Read through the 9x9x25 archives (yes, we’re big enough to have archives now -woot!) and you’ll notice several blogs devoted to the composition and aesthetics of learning spaces. These posts offer apt reminders on the psychology of setting and nicely provoke instructors into taking more ownership of their surroundings –the ultimate goal being an atmosphere more conducive to teaching and learning. However, how can we translate these important considerations to online courses, where we have little or no control over the given locale?
The first and most obvious step in this direction is to design attractive, intuitive, and effective dashboards using our LMS or website of choice. Erin Whitesitt (yes, a shameless family plug) has already offered a fine blueprint in this regard, yet I often find myself worrying about the bigger picture. As an English major, I was trained to evaluate context, and as an English professor, I’m haunted by the unknown compositions surrounding my lessons online. When a student logs onto Blackboard, what lies beyond and around that little rectangle of learning, informing, supporting, or undermining my instruction? My greatest fear is that it’s this:
What does this have to do with learning? When a student attends college in a traditional classroom, he/she travels through multiple ceremonial spaces that lend significance to what is about to take place. He leaves the comforts of home, jockeys through the streets of society, and arrives on campus. The campus itself is a location that denotes learning via its unique physicality. Despite sharing traits with many other large collections of buildings, it cannot be mistaken for a hospital or governing complex. It is quickly and easily identified as a college, and as the student steps into this space, she is subtly prepared, through a lifetime of conditioning, to begin learning. This preparation is heightened when she arrives at her specific destination. This is my Sociology 101 classroom, her mind and body tell her. This is where I learn about sociology. Looking around she sees other students operating under the same geographical mindset. Although they may fiddle with their phones, or talk with their neighbor, they are in a dedicated space historically and culturally prepped for learning and new ideas. This truth is telegraphed by each of the five senses.
Sadly, this is not the case with online learning. With the click of a button, a student can move from Facebook, Netflix, or worse, pornography, to my English 101 course. How can such a casual juxtaposition not subtly devalue education? Lacking all locomotion, there is no physical reinforcement of change, and there is no demonstrative spatial indicators that states “learning is afoot.” Instead, the student is surrounded (most often literally) by all of the comforts of home, and although that picture of grandma and those footie pajamas may feel good, research supports the notion that we often learn best when we are on the edge or even slightly outside our comfort zone.
There is a social aspect to this as well. While a student may hesitate to rail against the “liberal agenda” or to denigrate “all them feminist” in a physical classroom (where an accepted atmosphere of civility and professionalism generally reigns), that same student will feel far less restraint in his own bedroom. Whereas a college campus supports and encourages progressivism and new ideas, our homes and personal effects, even our family members, generally cast a conservative
aura: this is who I was, this is who I am, and this is who I will be. Such an environment lends itself to intransigence, and, coupled with even a notional anonymity (Ha! You can’t see my face!), sometimes results in troll-like behavior. Add to this the typical distractions of being at home (crying children, blaring televisions, annoying siblings/roommates, the smell of dinner, the lure of that Playstation) and the result is not exactly an immersive learning space. In other words, there is no sacred temple.
So what can we do about this? Well, to some degree, nothing. When teachers talk about the indefinable “magic” of the classroom, they are partly alluding to what I have discussed above. No matter how far online education advances, it will never be able to fully replicate the physical act of moving through space in order to gather in a ritualized location to engage in something as a group. Humankind has been doing this for thousands of years, with varying motivations, and with powerful results. However, online education is not going to disappear, and so we need to seek out ways to improve the medium. I encourage my students to develop dedicated work times and spaces even for their online courses. The coffee shop or the attic may not be as conducive as the classroom, but over time they can come to mirror some of the same associations. Todd Conaway argues that we should send our online students on field trips. Regardless of how we do it, we need to develop new and innovative ways to move the statue. What are your ideas?