By Judith McDaniel with Tim Fraser-Bumatay, Daniel Herrera, and Ryan Kelly1
Is it possible to get a “real education” from an online class? Several years ago a professor from the University of Virginia published an opinion piece about online education in the New York Times and insisted that it was impossible. “You can get knowledge,” he continued, “from an Internet course if you’re highly motivated to learn. But in real courses the students and teachers come together and create an immediate and vital community of learning.”2
I teach literature in a fully online Master’s program. My students enroll from all over the United States and from overseas. Our asynchronous discussion forums give students an opportunity to interact, to be thoughtful in their responses to my discussion prompts and to one another. I find the online classroom to be stimulating, diverse, and creative. It is different from a face-to-face class experience, but it can be different in ways that enhance student learning through the creation of an online community.
I am joined in writing this article by three of the students who have just completed their Masters degree in Literature and Writing in this online program. We have created an article that has two parts. In the first we talk about building community and how that happens, how students from very different backgrounds begin to interact, enjoy one another, challenge one another. In the second part of the article, we recreate some of the conversations we had about difficult subjects and difficult texts. We talked about race extensively when we read Othello and Heart of Darkness.
Knowing one another allowed those conversations to go deeper and explore more fully, it is true. But having the comfort of an online classroom also helped. Students liked that they could check their work over, think about a response for an hour or a day, rather than being forced to respond instantly as they would have to in a face-to-face class. We believe we were able to create a “vital community of learning.”
Getting to Know You
Daniel, in looking back on his self-introduction: Introducing myself was nerve racking because of the permanence of the written word. I was thinking, What should I say and what shouldn’t I say? But after getting past the nerves of meeting new people, I realized I was having fun. I would find myself checking the message boards to see what my classmates said about my post and it was great. Meeting these new people who shared a similar passion was amazing. Reading what they thought about the literature as well as their thoughts about my writing connected me to a community of writers that I never had in other classes. They gave me new ideas, and we connected about the pains and frustrations that we were experiencing in our own lives.
Ryan, also reflecting about those difficult decisions in introducing herself for the first time: The first introduction in an online class is always difficult because you’re trying to figure out just how much to share. You don’t want to be the person who over-shares and write a synopsis of their entire life, but you want people to have some sense of who you are and where you’re coming from. In a regular classroom you make assumptions about people based on what you see, but in an online forum you have no way of knowing who is on the other end of the computer. I chose to share the information I thought would be most relevant to this learning environment — gender, age, location, academic and work experience. With this basic information I believed that my classmates would at least be able to begin envisioning who I was as a person and understand some of where I was coming from.
Ryan: Just to avoid any later confusion, I will start off by saying that I am a female Ryan :) I’m 30 and I live in Newfane, Vermont, a very small town of about 1,200 in the southeastern part of the state. I did my undergrad work at UMass-Amherst, majoring in English and minoring in US history. For the last seven years I have taught high school English and am currently at Windsor High School, about an hour from where I live. I teach a variety of courses, many I designed myself, which makes my work much more interesting. I am also the yearbook adviser and run the school newspaper. I have spent a lot of time coaching sports – soccer, basketball, softball, and golf – but have had to take a break from that to focus on grad school.
Daniel: Hello everyone. My name is Daniel Herrera, I am 34 years old and I am an English Teacher at Southwest Jr. High in San Luis, Arizona. It is a border town twenty miles away from Yuma, Arizona. I also teach part time as an English Professor for Arizona Western College. I live in Somerton, Arizona, which is between San Luis and Yuma. I come from a mixed childhood. I grew up listening and practicing American Culture, yet I absorbed my family history and the customs of Mexico. I knew of the stories and movies of fantasy and adventure from the American Culture, but I also learned of the achievements and dark acts of the Aztecs. I am Mexican American, and I am still trying to understand both cultures I am a part of.
Tim: Hello! First thing I need to say is that I didn’t know Ryan Kelly (our classmate) is female! That blows my mind!!!! We just finished the summer semester together, and this entire time I thought that Ryan and I were the only guys in the course! Ha! It totally doesn’t matter!
Second of all, I have 2 minutes before I start teaching my first class, so here we go. My wife and I are having fun raising two sons, I teach English at Snohomish High School, and I’m really worried that because I’m in a hurry typing this that there’s a few grammatical errors in my post and I’ll look like a hypocrite — English teacher who doesn’t know his own subject.
