Joel English "Distance Education and the Writing Classroom: Shall We Enter the Game?"
One of the most remarkable things that writing instruction has accomplished within the university in the past thirty years is to decrease class size within general education courses 25 students, 23 students, 18 students, in a few places, as few as 15 students per section. Microclassrooms go directly against the business side of education, but they are imperative for the pragmatics of our pedagogy, which mandates intimate, one-on-one relationships between teacher and student, which abandons the lecture as the main teaching style and prefers conversation, individual student deliberation, and individualized attention for each student. Our classrooms perplex the notion of courses as money-makers, and university financiers settle on using composition classes as public models of the nurturing individualized instruction students can get at the university while secretly begrudging the Writing Program for such inefficient practices.
Add to this distance education, a movement that wears the mask of "education for all" while being firmly rooted in capitalistic ambition. Fiscal administrators within universities around the country are inspecting distance ed as a way to increase profit, firmly believing in the possibility of slotting hundreds of students into single courses, thus decreasing money spent on teachers, bricks 'n' mortar, desks, and administrative staff while increasing not only students who pay tuition but also the tuition they pay. Make no mistake: the university is a business, and distance ed is believed to be a fat cow out of whose teats squirt cash.
This was made painfully clear earlier this year as I was consulting with a for-profit technical school, helping them design and institute a distance ed campus for their college. Every single conversation I had with the organization centered around their starry-eyed confidence that they would be able to enroll hundreds of students within every section of their courses, that the teacher wouldn't have to be concerned with how many students she was teaching to her, 20 students and 200 students would look about the same. The school didn't blink when they offered me six figures to run their distance campus.
I accepted that position, I but later took my university's counter-offer of a second faculty appointment in our distance ed program; it's been even more painful to discover that academia is equally as capitalistic, though the not-for-profit status requires some covert ops. In early orientation meetings with our distance ed VPs, I've been learning about specialized degrees designed for employees of NASA, the Navy, and other behemoth clients that absorb academic content like a spruce tree takes in carbon dioxide and that vapor back money for the university to inhale. I finally asked one distance ed administrator, Wouldn't you guys be happier if you left the university so you could just be as commercial as all this sounds? She said, We tried that two years ago, but when we had glitches with enrollment or teacher evals or student loans, we didn't have the built-in excuses you have with a university. It's easier just to do it here.
Poof, I'm a writing teacher. What do I do with this unpalatable information about dear ol' DE? A lot of people around me swallow it with their normal intake of cynicism and simply don't do distance teaching of any kind. An option. But let me propose, if not another option, at least a question. Here's the question: What if we played along? Is there any way that we could maintain our pedagogy and still serve a lot of students within single courses? It seems like our pedagogy featuring small group activities and collaboration, individual attention from a writing guide or coach, one-on-one writing conferences, writing process mandates small class sizes, because that's what we've been insisting since the 70s. But is that absolutely true? Would it be possible for an individual student, who takes a distance writing course in a section of let's just say 200 students, to be assigned to a collaborative team of 5 students, each team being grouped with three other teams, and those 20 students being assigned to a TA who runs a listserv discussion and offers individual guidance for those 20? The lead teacher of the course (a person paid and bought into as "the professor") could offer presentations, content, and discussions for the class, and the team of TAs could provide the individual guidance, writing conferences, and student writing assessment.
It's arguable that I'm simply talking about a model that parallels your everyday biology course: prof lectures, TA teaches the lab. But importantly, I'm talking about our pedagogy, not theirs. And there's nothing in our pedagogy that says a professor must give the individualized attention to writers instead of a TA or an adjunct teacher. (Right? How many TAs and adjuncts are giving all the attention in your department?) Or maybe this model sounds elitist: why does the professor give all the main presentations up in his golden chair and the TAs are the ones who actually work with the students? Fine I'm sure that I would want to lead a team or two of students, and I'm sure that I'd want my TAs to deliver content to the entire class as well.
I'm drawing from two sources of argument here: the pedagogical and the political.
Pedagogically, here's what I know: When I teach a distance ed class at ODU, I have about 40 students who are watching me talk from TV studios at various colleges around the country, and I have about 20 students who are watching the course from the Internet within a RealMedia stream and who are dialoguing in real time about that content on the MOO with my TA. Those 20 students who are online always get the better deal, because not only do they receive content from my presentations, but they get to immediately discourse about that content with a TA a graduate student in rhetoric and composition and make collaborative sense of the material. If I had my way, I'd have all 60 of the students online within a group, led by a TA, digesting, synthesizing, and making use of the material being presented. It would make no difference to me whether there were 20 students or 200 students engaging in this process, as long as I had enough TAs at work, leading the teams of students, guiding them, teaching them, and ready to assess their writing.
The political source is imbedded directly in this model. I'm suggesting that we writing teachers enter the game. We complain about how our salaries compare to those of engineering faculty and sciences faculty and nursing faculty; we whimper about our overall lack of esteem from the university as compared to other faculty. And yet, we insist something that engineering, science, and nursing faculty never insist on: class sizes of 25, 23, 18. Those other disciplines still get their individualized instruction, and they even add a fourth credit hour for the lab time! Do you think the university is upset about collecting a fourth hour of tuition from biology students?
I believe that the technology available for conferencing, collaborating, and writing within the distance ed writing classroom is solid enough to support a team-based approach to teaching many students well without sacrificing individualized instruction and contemporary writing pedagogy. It is an option to continue to pretend that the university is not thinking fiscally when it engages in distance ed, and it's another option to keep being mad at the university for being capitalistic. But I'd be interested in seeing what it would look like if we entered the game.