Cynthia Jeney "If the Apocalypse comes...Email Me" ...OR... "All I need to know about online Distance Ed, I learned from Buffy the Vampire Slayer"
|"Distance education is no longer the great evil. Many DE techniques and strategies are used in more traditional learning environments. In fact, it is often said that the distance between a lecturer and a student is greater than the distance between teachers and students in DE environments. This is difficult to pull off as a teacher, and even more difficult from the administrative side. There are competing forces at work. Still, we're all on the same time, aren't we?"
Mark Walbert -
Pete Sands -
Judi Kirkpatrick -
Susan Lang -
Joel English -
Trish Harris -
Cynthia Jeney -
Buffy: "How was school today?"
The first time I heard this exchange on my television, I reacted viscerally -- it summarized everything I felt about my middle school and high school years. Anything good had happened outside the walls of the school. School was a big square building filled with boredom and despair. Because of this, I try never to be cynical or judgmental of my jaded, unenthusiastic college freshmen. They came from the same big square building.
Dawn: "Um, the usual. Big square building filled with boredom and despair."
(Buffy the Vampire Slayer, 2001)
So when I had a chance to teach online, to teach outside that square building in which I fight boredom and despair daily, it seemed a great way to try out some liberating ideas I'd had. But I learned some pretty rough lessons, and I admit that the writers of my favorite show have said it all better than I could. So here, from the edge of the Hell Mouth, are the things I've learned about Online Distance Education.
#1. "Oh, at first it was confusing. Just the idea of computers was like whoa! I'm eleven hundred years old! I had trouble adjusting to the idea of Lutherans." (Anya, a nice girl and former demon)
I'm afraid Fred Kemp was right at CW1999 in Rapid City, when he painted a dystopian picture of online teaching sweat shops, telling us that "traditional forms of teaching are about to climb into the ring with something entirely new" but the ring looks more and more like the Commercial Mouth of Hell each day, and less like the info-tech sparkly nirvana of nano-beauty we were hoping for. In short, the more our so-called HighTech industries throw up online window(s)-dressings and call it the wave of tomorrow, the more I'm concerned that we've been duped. Certain small quarters of Internet technologies are marginally under the control of users, and the rest is a vast dumping ground of mind-boggling chaos. It takes time and hard work to slosh through megabytes of electronic detritus to get to the interesting and substantial nuggets that have been stored on servers spaced too few and far apart on the planet. On my own campus, a last straw came when our IT guy called on me one day to say he was fairly certain they would withhold my online teaching stipend if I did not want to use WebCT. And I did not want to use WebCT, so I had to take the fight all the way to the top, and to do that, I had to rely on the advice I learned from Buffy's friend Xander:
#2. "Generally speaking, when scary things get scared: Not Good." (Xander, the loyal friend)
Xander explains that when ordinary demons all of a sudden run away from you, there must be a huge, ugly mega-demon standing behind you. This can be good or bad. Every time I want to make the distance education Business Demons understand that they can't put 100 students in my online section of freshman composition, I have to find Igor, dig out the keys to the cell where we keep the Pedagogy dragon, and trot the whole thing out with accompanying explanations and histories. The pedagogy dragon always makes everyone back off, but at a fairly high price, and it is a huge chore to keep it fed and then there's the dry cleaning bill from all the flames and smoke (not to mention Joel English and his fancy-schmancy curricular designs that would actually make something like that work, if only I had an army of TA's and a normal budget).
The pedagogy dragon can't fight the budget demons, however. At my school we have no graduate assistants and we are suffering from massive budget cuts which are slashing schools all across the state. Sadly, one of the first things to go was a chunk of the special stipend for teaching online. In the words of a non-faculty staffer, "Oh, those classes have already been taught once, so they're essentially done. That stipend shouldn't matter."
I spoke up for the teachers on the dreaded day, and told the decision-makers that it was going to feel like a slap in the face, and was going to make tenure-track faculty back out of online projects, in essence leaving our online offerings to the adjuncts and one-year instructors. They took it bravely, and made the cuts anyway, uttering deeply compassionate and sympathetic phrases like, "We all are concerned about the message this will send to tenure-track faculty who have no real incentive to do this, outside of their own interest in cutting-edge educational delivery systems..."
I have no interest in cutting edge educational delivery systems. I just wanted to see how it looks outside the big square building filled with boredom and despair.
