Day 25: Dislocated teaching

19 10 2009

One of the hardest questions to ask yourself is whether you have become obsolete. About three years ago I designed an online course for our university. It was sort of an experiment for me as we move some of our less frequent offerings (especially at the graduate level) to an electronic format. For this process I took an existing course and recreated the lessons, experiences, illustrations, and other elements so that an individual anywhere in the world could complete the course from home. Since that time, a few hundred people have completed the course, all with relatively little involvement from me.

Ironically, if we take that model and extend it to its ultimate possible degree, we reach a point where a team of professors could spend two or three years moving an entire degree plan online, at which point they could all retire (if they are old enough) or just file for unemployment (if they are not), while the course was taught by adjuncts, grad students, or someone else for the next ten or twenty years. This is the outcome which troubles professors across the nation right now, and it remains to be seen how it will play out. Of course that topic is far too large for us to consider here, so let’s leave that depressing thought and move to something more immediate.

It seems fairly obvious that many elements of a course can be delivered without the physical presence of a professor, and one of the simplest ways to do this is with a podcast. Since I had to be across campus during class on Day 25, I simply created a podcast of the day’s material. It was not fancy or technically sophisticated, but it got the job done. The students watched a short clip of info on our topic, then completed an exercise I placed online for them. I also used Google forms to let them sign up for a meal at our house, and tried to use Google maps to give them directions, though this seemed to have some issues related to viewing the maps on the iPhone.

There are countless ways to create a podcast; for this first attempt I simply used screen capture software to grab my class slides while I provided voice-over. The result was a fairly small video file which the students could download and watch at their convenience. The biggest downside of this approach is the lack of interactivity, while the biggest strength is mobility and scheduling flexibility.

I don’t have any desire to move to podcasting all my classes at this point; my sense is that the students who choose a 4-year residential university (and who pay private tuition) have already chosen face-to-face learning as their default mode. Having said that, I love the ability to still deliver content on those 3-4 class days each term when other job responsibilities take me out of the classroom. I can also see  opportunities to recognize that other events in our university calendar are part of that residential experience, and to offer alternatives to class attendance on days when many of my students are otherwise distracted.

If you want to listen to some high quality audio podcasts, you can visit my good friend’s site (Google “stewllenium radio”). This guy teaches financial management and has recorded an entire library of supplemental material which helps his students get some of the tougher concepts he covers. He also has a great 3-part podcast on buying a car, which is practical for anyone. His students are fortunate, since they get him both in class and also outside if they need it.

My plan for next semester is to create integrated class experiences for all the days I am gone, including a podcast , an activity, and a deliverable to be completed on their own time. Hopefully I’ll still be writing and can share with you what works (and what doesn’t).

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