What was missing in my online classes?

Thought bubble
Over the past few years I had been taking Library Science classes at IUPUI. Like many library school programs, the classes were all offered online. I got great grades and enjoyed learning the material. However, I can compare those graduate classes to the graduate level math classes I took at IPFW. The math classes were in person on the university campus.

Reflecting on my experiences, there were important things missing at IUPUI. I believe that the problems are relevant to any online courses and not my specific experiences. Here are a few things the online classes lack:

There is very little interaction between me and the other students. We couldn’t talk in the hall before class to encourage each other or ask for help. There wasn’t a library with study rooms and a cafeteria to visit. There wasn’t a “I’m studying” place to contrast with a “I’m making dinner” place. That leads to poorer learning through distractions and interruptions. By missing these intangibles, the classes become sterile and mechanical.

Although the online classes had forums to ask questions or have a discussion, those can’t replicate the quick back and forth in a lecture. It isn’t possible to raise a hand and stop in the middle. In a conventional class, when someone asked a question, it could lead to follow up questions by someone else. The questions allow the instructor to switch gears if their presentation wasn’t working.

Unfortunately, the online system is a communication bottleneck. Language becomes a barrier as some students may not express themselves easily or be self-conscious of using bad spelling or grammar. In the math classes, I could ask a question that was confused and not feel intimidated. By the next week, everyone would have forgotten my clumsy explanation. In an online classes, the discussions are saved forever.

A limitation on the online classes is that all activities need be evaluated in points. If a task can’t turn into points, there is no incentive to do it. If it doesn’t affect your points total, extra work that would improve comprehension is unlikely to be done. The focus is continuously “what grade am I going to get?” Although that is present in the conventional class, it is front and center in an online class, You can see it every time you log in.

It is easy for the instructors in an online class to overwhelm themselves with too much material to grade. This is discouraging students when the work isn’t returned promptly.

Although I got good grades, it’s not clear how much of the lessons “stuck.”

There are lots of trade offs between online classes and those that are in person. For younger students, I think that the risks should encourage concern that an online class might be inappropriate. What is needed to compensate for these risks? What are best practices for online schools?


A green thought bubbleToday I went to Club #521’s meeting. I was scheduled to speak but didn’t realize it. They had plenty of things for people to do so it was ok. The vice president education emailed me and encouraged me to come even if I didn’t have a speech.

One of the long time members is leaving to N. California on a mission trip for two years. We’re going to miss him. I believe he belongs to several Fort Wayne clubs.

In a few weeks my club is going to celebrate it’s 70th anniversary. We’re having a dinner to celebrate. I haven’t found anyone to join me at the celebration.

I was on speech team in high school, so toastmaster’s not really much of a stretch for me…. as far as the part about getting in front of a group of people. Doing ok with vocal variety and my level of voice are big challenges for me. I’ve very soft spoken and quiet.

I also struggle with getting presentations done in time to adequately practice them. I wait until the last moment usually.

I turned in my Competent Communicator manual today so I’ll get my first CC award. Last time I was there I didn’t realize that I’d been a member for two years. I’m going to get the two advanced manuals Speaking to Inform and Technical Presentations.

Go to http://www.toastmasters.org to find a club in your area to join!

Hypothes.is in education

[here’s something I wrote for one of my professors about Hypothes.is. I thought it might be of more general interest.]

One of the strengths of scientific publishing is that other experts may comment on documents before the publication. This allows other experts in the field to vet ideas. However, for others who are not part of the review process, when they see the research paper, they don’t have access to the comments and questions raised about the research study. In addition, connecting the research with other sources is difficult because there is not a way for researchers and students to add notes in-context.

Vannevar Bush wrote an essay “As We May Think” in the Atlantic in July 1945. One of the ideas the essay described was a device he called “memex.” The memex would make knowledge available to anyone by displaying it on a screen. It allowed cross-references and hyperlinks. In many ways, it foreshadowed the world wide web. However, in addition to the documents, users could create trails of their exploration through the system. These trails would be able to be shared and published, just like original documents.