To be fair, the folks who make the online distance ed. decisions at my college are primarily well-meaning, thoughtful, good people who have been lured to the dens of fiscal iniquity by the same demons who own and operate the University of Phoenix and DeVry Institute of Technology. The Business demons don't die when you kill them, they just come back over and over and over again, popping up out of the bottom line like zombies in a cursed church yard. They tried so hard to be concerned and responsive...
Which then prompted me to remind them:
#3. "Alright, this is me storming off. It kind of doesn't work if you try to go with me." (Willow, the Wiccan Computer nerd)
Since 90% of our online "distance" composition and literature students live either on-campus or near campus, it's perhaps time to become more curious and critical about their motives for choosing an Internet course. Half of them simply drop out of class, unable to keep up on their own. There is quite a bit of evidence that a common motive for enrolling in online courses is simply:
"You don't have to actually go to class."
For quite a while I took this to be a simple workaround for hectic work and class schedules. But more and more I suspect there are a number of online students who are rejecting not the structure and scheduling so much as they are rejecting the other students -- they simply don't want to write with others. When asked to participate in threaded discussions online that involve interaction with other enrolled students, this particular subspecies of online learner will sometimes resist, and occasionally simply drop the course. I'm beginning to suspect it's not the teaching or the reading or the assignments that they are sick of. I'm beginning to think, as I watch them wander around campus talking into their cell phones -- I'm beginning to think they are sick of each other. Or more precisely, sick of randomly selected groups of peers with whom they are often forced to do "group work" that they feel is pointless, even insulting, no matter how "meaningful" their instructors try to make it.
Not that any of this really distresses me. As Generation X gets a little older and more capable of verbalizing and demonstrating who they are, I have noticed that their successors, like them, are much tougher and less oversensitive than I once thought. So in their defense, I say:
#4. "If the Apocalypse comes, Beep me." (Buffy the Slayer)
At last year's Town Hall, Barry Maid stressed a very important point about teaching writing in technology-rich environments. He said:
While I saw the incredible potential of using computer technology to teach writing, I remained tied to the notion that having students learn to use these new technologies to produce good writing was infinitely more important that having them becoming experts in a piece of software that would be outmoded in three months.
Teaching writing is more important to me than teaching the software or worrying about the hardware, despite the shrill howlings of the techno-marketers, who are trying to convince us that we will all be stampeded over if we don't leap on the back of the great Sand Worm of Techno-Progress and ride like there's no tomorrow.
To be brutally honest, five years ago I was envisioning a wilder, brighter, better tomorrow for the Internet than what I have in front of me today. Today I see nine thousand ways to join "classmates-dot-com" and ten thousand links to the online version of the Lands End catalog that is also sitting in print version on my bedside table and about a thousand "Jenny-Cam" clones that offer something so bizarre I wonder what we all did so wrong to make the universe mock us so cruelly. The 'net was supposed to be so much better than this. Not just wilder, freer, less commercial, more avant-garde. It was supposed to be Better. Which means we have to make it Better, but that will take time. And work. And perhaps a few fights at the congressional and supreme court levels, before it's a done deal.
Meanwhile, I'm just going to admit it: I hate my online course. It may have advantages for students, and for some of my colleagues who operate differently, but it sure isn't thrilling me.
Or to quote the evil doppelganger twin of Buffy's friend Willow:
#5. "This world is dumb. In my world, we have people in chains, and you can ride them like ponies." ('Evil Willow')
I'll just admit it. I want to ride ponies. I want to rattle the chains. I dig the thrill of discussion and mind-play, the action and reaction of ideas bouncing off walls, and the bio-mass of brains in bodies that can make it all electric and make it all come apart and then pull together. I especially want my students to learn how to make all that happen on their own, or in a bunch, or on the job, or in Acapulco, or wherever. I've found so far that most of my online students not all, but so far most are online because they do NOT want the real, they don't want to interact or feel or bounce ideas around with other thinking creatures. I know that sometimes it can work that way online, but it hasn't happened in the institutional setting for me the way I had hoped, the way it does in more "natural" (irony intended) online environments. Whether it's intentional from the start of the semester or an unintentional by-product of the screen, my distance ed. composition students want to log on, tune in, turn on, then drop out of sight until the next assignment is due.
And I don't play that way. I won't play that way. This world is dumb. I like the alternate one with people and bodies and breathing and hollering and interrupting and bantering and even snoring.
The one without the ponies hasn't come up to speed yet. But if it does...