The Kairos Classroom Spotlight
Does Innovation Sacrifice Learning?
by David Schelle
Hotchkiss High School
If you were one of my online composition students this
semester, chances are that you're a high school senior who is trying to
graduate early. You're college-bound in the spring, and you're willing
to try new things. By the way, you also flunked my class.
I teach freshman composition through a local four-year
college to college-bound high school seniors. My primary motivation in
developing an online version of the class is to be able to reach other
high school seniors on the west slope of Colorado, so they, too, can enter
college having completed freshman composition.
My online composition class,
English Online, is designed to be a stand-alone internet-based writing
I designed the
online class with the idealistic belief that I could match or exceed the
quality of instruction I provided to my traditional, classroom students.
While I don't deny this is possible, I don't believe I reached that goal
All of my students this semester have been from different
high schools in the Delta County School District. Out of four students
(the online class was minimally advertised to approximately 70 qualified
students in the school district), one ended the semester incommunicado
with an F; one struggled to receive a 65%; one opted to finish the semester
in the classroom and one successfully completed the class with a 88%. These
grades primarily reflect essay scores and weekly assignments.
Student #1 failed the course. She stopped reading and
responding to her email, and the only way to communicate with her was through
the school counselor or home, since her high school is thirty miles away.
Even though no one at the school was surprised of her failure, I wonder
how I could have motivated her to stick with it. It was impossible to stop
her in the hall; I couldn't visit with her after school, and I didn't meet
her parents at parent-teacher conferences. These are all methods I use
to get my traditional students back on track, but, for the most part, these
strategies are unavailable for online students. This communication gap
represents a significant change in the relationship between instructor
and student. For the student who reacts positively to interpersonal contact,
he or she may be at risk of dropping out of an online course.
Student #2 completed just enough assignments and rewrote
just enough essays to pass. While this sounds like an underachievement,
I feel as if I had a great success with student #2. She was unable to attend
the beginning of the semester's face-to-face meeting, where I met with
the students who would be taking the online class. (The purpose of this
meeting is to allow instructor and students to meet in person, and it allows
both to put a face to email correspondence. I found it helpful to meet
my students, since we were both embarking on a new cyber-journey, and we
were both agreeing to an informal contract of meeting the course's objectives.)
Since student #2 did not attend this meeting, we spent a month attempting
to find a mutually convenient time to meet. In this time, I did not receive
one assignment from her. Only after we met face-to-face, did she start
writing essays and completing assignments. It's my opinion that a student's
shyness or hesitation can be minimized through the initial face-to-face
Student #3 took the course because it allowed her to take
an extra credit in order to graduate early. She was such a computer novice
that she frequently got help from other students and me in the traditional
class. Because she decided not to graduate early, she opted to finish the
course in the classroom. Much of her progress was not only slowed by a
steep learning curve concerning navigation of the internet, but she used
an IBM clone, and all the course's requirements and her computer experiences
were based on Macintosh systems. This merely added another difficulty to
Student #4 was able perform all of the course's technological
requirements without a problem. This definitely allowed him to focus on
his writing. In a recent chat session, I asked about the reasons for his
success, and he emphasized the importance of his computer skills. I tended
to discount the importance of the relationship between computer skills
and online course success, since I view computer skills as merely a tool
to learning. However, I can't deny the evidence of student #4's success.
Why such a poor showing? I believe some of the fault lies
with my willingness to accept any student, regardless of computer and internet
experience. While it may not require many computer skills to log on, read
and write email and consult the course online, to perform those skills
regularly and to learn from them requires an ease and familiarity that
only an experienced computer user has.
Further, most of the course's requirements employ some
facet of the internet. For instance, students are required to keep an electronic
writing portfolio, built with HTML; students are required to join a composition
LISTSERV, and are expected to follow discussion threads; students are also
asked to participate in scheduled chat sessions. While it's reasonable
to assume that a self-motivated student will learn how to perform these
functions, and I do include specific instructions for each task on my class's
site, my experience reveals that only the most computer-proficient student
has the confidence or gumption to do it. Perhaps when a student feels comfortable
navigating sites, and is not worried about "getting lost," that student
has more time and freedom to devote to learning the tasks at hand.
Another reason for poor student performance has to be
student motivation. After discussing two of the students' lack of work
with their respective high school counselors, I found that the students'
reasons for taking the online course were not because they were excited
about the flexibility and self-pacing that's possible with distance education.