The vision of being able to share information trails about one’s studies on the internet hasn’t been available. Either the technology was not adequate or the ideas required the cooperation of the hosts of a website to allow the annotations to be stored. Information was not available in a standardized way. Annotation is the implementation of the memex idea by allowing web text to receive comments, links, images related to the original text.

A photograph of the hypothes.is logo on a tshirtHypothes.is offers “To enable a conversation over the world’s knowledge.” https://hypothes.is/about/ The project is creating software and pushing for standards in annotation. They want to “foster community.” It’s a non-profit organization that is funded by the Knight, Mellon and Sloan foundations as well as others. They allow direct linking to information in-context so that one does not need to locate the connections on a blog or other website.

Some of the principles that they espouse include that the annotation system is free, non-profit, neutral and lasting. They hope to “standardize annotation” as another component of the Web. There is a World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) working group actively developing these standards.

There is a coalition of scholarly publishers, libraries and others cooperating to make annotation available on scholarly publications. They include MIT Press, The University of Illinois Libraries, Carnegie Mellon University, Oxford University Press, Stanford University Libraries and many others. They’re developing the ability to collaborate on the web and allowing one to write to the internet just as you can read from it now.

According to their terms of service, annotations that are created as part of a group are reserve all rights from copyright law for the content added to the group. Publicly released information is released as public domain. They encourage using their platform in education. https://hypothes.is/education/ has information about using the platform in different levels of education.

It is possible to use the Annotator platform by Hypothes.is without installing software by using a portal that lets you paste URLs. However, the Chrome extension makes accessing the annotations much more convenient. By using annotations, the class can enrich the content of the documents we are reading bryomd to what is possible with written analyses or summaries.

Bush, Vannevar. “As we may think. Atlantic Magazine.” (1945)
Original image: Hypothes.is Shirt. By Ryan Ozawa [Image license]

Indiana SB-500: Education Deregulation and Disabled Children (editorial)

Dear Editor,

This week in the Auburn, Indiana newspaper, The Star, Senator Dennis Kruse wrote an editorial about SB-500, which he claims will “remove many of the obsolete regulations on our public schools.” The text of the law summarizes itself as “Education deregulation.” He sugarcoated this bill by reporting on one apparently positive aspect. Unfortunately, this law’s sugarcoated prescription has many poisonous components. The parts that are most shocking to me is the elimination of educational protections for disabled children. A society can be judged on its treatment of its citizens who are weak and without a voice and this law is a full-faced assault on them.

The bill is impossible to fully understand without extensive research and study. Bills often have unintended side effects. This bill has 355 sections, which is a huge opportunity for unintended side effects, but back to the provisions for disabled children.

One section no longer requires schools to make accommodations for deaf and hearing-impaired students. In addition, advice of proper medical care to parents for their hearing-impaired children is no longer guaranteed.

Another provision guts the division of special education. That board will no longer supervise classes and programs for children with disabilities. Its purpose will become to “take action to ensure school corporations, charter schools, and the department remain eligible for federal special education funds.” This is not looking for the needs of disabled students. This is not helping disabled students achieve their greatest potential.

This is an example of a program that could go away: A younger relative of mine was having severe emotional problems in high school and could not regularly attend classes. The school provided tutors through this difficult time. Now, this relative has a college degree and is pursuing an advanced degree. The law limits the responsibility of a school to only disabled students who can come to school. The program that helped my relative would not exist if this bill were enacted. The statement “A school corporation may provide for instruction of any child with a disability who is not able to attend a special class or school for children with disabilities” would be slashed out of the Indiana code.

These callous and calculated assaults on disabled children are not reflective of the society I grew up in. A sugarcoated poison is still poison.

Lest we forget, Senator Kruse was also a co-author of the catastrophic RFRA law. I am confident that he has written another catastrophic law that trades a few dollars for our disabled children’s futures.


William Smith