Some thoughts on planning an online course

Anyone planning a graduate online course has very little previous experience to build upon. I have some understanding of the technical possibilities offered by the conjunction of computers, the internet, and available institutional support . What I have not had are the years of experiences in college and graduate school taking such courses from a variety of faculty members, all somewhat different, all somewhat the same. For me, planning an online course has not been so much improvising on a well-worn theme as constructing something through a kind of analogical process. The final product should be recognizable as a course and do what courses do. Whether what I have produced is, indeed, a course or a qualitatively different kind of event remains to be seen. What is a “course” anyway? And who is involved in deciding?

A brief history of my online teaching

In my personal history, the general framework for the first of the courses I am giving on line (Communication and Culture) started when I decided to rewrite my class notes for the web. This happened in 1998 and 1999. At first I thought I would help students in what I now know as the “onsite” version of the course. The web allowed me to add some images and, more importantly, to link the notes to further resources. I hoped that, in this way, the course could be taken at different levels of theoretical sophistication, with a somewhat introductory initial layer, and then more and more advanced layers accessed through links that I conceived initially as “footnotes to footnotes to ....” Seen this way, the class notes are still a work in progress. I have been told that the top layer of the class site is not always easily accessible to an audience with no background in the social sciences. More seriously perhaps, they may need the verbal contexts provided by the "improvised lecture" form I use in class.

But I soon convinced myself that I could do more with the Web. Openings had been made for new forms of intellectual and educational practices. I was partially inspired by McClintock’s Dante project; partially by my fascination with the technology as technology; and partially by my dissatisfaction with the limits of the writing technologies that requires a purely linear presentation.

In parallel Teachers College was developing its Distance Learning Project and I became involved in a Columbia faculty committee reviewing the university’s copyright policies for intellectual work and its initiatives in Online Learning. In this process, and given how much I had already developed, I decided to offer a section of “Communication and Culture” as an “online” course. This took for the first place in Spring 2001.

At first, the only matter I recognized as having absolutely to resolve pedagogically, was the matter of finding a method for keeping track of the students progress. I needed to feel comfortable about giving credit for the experience (and grading the work). The current requirements (as of 2003) remain the same: participation in a synchronous chat, frequent posting of reflections on the required readings, and a final paper. On the basis of what I got back in the first two years, I am satisfied that the students who register for the course develop as well as those who take it onsite. I am still considering how to accommodate the students who cannot participate in the synchronous chat.

What is a course? Education against schooling

These pedagogical considerations however raise the question “what is a course?” And through this question, they raise fundamental question in education and schooling. My answer is partially framed by the work of McClintock (1992, 1996, 1999) on the transformative aspects of education and the Internet as an extremely powerful new tool for progressive educators.

My answer is also framed by the work I have been conducting with Ray McDermott on some of the properties of schooling particularly as related to state control through local practices and to the attending uncertainties. This work is developed in our Successful Failure (1998). Of most relevance here is the requirement that school based education be graded and that it give students “credit.” Both of these matters are strictly controlled by the State and, through the State, to the particular organization of a democratic polity where, we must all hope and work at achieving, measured and publicly acknowledged merit is the basis for social advancement. Whether these matters have anything to do with education is debatable. There certainly is much evidence that they can stand in the way of education.

Personally, this means I must deal with the inevitable distinction between my role as educator and my role as teacher, as well as the possibilities opened by my status as an academic.

As educator I keep my course site open to the whole world. I am excited with the idea that someone, somewhere, is “taking the course” by following the lectures, making the required readings, even writing about all this–and is doing all this independently from me. Of course, what a person who educates himself in this manner cannot do is receive academic credit...

As professor with the delegated and controlled authority to grant credit, that is as the representative of the university, the state, and the American polity, I must require various displays from students. The university is entitled to a fee (that is in fact differentiated by the exact kind of credit one is seeking). And I must rank these displays through grading practices I outline elsewhere.

As academic, protected by customs and laws about tenure and intellectual freedom, I do have a space for making "something else" than what has been before. Online courses may be one of these.

In conclusion: education through shooling

Varenne teachingBeing quite self-conscious about the tension between schooling and education does not quite make me a pessimist. Schooling does allow for a particular type of education. It provides a frame for guided progress into communities of practice (Kuhn 1962; Lave et al.1991) that purely independent processes may not allow. And, of course, powerful frames have never prevented participants to resist, play with, and otherwise bricolage what stands in their way.

I trust that my online courses do provide guidance into a community of practicing professionals and scholars. And I hope that they do so in a spirit of deep play (Geertz 1972) that I hope students will join with me.

What is missing in an online course is well-known: students may never meet the professor face to face, do not participate in the classroom rituals, and cannot have the face-to-face meetings with other students when the class, the professor and all sort of other matters, can be discussed.

But neither education nor schooling require classrooms. In many ways, taking one of my online courses may not be so different from taking a tightly supervised independent study built on a prescribed bibliography. In other countries this is in fact a dominant form for graduate education. I continue to hope that chats, postings and other forms of virtual meetings will in some ways approximate the cafeteria sessions I imagine onsite students do have. Whether this happens is for them to do.

January 15, 2003