The Campus in Online Education
The Missing Element in Online Pedagogy
After teaching online now for over half of a semester, I've noticed something seriously missing from the online educational experience.
Although buildings, classrooms, sidewalks, trees, and other students are often seen as an accidental element in higher education, I believe they have an essential impact on learning that online courses fail to capture. It's the power of the accidental moment, serendipity, or what I like to call "encounter."
On the way to class, or coming to or from class, students cannot predict what they will encounter. Trees, birds, wind, smells, noises, and other people are commonplace. But these interactions cannot be perceived as distinct from the class they are thinking about as they approach it or the class they just left as they move to the next part of their day. Connections like this might be essential to the educational experience, as seeing a person walking a particular way, or overhearing a bit of talk might allow a question about course material to arise in a way that could not be brought about by other means.
"Encounter" is an important element to thought, as it it is the realm of artistic inspiration and wonder. The design of a campus is meant to communicate to us that we are at a place of learning, a serious place, a college, a place where intense thinking and research is occurring. These visual arguments are working us over, but they are also becoming unintended elements of a larger internal discourse about the curriculum for students.
In an online course, everything is master planned. Each assignment is offered through courseware such as Blackboard or Canvas or Moodle, which separates each assignment into the typical organization we use for computers—files, folders, and the like. Once you click on a course folder, you are there, and all other elements of the course and college vanish. There is nothing else on the screen but that assignment or that reading and nothing is there to encounter on the way toward working on the course.
This means that students interact with each assignment as an independent unit. They are not encouraged to think of the assignments as interacting in any way, because it's nearly impossible to see them next to one another. The design of the course keeps things linear and separated.
The student is often working alone as well, often late at night, where there is nobody else around working on the same assignment. Even if there is, there would be no way to know they are in the same course, as they have never seen one another.
I've tried to push back against this by using the free social media software Discord in my class to offer a space for the consideration of all the assignments as interrelated. It doesn't mean this will definitely happen, but it adds that element the campus adds to the course—a sense of "encounter" where unplanned interactions with others are present and perhaps influential on the course material. I wonder if this is happening. So far, it appears Discord is not that successful in providing this element of encounter, as students see it as another course obligation, walled-off from any meaningful interaction with others who are in the course.
Trying to imagine how Discord would account for encounter is difficult. Here's an example: One vital element of encounter is the random few minutes before and after class where students can speak to one another without the authority of the instructor present. They have the immediate familiarity with the course and the same experiences in lecture and instruction, this can spark the sharing of questions—"Is this guy for real?" "What did you make on the last quiz?" and so on. This experience is governed by the unpredictability and unfamiliarity of the encounter with the course itself. I thought Discord would provide a simulation of this environment, but so far the students have remained fairly silent. Assigning them a task to speak with one another, or to comment on one another's assignments doesn't access this experience either as they perform it as they would any other assignment—alone and right on the due date, leaving little room for reflection or attention to the statements of others. They are just shouting all at once into the classroom air right at the buzzer.
These challenges to online education are hard to articulate. It's very difficult to imagine the groundskeeping or the animals that populate the campus, or the smells of particular buildings to have any impact on higher education or on things like student ability or student learning after taking a course. But the absence of these moments of encounter mean that online education must try to provide some notion of this or we will wind up with educational experiences that are isolated, walled-off, and are seen valuable because they are complete, not because they interact with other experiences and ways of knowing the world.