Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Day 17: The Biggest Challenge in Education Today

Day 17 of the Reflective Teaching Blogging Challenge asks us to consider the biggest challenge in education today. That's a big topic, and honestly, I don't feel I'm qualified to address it. I'm going to talk about the biggest challenges in teaching English at my community college.

I can't help but talk about two. (I feel like someone tightened a key in this wind-up toy's back!) The overriding one is class size. We have a 30 student max in each composition course. I realize many colleges have more, but I feel this is a lot to manage and impossible to do as well as I'd like. Grading load aside, classroom management can be a challenge. Just today, I had students working on a draft--just 15 minutes--and I had hoped to circulate around to at least half of them. Well, one student started crying as she was essentially in crisis. Of course, a student in crisis takes priority, so I spent most of the time attending to her. This means I didn't get to the other students to see how they were doing as a class or give them individual feedback. In a smaller class I could have managed the time a bit better--some time on her, then extend the time so I could see at least a handful of the class and check in.

Those moments where we connect with our students and offer encouragement or clarification are really where the magic happens. I'm reminded of what I overheard a therapist friend saying to another therapist: "it is the relationship that heals, it is the relationship that heals."

Is it the relationship that teaches? How can one have a relationship with 120--or more--students a semester?

The other challenge that I'm seeing at my school is the lack of administrative support--or at least acknowledgment--of what students need to succeed, especially online. Many students want online and hybrid courses. Many instructors want to teach them. Many instructors don't do so well, unfortunately, and students suffer in two ways:

1) They have a bad experience (teacher not engaged in the class, teacher pays a former student to grade, students learn from a book and taking multiple choice tests, students receive no meaningful feedback, don't have emails answered, etc).

 2) They are taught to expect that online learning is boring but easy if you can read a book and do multiple choice questions well. Many drop immediately from online courses like mine that do not have multiple choice tests and require two or three time-consuming activities a week that go beyond rote memorization. They don't even make it to the part where they see that they'll get feedback, actually interact with the instructor and their peers and maybe, just maybe, even learn something.

(OK, I should be humble, there may be other reasons why students drop from my online courses ;-)

Since for years there were little to no standards or oversight for online learning, colleges have been slow to adopt the new CA standards set forth by the accrediting bodies which ask for more instructor involvement and meaningful work on the student's end. Little wonder instructors are nervous about the changes! Most colleges do not have distance education coordinators or instructional designers to train faculty and offer support. Many administrators think that since they have Blackboard/Moodle/Canvas tech support, instructors have what they need to do well! But we can't ignore the pedagogical differences in the online medium. We can't ignore the students who want to learn online but who aren't getting an experience comparable to face-to-face.

I probably sound a bit ranty, and perhaps like someone who thinks she has all the answers. OK, I'm ranty, I admit that, but I don't have all the answers :-)  But I believe online can be good, really good, as good as f2f for many students. But it's just not workin' as it is.

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