I look forward to working along side of all of you, regardless of your gender.
Tim: Dear Female Ryan, I still feel really embarrassed! How many times did I use the pronouns “he” and “his” in my review of your paper?! It still blows my mind, so much so that I had to share it with my students when we were talking about characterization, and I shared how I had mused about how all of our classmates looked, and for you I had imagined this bony, white dude with wire frame glasses and short-cropped brown hair. The funny thing is, I can’t get the image out of my mind, so I just add a bow in your hair to my established image of you! My apologies, but 3 months of an image is hard to break!
Also, I’m surprised that you couldn’t tell that I am “the darker brother” from my picture, but I guess it is hard to tell since my boys and I are facing away from the camera. So in an effort to provide better clarification, I’ve changed my pic. to one of my family in all my Filipino/Hawaiian glory. “Bumatay” (pronounced boom-uh-tie).
Ryan: Dear Tim of Color, Hmmm…that sounds pretty official! Of course you would think I was a guy by my name! I expect it. And I’m used to it! I grew up as a tomboy with short hair, so you can imagine how I used to confuse people even in real life. When I was about 10 my mother got into a shouting match with a bathroom attendant at Yankee Stadium because she tried to kick me out of the women’s bathroom, thinking I was a boy. Hopefully the picture of me in feety pajamas with lips all over them will help repaint your picture of me. And if I had looked closer at your picture I probably would have been able to tell more about you. I won’t tell you what I picture when I think comic book lover. From now on I will associate you with the rapper Murs, who shares your coast, coloring (well not exactly, but more than I do), and love of comics. So, Tim, first you learn that I am a woman and then I learn that you are of color — who says online classes are impersonal??
Reflections on Introductions
Tim: Since I was already familiar with some of our classmates from the previous school term, it was an easy transition to get back into the swing of things with our introductions. My initial introduction (at the beginning of the previous term), however, was more reserved. I wouldn’t have responded that way if I hadn’t known Ryan previously. Some might point to this and say, “Aha! So the online model does lack in the community sense,” but I think that’s true when most groups come together for the first time, in person or online. We all eventually warmed up to each other to the level where I could be comfortable enough to say, “Hello, I’m Tim, and I had no idea Ryan was female.” It was fun, it was humbling, but all in all, it was comforting to know that I wouldn’t be judged too severely by my classmates.
Daniel: After reading the introductions of Ryan and Tim, I saw something that I was afraid to mention: race and gender. In a regular classroom, I would have been nervous to mention that I thought that Ryan was a man, or the mention of race, being afraid to be called a racist. This frank openness was funny and liberating from the restricted corset that we have over our mouths; the fear of saying the wrong thing because of the threat that someone will bring the accusation of being an insensitive racist sexist, who is not open minded. Here, the honesty and the time to reflect on what we wrote created an environment of openness and acceptance, where the world was not watching our language. Often in a classroom some voices will be silenced because other voices dominate the space, but here, each of our voices mattered.
Ryan: I think this exchange was the first time we really got personal. After we picked up new students in our cohort, I was still most likely to read and respond to Tim or Daniel’s work because I felt like I knew them better and was more comfortable engaging in dialogue with them. And after learning more about each I was able to better understand where their views were coming from. I was born and raised in New England. I was educated in New England. I live in New England. For me to be able to work with people clear across the country for an extended period of time opened me up to new things. Working with Tim and Daniel, who are both so very different from me, was nothing but beneficial to my learning experience. While typing daily responses on a website isn’t the same as grabbing a cup of coffee with someone after class, it is still a viable way to create productive relationships while fostering learning.
Tim from Seattle. Ryan from Vermont. Daniel from Yuma. These three would probably not have met in a face-to-face class; yet in this online class they have significantly influenced one another’s understandings — intellectually, personally, emotionally. Together, we have created a community of learning that keeps growing beyond the classroom and beyond the degree.
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1 Tim Fraser-Bumatay, MA, teaches Junior English, Science Fiction, and the remedial course, Collection of Evidence (redubbed Comics of English) at Snohomish High School, Snohomish, Washington. Daniel Herrara, MA, is an 8th Grade Teacher at Southwest Jr. High in San Luis, AZ, and Adjunct English Professor at Arizona Western College in Yuma, AZ. Ryan Kelly, MA, teaches English at Windsor High School, Windsor, Vermont.
2 Mark Edmundson, “The Trouble With Online Education,” NY Times, 19 July 2012.
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