No, student #1 took the course because she wanted to get out of a particular
teacher's required class; student #2 took the course because she had an
opening in her schedule, and another English credit would allow her to
graduate early. These are actually legitimate and valid reasons for participating
in distance education; however, they're not necessarily motivations that
lead to successful learning and high grades.
Most students believed that an online course would provide
an easier English credit than a traditional class. It's encouraging to
think that students' initial reaction to online education is not one of
intimidation. However, by underestimating the level of difficulty of self-directed
learning, many students were at a disadvantage from the start. By the time
their first essay had been graded and returned, their shock was intensified.
This issue may be related to the students' immaturity or inexperience.
The initial face-to-face meeting will be required for
every student at the beginning of the semester. This may be difficult as
I begin to teach more students from out of the district, but the oxymoron
"high tech, high touch" is true. In other words, the human element of teaching
becomes more significant as technology continues to separate the teacher
from the students. The face-to-face meeting also allows the instructor
to get a brief glimpse into the participating students' personalities.
I plan to screen qualified applicants by a questionnaire
that directs potential students to examine their motivations for choosing
an online class. Here is an online example of such
questionnaire. I will still allow students who are relatively new to
the internet to take my class, because I believe the advantage of using
the internet as a learning and writing tool far outweighs the disadvantage
of learning new software and key commands. This may sound contradictory
to my earlier statements regarding the importance of having experienced
computer-users as online students, but I believe that it is not the computer
experience that makes these students successful. Rather, a student's computer
knowledge is merely an indicator of that student's desire to learn new
skills. It is this desire that I believe may help students be successful
at an online course.
I will hand out hard copies of the class site and weekly
assignments at the beginning of the semester in an attempt to make students
aware of the breadth of the class and to discredit the belief that an online
course is easy.
Although I initially believed in the flexibility of
internet-based education, the specific challenges of a writing class require
that all students begin the class at the same time. This will facilitate
peer editing of essays, and it will alleviate some of the organizational
problems of keeping track of individual student's progress.
I will not take late work. Each student will know when
I check my email; each student will know when the last possible moment
they may send work. It's too easy for high school students to fall behind
when there isn't a teacher present on a daily basis. A no-tolerance policy
for late work will add structure to the weekly work. As always, I will
allow flexibility at the beginning of the semester to take into account
initial hardware and software problems.
If it's necessary and possible, I will limit my number
of online students to 10-15 students. An online class involves just as
much time, if not more than a traditional class. My online class was a
challenge to organize since I had to keep track of each part of each assignment
that a student sent me; their grade on each part of each assignment; a
record of what I sent to whom, as well as cumulative grades. The time spent
organizing email, essays and homework is in addition to reading and grading
It is helpful for each student to have access to a dedicated
computer with internet access at a specific time of the school day. While
this is not a requirement, it is a scheduling tool that helps the student
Another tool that may help a student's performance is
to ask them to have an adult mentor at their school, perhaps an English
teacher who can help with assignments. It may be perceived as unfair for
the online instructor to enlist another teacher's help for the class, but
I believe a mentor can act as part of the intellectual support system,
and add a human element to the course.
Based on this admittedly small sample size, I feel that
the audience for online courses at the high school level seems to have
shrunk. I no longer believe that net courses can successfully serve the
typical suspended or expelled student. (Although the home-schooled student
remains an excellent candidate for an online course.) Similarly, the ambitious
student who wants to receive 'easy' credits over the summer or during the
school year may find that self-directed learning is much more difficult
than the usual "sit and git" method of learning.
I still firmly believe in the power of net-courses to
meet the needs of high school students, particularly those who have a desire
to challenge themselves, to pace their own learning, and to be not held
back by the traditional age-grade paradigm. The Colorado Department of
Education defines these students as "Gifted and Talented," or children
"whose abilities, talents, and potential for accomplishment are so exceptional
or developmentally advanced that they require special provisions to meet
their educational needs" (
Gifted and Talented Education Guidelines).
I don't want to believe that only the highly self-motivated
high school students--the gifted and talented--can be successful at online
education. While there is no electronic substitute for the hand on the
shoulder, the stern gaze or the sound of the teacher's laugh, I wonder
if this is what most young adults need to remain focused on academics.
email david schelle