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The online classroom: it’s virtually necessary


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I am supposed to be giving a lecture tonight to my class at Dalhousie. But it will not be in the usual 200-person auditorium at Dalhousie University. No, the Halifax airport is shut down today, and I have been stranded looking for a flight to get home.

This is not supposed to be a problem. The University provides faculty with software to do the lecture remotely. This program is supposed to broadcast your lecture slides, your voice, video, animations and other pedagogical modernities to the student's laptops or iPhones. In the departures hall, I have been scrolling through the slides while speaking with my nose an inch or two away from my laptop's screen in order to drown out the departure calls. I am now on my third attempt at uploading the lecture. During the two previous attempts a prompt came up, saying "server failure." The program crashed and nothing was recorded or could be recovered. An hour lecture up in smoke – three times over.

The technical glitches and frustrations with online learning technology aside, there is a real concern with universities encouraging more e-learning. Virtual learning cannot replace the learning experience of a classroom. The virtual environment leaves behind so many important nuances, mannerisms and interactions that can only be experienced in the class. Even if I can get this virtual lecture loaded up this afternoon, it will only be a shadow of the experience of the lecture setting.

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I am not talking about the sort of lecture where a professor reads notes from a soapbox. Tonight was going to involve role playing, discussions, presentations, and even interactive trivia. Students in my class are tasked to engage literature in International Development Studies, and then find ways to work towards social change. This is far better done in person, when students come together to bounce ideas off of each other and faculty and teaching assistants can offer mentorship and guidance face to face. Students build a wide range of skills in such settings. Getting the self-confidence for public speaking, interpreting debates, and managing group dynamics are all enhanced in person.

It is enormously hard to facilitate group work over a chat forum, where all you know of the other person is their avatar. Knowing students in person and involving them directly in the course content is highly preferable to scribbling short quips in emails and chat rooms. Just as a virtual lecture is only a semblance of the real thing, so too is mentorship through tweets, emails and chats.

Still, tonight I am subjecting my students to this hollowed-out lesson. I do so out of necessity. I know it is not the best experience for my students, or for myself. Lecturing into a laptop is not why I joined the university. Even though I know that this is a less than ideal option, I know that many university administrators are encouraging more distance and on-line courses out of so-called necessity. Many Canadian universities, especially in Atlantic Canada, are crying poor because of deep budget cuts from provincial governments. Their solution is to enroll more students with fewer faculty members. Greater tuition revenue with lower overhead is supposed to equal a balanced budget. Virtual classes are ideal forums to maximize student numbers without the constraints of fixed seating lecture halls or tutorial rooms. Faculty members can be expected to create virtual classes for hundreds of students.

Virtual classrooms are a response to austerity through the logic of economies of scale. This is not a desirable mode of instruction. The technology is clunky, at times ineffective, and for the faculty members designing the lessons it can be incredibly frustrating. While there may be some notable compliments that virtual learning can bring to a lecture series, faculty, students and parents should recognize that the push towards this technology is coming from a reaction to tightening budgets, and not from evidence that this will enhance the university experience.

It certainly seems to be the case as the university's server once again tells me that my virtual lecture has run into a "fatal error."

Robert Huish is Assistant Professor of International Development Studies at Dalhousie University.

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