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Online Identity and Education

It is possible that some hacker somewhere will one day manipulate the internet to his will and because he will be only twelve years old, he'll think it's funny to erase personal/contact/banking information at random. This twelve year old will open the floodgates of our society's online vulnerability and set into motion a series of internet hacker terrorist attacks, and once he realizes his power, he will leverage it to destroy our society by threatening to steal terabytes of information from highly secure sites while we sleep, thereby dissolving our existence as it is determined financially and socially, before we are able to catch him.

I am being over-the-top, of course. But, this extreme idea brings me to the subject of online identity, and its value. Is it as valuable as our in-person identity, or is there no difference? I'm curious because I do note the very distinct differences in those I meet on a daily basis and their online personalities, especially as a professor. In fact, many of them are polar opposite. The shy girl in class is the one that will go on for paragraphs upon paragraphs about the injustice of  my pop quiz. A fellow professor will leave curt messages on his Facebook page, but in person he is charming, gregarious and even outspoken at times.

Of course, writers know better than anyone the value of an alter-ego. But, I'm thinking about my students in particular because they are of the generation that, for the most part, doesn't know the world without internet dominance. I can't help but wonder for some of my online students, for instance, if what I offer is the same experience as an old-fashioned face-to-face workshop that meets around one of those big wooden tables. What do we miss, really, other than a bunch of shy writers who are loud on paper, averting eyes as they offer feedback and receive it, tentatively; then, less tentatively, until they feel comfortable enough with each other to try and one-up each other? Perhaps it's my imagination, but it feels like something is missing online, no matter how hard I try to make-up for the lack of in-person instruction.

I teach two online courses, and I have also taught many online workshops (I am offering some this summer). All of these courses have gone extremely well so far, better than I could have imagined years ago, yet I often find myself wishing I could point to a manuscript and look in a student's eyes to see if s/he's really paying attention, rather than trade emails as a sort of halted back and forth exchange, sometimes resulting in multiple-hour delays. Sure, there are telephones, but due to the nature of an online course, even telephone calls need to be scheduled, as do Skype meetings or other video conferences. I suppose when it comes to feedback, this can be good because it gives the reader time to digest comments, but are the comments taken as seriously? Are they read as closely? Are questions answered as thoroughly?


In the grand scheme of things, I wonder if the student feels s/he is getting the same education? If no, why not, and could something be changed? Please, if you've taken online courses, share your thoughts because they might help me to better construct my future online courses/workshops. What could make them more personal, so that if my twelve year-old surfaces my students will feel comfortable enough with an online professor to give her a call or stop by her office. And again, if the twelve year old surfaces, people will still like and comment on the on-goings of each other's lives and writings. I think that barring paranoia, we should all consider what our lives would be like without technology. Just how lost would we be? Or, would it be a good thing?

Comments

  1. I spent almost thirty years in the Navy, and have been involved in quite a bit of instruction, both classroom and computer based, both as an instructor, and a student. Before the internet, we had programmed instruction, printed books, with some basic information followed by a lot of multiple choice questions. Progress and grading were done by a mainframe computer, and we spent our days at individual carols in large learning centers. We learned the material by repetition. I still remember a lot of that information, so it did have some value, and a lot of people can be trained at once, so there is a cost savings in that type of training, however, it bored us all to death, and we still needed instructors to teach us the more difficult material such as transistor theory. My early computer training experiences consisted of similar type instruction being displayed on a computer screen. I don't think this type of training can effectively replace the group environment of a traditional classroom, especially since current computer training has advanced with the internet. I observed my wife completing some online education recently, and saw just how hard it is to stay focused, when the internet, Facebook, email, music... is just a tab away..

    In my opinion, in order to be effective, on-line instruction must be done in an environment that has minimal opportunity for interruption, and uses the internet as a tool towards the end rather than the main focus. I home schooled my daughter for a year a few years ago, using K12 curriculum, and I think it was pretty effective, not overly reliant on clicking through page In order to be effective, on-line instruction must keep the student actively involved and engaged.
    My daughter attends a Charter High School where all students are issued netbooks and all schoolwork is handled online in the Cloud.. no paper involved for the most part. I guess that is what the future will look like... at least for now...

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  2. Thank you for sharing your experience. I think what you said, that you became bored with the material, might be hitting on the thing that worries me. When one is left to his own devices to learn, and the instruction is only supplied in impersonal increments, it's really more of a self-education. In other words, the student will only get out of it what he puts in. In a way, this could be good. But I like the idea that teachers can heighten interest... Hm.

    I think you are right, this is what the future looks like. Professors at my college are now rationed copies, and the rations are small. We're going paper-free little by little, and it really does mean the student has to be more proactive. And we'll all have to learn to focus (not going to be easy!!!).

    That is, until the twelve year old comes around and destroys our clouds. :)

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  5. I've taken online, postal correspondence and "in-person" classes. The only one I do not like is postal mail. That one is far too impersonal with the time between sending papers back and forth, and little communication otherwise.

    Online classes, however, I love because I feel like I actually gain more from it than in-person. Why? Because when I sit down to read my professor's feedback, I'm ready to actually pay attention, instead of it being the scheduled time I'm supposed to care. The only instance I've begun to feel gypped is when the online instructor did not reply emails in a timely manner or did not feel the need to clarify answers. Luckily, this is rarely an issue.

    And professors can behave the same way with in-person classes, too.

    Like most things in life, it depends less on the system and more on the people utilizing it. If students are just glancing over the emails, this is an issue more with them, and less with the teacher. If you have given them your best, you can only hope they've realized the value of what you've offered. Horses, and water, and such.

    All I ask from my professors are that they try to reply in a timely manner, and try to answer my questions. I love good, solid feedback on my assignments, too--not just a grade. If you can throw in a sense of humor without jeopardizing your career, even better. But mostly, it's up to me to get my money's worth out of the class, and that's nothing an online or real-life professor can change.

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