Little Woes, One Great Problem
Gaps in coordination, execution, and expectation plague online teaching. They can’t be filled with mere software fixes.
By Aditya Johri
“Great subjects are illuminated best by small dramas,” the writer V. S. Naipaul once remarked. I was reminded of this adage while dealing with an incident during an online class. It occurred right around the end of the semester and, not surprisingly, had to do with grading. A student was certain an online assignment had been completed on time and contested receiving a zero grade for missing the deadline. I e-mailed the student a screenshot showing the paper hadn’t been turned in. The student responded with a screenshot purporting to show it had been completed. Many messages were exchanged, and my teaching assistant and I spent a lot of time, independently, trying to trace what had happened and talking to others who might have run into a similar problem.
A similar episode might play out in a face-to-face, on-campus, class. Yet, there are nuances to online teaching that can turn such small dramas, collectively, into a great problem that eats away at teaching time and faculty-student relations. The problem doesn’t have to do with the technology alone but is sociotechnical in nature and one for which we don’t seem to have good solutions. And I’m talking here just from the instructor’s perspective; I’m sure students have their own struggles with online learning. Overall, in an effort to solve the problems in front of us, we seem to be increasing the complexity of online teaching without improving its substance—learning.
The issues I’ve encountered fall within three large sociotechnical gaps.
The first, a coordination gap, is the informational mismatch or disparity between people or technologies that is necessary to undertake a desired action. This gap manifests itself in many ways—for instance, when the same courses are offered both within the learning management system (LMS) and in a live classroom, an instructor must coordinate with other teachers, IT support, and students. We must engage the Office of Disability to ensure that students who need accommodation have it and that exceptions for these students are entered within the LMS. Inadequate coordination has repercussions for access, bias, and fairness. Each semester brings new things to learn and different obstacles to overcome. As a result, the coordination gap is constantly in play.
The second gap, an execution gap, is the disparity between the way in which the system is supposed to behave—the capabilities it supposedly has—and its actual affordances and functioning. This mismatch occurs largely because LMS systems are still trying to move from a repository-of-resources model to something that is more user driven. The common approach is to continually add more features to the system and attempt to satisfy every possible use case. New features are often decided upon by administrators who are purchasing the software rather than instructors or students. The result is a system that is even more complicated to use and imposes an increasingly steep learning curve.
Finally, there is the expectation gap. Learners, especially those who have grown up with mobile technology and social media, nowadays have definite expectations when using a technology platform, and this applies equally to online classes. They expect that response time will be short (almost immediate), that technology will work seamlessly across platforms, and that resources will be molded to suit their habits. For instance, video-based content will be available as an alternative to text and when text is used, it will be short. A mismatch in expectations between the learner and the instructor often leads to a breakdown in trust.
Online education is increasing, and it does have some advantages over place-based, face-to-face education. It provides access to those who don’t necessarily have the financial or social resources to attend a residential program and supports students who return after having to take a break. It can offer continuous learning and improvement for those in professions, such as engineering, where the knowledge required to work is constantly changing. Yet, online education is a complex undertaking where the efficiency gains don’t come easily if quality is to be maintained and where tweaking and shifting existing practices to fit into an online mold might be more costly and unproductive than creating new practices from scratch. Although creating new practices requires more resources initially, it might be the better long-term solution because some gaps just can’t be filled.
As to my small end-of-semester drama, the system provided no evidence that the student completed the exercise. Since it was a low-stakes assignment, the student still passed the course. But the incident chipped away at our mutual trust and forced us to waste a lot of time that should have been spent on teaching and learning.
Aditya Johri is a professor of information sciences and technology at George Mason University.