The Trouble With Online Education

I’ve taught an online “Video Game Culture and Theory” course about four times now. This fall I’m getting ready to teach my first online section of an American literature survey that I’ve taught multiple times before. Because Seton Hill is a very high-tech school, I have few technical worries, but it will be different teaching literature in an online environment.

I usually like thinking of technology as a way to manage and deliver content for us to chew over in person — where the real learning happens. But converting a hybrid course to an online course means relying on the technology to deliver all the course content — which in the case of a literature class is not just the facts about a plot, but the skill at being able to develop complex, textually-supported interpretive arguments.

So this essay by Mark Edmundson (from U.Va., my alma mater) is timely.

By the way, it needed an illustration, so here is the Bard of Borg.

In the summer Shakespeare course I’m teaching now, I’m constantly working to figure out what my students are able to do and how they can develop. Can they grasp the contours of Shakespeare’s plots? If not, it’s worth adding a well-made film version of the next play to the syllabus. Is the language hard for them, line to line? Then we have to spend more time going over individual speeches word by word. Are they adept at understanding the plot and the language? Time to introduce them to the complexities of Shakespeare’s rendering of character.

Every memorable class is a bit like a jazz composition. There is the basic melody that you work with. It is defined by the syllabus. But there is also a considerable measure of improvisation against that disciplining background.

Something similar applies even to larger courses. We tend to think that the spellbinding lecturers we had in college survey classes were gifted actors who could strut and fret 50 amazing minutes on the stage. But I think that the best of those lecturers are highly adept at reading their audiences. They use practical means to do this — tests and quizzes, papers and evaluations. But they also deploy something tantamount to artistry. They are superb at sensing the mood of a room. They have a sort of pedagogical sixth sense. They feel it when the class is engaged and when it slips off. And they do something about it.  —The Trouble With Online Education