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.

2 thoughts on “The Discreet Charm of Online Learning, Part I

  1. I know a lot of professors that use online discussion (in offline classes, including language ones) for exactly these reasons. As a student, I liked this because I was tired of hearing from the same people over and over in class (myself included). I’ve used this a bit in language classes, and it’s nice because you have something written to revise in a more interactional setting. Obviously this doesn’t replace face to face interaction, but it’s a nice complement I think.


    1. I’m discovering this, too, to my enormous surprise!

      I also just discovered that I can give much better answers to the questions in an online format because I can make them as long as I want and underline things in them.


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