This was another amazing semester teaching at San Jose State University. I had significantly more students in my class this semester than in the past (more than double), which at first made me nervous about the workload I’d have to take on. But it actually ended up leading to an even better class experience, IMHO. Just like with every social networking tool, the network effect was in evidence in my classroom — the conversations were more valuable and lively because there were more people involved in them.

This semester I got a lot of comments from students about their engagement level in this class versus other online classes they’ve taken. I thought I’d share some of them here for those who might be trying to figure out how the can better design their own online class/program:

“I wouldn’t have believed I could connect as well as I have with my online classmates as I did for this class… I feel that we all had the encouragement and opportunity to think critically and in depth about these technologies and their implementation in and ramifications for libraries.”

“The blog format feels less stilted than a traditional threaded conversation, and the comments list and the tweet list were wonderful additions that made the task of finding recent contributions very easy. “

“Perhaps the most surprising thing about this class is how much of a personal feel it had. I felt familiar with everyone in a way that I don’t usually feel in online classes. A number of things contributed to this: subject matter, clear and organized Drupal classroom, engaged instructor, and awesome people who jumped right in to the discussions.”

“I loved using Drupal because it feels more personal, especially since everyone has a picture next to their posts. I felt like I was able to show more of my personality through and I feel closer to my classmates than I ever have in an Angel class. It’s closer to a real classroom experience, with the added bonus that we can all say as much as we want without running out of class time. I also thought it was really cool that a few people we mentioned in blogs dropped by our classroom site to see what was going on and to make comments. It felt like we were part of something bigger than just an ordinary class.”

“I have had a great time in this class, and I attribute a great deal of that to the interactive activity encouraged by the class blog, an active and engaged instructor, and the ability to learn from the experiences and insights of my classmates. Since I have been lucky enough to have had similar experiences in SLIS classes where we did use Angel or Blackboard, I’m a firm believer that it is not so much which technology the class uses, but how that techology is used, which makes for a good class experience.”

“It is amazing how just having an image attached to someone’s words makes them more identifiable and fosters a feeling of connectedness that I find mostly lost on Angel. The blog format makes it so easy to follow specific class members and review new posts in threads.”

“Holding class with Drupal instead of Angel had the feel of getting out of the classroom, like holding class out on the lawn during nice weather. It gave posting a little more of an informal feel… I think the biggest difference was the use of avatars. I think it’s easier to associate a poster’s voice with an avatar picture than with just a name. I found that I got to know the voices of more of my classmates and know them faster in this class than in my class that used Angel.”

“Our instructor was more involved in class discussions than any I have had so far. My classmates were more engaged, and everyone’s writing was thoughtful and thought-provoking. I loved the resource-sharing requirement, because I got just as much from that (our “hive mind”) as from our assigned readings. And, of course, the “classroom” itself was very well-designed. I think the designers of learning management systems like ANGEL and Blackboard could really learn a lot from instructors designing their own class sites on platforms like Drupal.”

“Drupal rocks, if every teacher used Drupal the program would be 1000X better. First and foremost I felt like I actually had an idea of who my classmates where. Second the blog format was a lot easy to track than the pain of Angel. Also the class material was organized really well, though that might be more Meredith than Drupal.”

It’s really flattering to hear that students got a lot out of the class, but also troubling that they’ve have had such lukewarm experiences in other online classes. So many stated that they’d never had the level of interaction with their peers or with their professor in other classes. That makes me sad, because I’d had the same experience myself in library school (with one class being the exception), and my main impetus for teaching was to design the sort of course I’d have wanted to take. I don’t feel like what I’ve done as an instructor was particularly extraordinary, and while I did probably do more work on the front-end to create the Drupal classroom and organize the content, I feel like this is something most people could replicate (even in some traditional course management systems). It’s not just about the technology. It’s about organizing the classroom in a way that’s inviting for students, where content is easy to find, and where conversations are easy to follow. It’s also about taking a constructivist approach to learning — playing the role of facilitator and supporter in the classroom rather than the sage on the stage. It’s about taking part in online conversations; not as “the authority,” but as a fellow learner. It’s about providing real constructive comments on students’ work in order to help them do better next time. It’s about having a passion for the subject matter and trying to instill that same passion in your students. It’s about making students feel like they’re part of a professional dialogue through reading current literature and taking part in conversations going on in the profession right now. Yes, it’s more work to make all this happen, but that’s our job. If we aren’t making students excited about being a part of the profession, we shouldn’t be teaching.

It’s frustrating to know that the tools and teaching techniques are out there to make the online education experience a positive one for students and so many faculty simply aren’t taking advantage. I know some faculty feel too busy to learn new tech or rethink how they teach and others just aren’t that tech-savvy. Still, I think a lot of faculty have simply come to accept that distance learning can’t come close to providing the sort of engagement and interaction you find in many face to face classes. One of my students put it so well in a comment:

It seems like the root of the problem lies not in the technology (ANGEL isn’t that great, but can still be used effectively) but in the assumption (however subconscious) that the online classroom is somehow subpar in comparison to face-to-face learning. And because of that, sometimes instructors and students bring less to the table, just assuming from the beginning that it can’t be as engaging. It’s just not true! This class was among the best classes I’ve taken, both on- and offline, so obviously online classes can be engaging and successful. It’s just a matter of understanding not only the limitations but also the opportunities.

I completely agree with his sentiment. It’s quite possible to make an online course an amazing experience, but too many faculty simply try to create an online version of a physical class. And what they usually end up with is a sterile, boring environment because they’re not taking advantage of what online tools can offer that you can’t get in a face-to-face environment. It reminds me of eBooks. The eBook market has been so focused on putting print books online and creating a good reading experience. When I first saw interactive books on the iPad I thought, this is what it’s all about. It’s just not about recreating the reading experience online, but about taking advantage of what’s possible in the online medium (interactivity, social reading and commenting, etc.) and transforming the reading experience. Reading an eBook is not going to be the same as reading a physical book, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be a great experience. The same goes for online learning. We need to stop trying to recreate the face-to-face classroom and start rethinking what the learning experience should be like online. What would online learning look like if there never was face-to-face learning?

I know there are a lot of educators out there who are doing amazing things online, and it gives me hope. But there are too many instructors who aren’t willing to put in the time and effort necessary to do anything more than put their content and expertise into their classroom. Distance learning is not just a fad or something for a small portion of the population who can’t or won’t attend face-to-face classes. This is a major trend in education and the number of people taking advantage of online learning is growing exponentially. We absolutely need to be putting time, money and effort towards rethinking education in an online context and building our courses based on best practices for teaching online. Doing anything less is an insult to your students and a disservice to the profession, since we should be doing everything we can to help develop passionate and engaged librarians.

Ok, I’ll get off my soapbox now. ;)