Sunday, October 31, 2010

Are F2f Classes the Luxury Sedan of the Edu Biz? Go Hybrid!

USC President Max Nikias believes that undergraduates benefit most from face-to-face learning environments. Faculty working with undergraduates are discouraged from creating courses with distance learning components of their residential classes.

F2F is quickly becoming perceived as a luxury because august public institutions like the University of California are turning to online class delivery to cut costs. Online is seen as a necessity, a poor cousin, not a choice to empower learners.

But as more and more of our lives move online, and crucially, more professional work is being conducted in hybrid environments (that is, online and f2f), what really is the best learning environment for students?

Student writers don’t want face time for its own sake. They want f2f if it delivers something they can’t get online.

Something more compelling than "it feels good."

I am the first one to confess that face time feels great. I volunteer teach classes in my local public school district because I love the learning that happens f2f. Done right, it's a place of serendipity. Even I don't know fully what I'm going to say, or what students will say. And having to wrestle that unpredictability into a set of learning goals for each class session is a puzzle I never tire of solving.

But could it also be that college students prefer f2f classes because they have to work less hard?

Not all students, of course. Some students, across the spectrum of talent and collegiate preparation, will knock themselves out for your class: do the reading, come prepared with comments and questions, jump into debate, hit all the deadlines. Those students power seminars and make them richly meaningful not just for themselves, but for their quiet mice neighbors.

Online, everybody talks. There are no quiet mice. It's easy to see and measure quality of contribution. Students can't take a day off without penalty. There's a digital record of your daily contribution.

Which some students may not like.

And so they may clamor for f2f for reasons not entirely wholesome. Or intellectually sound.

This is not to say that online writing courses are superior to f2f modes, even if, as Prof. Scott Warnock notes, online writing students write 1500-2000 words more per week than their f2f counterparts. Warnock is Director of Freshman Writing at Drexel University and author of Online Writing Teacher and a 2009 book Teaching Writing Online: How and Why. Citing report in the Feb. 10 eCampus News, he notes that "hybrids are hot."

In my own experience, f2f is less rigorous than that same conversation would be if students had already discussed it online first and then come to class ready to hash it out.

My individual experience is consonant with findings from the U.S. Department of Education, which in its "Evaluation of Evidence-Based Practices in Online Learning" (Sept. 2010)finds that online learners perform marginally better than students in f2f classrooms. I should note that this report compares online and face-to-face learning environments and outcomes for K-12 learners, not post-secondary.

Time and again in my experience, f2f student discussion is better--deeper, more attentive to nuance and contradiction--if we have already broached it online.

And the benefits are more than intellectual.

The online/f2f combo-platter allows us to be more socially aware and dynamic. Bouncing between the two contexts, we glean information that locates the private writerly self in a body seated somewhere around the seminar table. That guy who wears his cap backward and acts like a goof? He's actually the contrarian pushing against the class's majority opinion. The silent student who sits near teacher has volumes to say online, freed from the terror of public speaking. The one who scowls through much of the class? Turns out she's busy thinking, which is evident in ruminative posts.

Many of us are also using hybrid settings to take students into the cities where our universities are located. The cities are "living texts" for the students to explore and write about. As mobile computing becomes more widely adopted for uses we commonly associate with laptops, such adventures will even more seamlessly integrate with writing programs' curricula.

When f2f looks in the mirror, it sees Socrates and Plato, brick-and-ivy, and students--even if they are seated in a circle and looking into each others' eyes--waiting for the teacher to lead.

When f2f looks into a computer screen, it sees a blinking cursor waiting for fingertips to fling it into Google, into the blogosphere, into social media and crowdsourcing, into hyper-abundance and the aching sense that to find your way, you need guidance from a teacher who's right there with you, using the same tools you use today and will continue to use after graduation, because they are not locked behind proprietary platforms like BlackBoard, or even the marvelous, addictive, and curated databases your library subscription buys you but to which you may not have access when you're no longer a student.

Teachers, f2f and online, have never been more useful and necessary.

If f2f is ready for its close up, it will dance between these contexts, between the body-in-class and the screen.

F2F need not be like the delusional murderess Norma Desmond, who is ready for her return to silent movie glory only after the movies have definitively passed her by.

But that means we're going to have to give her, give f2f, a facelift.

The hybrid can erase those fine lines.


Morgan said...

A quick thought regarding your opening: I assume Max is making some very calculated marketing maneuvers here (e.g., USC being able to present a "premium experience for undergrads" to high schoolers interested in attending) as much as anything andragogical. The former dean of SC engineering, he would most certainly understand the vast potential of non-f2f learning; they have been successfully offering various types of distance learning courses for decades.

Scott Warnock said...

Your post is great. I continually find myself pushing back against those who critique online/hybrid learning by asking them to provide comparisons with f2f courses. Teachers say students don't always contribute online. I ask what the participation percentage is in their f2f classes. Teachers say plagiarism is a problem. I say I see 8,000 to 10,000 semiformal words written be each student to compare to their major papers and projects. Etc. Etc.

You cite some good sources about how students are having rewarding educational experiences online. All of us need to keep building that pool of evidence.