Ukrainians and Russians

People often ask me if there is a difference between Ukrainians and Russians, so here is a real story that will forever answer this question.

N. and I are lying in bed, eating peaches and persimmons, and sharing quotes from the books we are reading.

“Life is good!” the easy-going and perennially contented Ukrainian member of our relationship says.

“Don’t say that or you will bring bad luck upon us!” the fatalistic and dramatic Russian member of our relationship responds.

We’ve been having this exact same conversation about 3 times a day every single day for as long as we’ve known each other.

That’s a cultural difference for you.

The Discreet Charm of Online Learning, Part II

Another great thing about the online course is the quality of questions that I get. I’ve been teaching this Hispanic Civilization course for 3 years, and only now am I finally getting the questions that I always wanted to be asked.

The way it works is that students watch the lecture videos and then take their time assimilating the information. Several hours (or sometimes days) later, they realize that there is something about the readings from the textbook or the lecture that is not entirely clear. Since the discussion thread is open in a very welcoming way, they feel free to offer their question or comment.

In a regular course, this rarely happens. There aren’t many 18-year-olds who are prepared to interrupt the lecture and say, in front of a roomful of strangers, “There is something you said 3 lectures ago that I didn’t quite understand.” Would you be able to do that? Now consider how much easier it is for you to post a comment on a blog thread that started a few days ago. See the difference?

There is another interesting phenomenon at play here that makes online exchanges produce valuable insights. For many people, online communications are a way of being more authentic than they normally are in any other format. The students seem somehow more open and sincere in the online discussions than I can get them to be in a face-to-face format of a large classroom. An online discussion feels a lot more intimate and personal than a regular course.

Of course, all of this – the active participation, the openness, the great discussions, the feeling of intimacy – could be achieved in a face-to-face classroom if I were allowed to teach smaller, seminar-type courses instead of huge lecture classes. However, our administrators are driven by enrollment figures. Whenever a class has 10 students enrolled, we start getting persecuted and martyred for that. Really, I’m not exaggerating. Even our language courses are capped at 25 students, which is way too much for a successful language course. Money-hungry administrators who need to rob both the professors and the students in order to increase their own humongous salaries do all they can to undermine learning by stuffing as many students as possible into a classroom.

Since the appetites of greedy administrators who needs their mansions and huge cars are not about to abate, I believe that the future of higher education lies in a mix of face-to-face and online courses.

The Discreet Charm of Online Learning, Part I

I was fully prepared to hate online teaching, people. (See my old post on the subject for proof of my complete and profound readiness to hate it.) As I started teaching my online course last week, I was envisioning a series of posts where I would complain about the horrors and the inadequacies of this method of learning.

However, I have to confess that I have discovered a wealth of unexpected bonuses to online instruction. Mind you, this is not a language course I’m teaching. Teaching foreign languages online or through any kind of software is a ridiculous idea and a total rip off. The course I’m teaching online is a regular lecture course in the Humanities.

The way a class meeting in this course usually occurs is as follows: I ask some questions, deliver the lecture, get the students to discuss the material in groups and share the results of their work with the rest of the class. I usually have about 50 people in the classroom. This means that only a very small percentage of them get to speak in class. Many never speak at all (they are shy, reluctant, unprepared, asleep, confused, bored, etc.)

More people don’t participate in class discussions for the following reasons:

1. There isn’t time.

2. Some people are not spontaneous. It is hard for them to come up with an intelligent comment or a question on the spot. Just think about how many times you sat at a conference and had absolutely no question or comment to make after the speaker finished delivering the presentation only to come up with a brilliant question after the conference ended. We can’t expect students to be more prepared for spontaneous brilliance than we are ourselves, can we?

3. Many people are intimidated by large groups. Sometimes, it’s hard to overcome one’s shyness or fear and speak out in front of a large classroom filled with strangers. People who are not particularly self-assured tend to sit in silence in class even if they have a lot of interesting things to say.

All of these difficulties are obviated in an online course. We have only had one week of instruction in the online course and already every student has produced at least 3 questions and / or comments in the course (except a couple of people who failed to materialize at all but that’s the same percentage as in any regular course.) Just in terms of class time, there is no way I can get every student to speak 3 times within a week in a lecture course. This means that the students are already more engaged and active than during a regular course.