Signal when you’re through, please (II)
The first post by this name outlined some of the decisions made in developing the courseware, in particular, the decision to structure the material in HTML outside of any course management system, and to use e-mail as the main mode of communications. These decisions were made because at the time (2001), HTML and e-mail were the only technologies I could trust that continuing education students would be familiar with, and the only ones I could count on. The decision to place the materials outside of a learning management system was also made for another practical reason–it’s really impossible to manage the volume of text in the course materials within a web interface. Without the option to do universal searches and replacements, it would have taken forever to manage even small changes. Over time, I experimented with bulletin boards and instant messaging, and ultimately adopted the WebCT bulletin board as the tool for managing story workshopping and the online craftbook, but the course remained largely e-mail and HTML based.
Given these decisions, in practice, some aspects of the course worked very well, and some not so well. In particular, the course did a good job of pushing information out (no surprise). I was able to include in the course materials quite a bit more information than I was able to cover in a traditional course. Some students told me how much they appreciated the materials, with a few even printing the while site up to keep as a “textbook.” Because the course was about written texts, it was fortunate to serve students who were generally accustomed to reading as a primary mode of learning; and because it was an introductory course, it included a large body of material to be pushed out in a “banking concept” mode. An advanced course would have needed to rely more on student interaction and less on content, and would have been much harder to pull off at the time given the technological constraints.
E-mail seemed to work well as the main mode of exchanging assignments and feedback. It provided a different type of interaction than a traditional classroom would have–since I didn’t have to devote the time to actually conducting a class, I had more time to devote to responding to assignments. In the traditional version of the class, I rarely had time to do more than make a small comment and assign a grade to the assignments in the course; with the online version, I was able to make very detailed, line-by-line comments on student assignments, which turned out to be very rewarding for me, as I was often able to see the skills students acquired appearing later in their stories. It often allowed me to address higher-level issues when it came time to provide feedback on the stories.
E-mail and the bulletin boards did not work so well for the workshopping aspect of the course. If you’ve never taken a class that involved writing workshops, the idea is that students take turns commenting on one another’s work, often in small groups. Because the workshops were online, I felt I had to be more prescriptive about the type of responses that students provided one another. This completely killed the spontaneity that is often the best part of an in-class workshop. And moving the workshop from a spoken to written environment meant that there was no “conversation” involved. Even on the bulletin board, the workshop consisted of the posting of the story and the student critiques, with a rare question from me or the author about the critiques. Neither the students nor I really had the bandwidth to do more. If I were to teach it again, I’d certainly work hardest on leveraging new technologies (and increased student familiarity with technologies) to improve the workshops.