough without the erroneous notions carried by many of our students that these distance classes will be much easier than having to drag one's butt into the classroom twice a week. Dude, I get to work on my own usually translates to Dude, I can procrastinate as long as I want; this is a deadly mindset for a course that usually requires more work.

I have also considered lessening my requirements for online courses. However, I continue to resist this solution since that would make the opinion in the last paragraph closer to being correct, and an online course should not be any less complete than one taught in-class. This is a point I’ll remain pretty firm on.

These are all my thoughts for now. I’ve probably missed a few items, but I can add those later. I would appreciate any responses to these issues that will be plaguing us, I fear, for sometime to come.