Thursday, April 11, 2013

Pixels of humanity, dedication and joy in online teaching

I started teaching at Berklee College of Music in a traditional classroom setting when I was 28 years old. It was terrifying. Walking into a room to perform for students. Setting the tone and the expectations. Trying to command respect when I had no respect for myself. Trying to convey musical and technological concepts in a clear and understandable way. Trying to get through all the material  that was necessary for a semester. There was just so much to cram into their heads. My focus was on the topic, how to best convey it, how to make activities around it, how to organize it, how to test comprehension of it. I feel sorry for those students that studied with me those early years, because my focus was in completely the wrong place. I was dedicated to the material not to the student.

Dedication is an important word for me. It is one I come back to over and over. I started thinking about dedication when talking about synthesizers. My students often ask: "Why should I buy a expensive hardware digital synthesizer when a software version in the computer does the same calculations, isn't it the same thing?" This really is a great question, because I struggle with it myself. It should be the same thing. Math is math right? But, then my experience goes against this. Working with a hardware synthesizer is better, it feels better, and it sounds better. Even if the algorithms are the same, the hardware version is better. Why? How could this be so? Dedication. A hardware synthesizer has a dedicated processor, the brain of the synth is focused on a single thing: making amazing sounds. A computer processor is doing thousands of things: checking the web, drawing nice colors on the screen, calculating a reverb, listening for keystrokes, and you can imagine how many more things. Dedication is the opposite of multi-tasking. Dedication is single-tasking.

Aren't you more successful when you dedicate yourself? When you choose to focus, when you choose to succeed?

Dedication is a choice a person makes, one decides to dedicate themselves to a task. As a teacher then, my goal is to cultivate in the students a desire to dedicate themselves to the material, to the teacher, to each other, and to their society. As a teacher my dedication must be to the student. 

In my early teaching years I was dedicated to the material. My lesson plans were perfectly crafted and timed to the minute. Discussions and questions, when unplanned, were distractions from the plan, and causes of stress. This stress was obviously picked up by the students and set a certain tone in the room that was not conducive to learning. The plan was a barrier between me and my students. My dedication was to the plan. With comfort as a teacher came a shift in my focus(my dedication). I think this happens to all teachers at some point. I started to realize that there were people in front of me. I started to care for them. My dedication shifted from the plan to the people. I found an essential teaching tool: empathy.

Learning is something the students do. The teacher doesn't make the students learn. The teacher designs a structure where learning is likely. Students have already decided to learn, that is what they are there for. Learning happens naturally. I have seen students learn from personal lecture, lecture videos, books, discussion, interactive websites, and from games. If coherent information is presented to dedicated students they will learn. The main variable in a student's learning isn't the form of the delivery, it is the dedication of the student.

What has changed with online education? The form of the presentation of the information.
What hasen't changed? The need for dedicated students and dedicated teachers.

People are naturally inclined to dedicate themselves to other people. I am dedicated to all the people in my family and to my friends and I am sure you are dedicated to a large number of people in your life. In a traditional classroom teachers rely on this natural human behavior. By standing in front of class as a model of success and capability the students desire to perform for that person, they are dedicated to the professor. Because of  this dedication(and the trust that goes along with it) the students willingly and enthusiastically perform tasks they might find tedious or frustrating. At least that is the idea. I have experienced it myself. For teachers I am dedicated to I go way beyond the requirements. For those that I am not dedicated to I do the minimum. I am not sure this is the case for everyone, but for me student/teacher dedication is couched in a desire to impress. I want to impress that teacher that I am dedicated to, and I know it will take quite a bit to impress him or her. As a teacher, I want the students to impress me, and I make it known that it takes quite a bit to do so.

So, I have laid out a few things here. Dedication is key to teaching, both in the students and in the teacher. Teacher dedication to material can be counter-productive, and the form of the material is of little importance if the student is dedicated to learning. Dedication to people can be productive and useful. These are of course not the only factors in teaching, but from experience I think they are major factors. How does this translate to online classrooms and to MOOCs?

In a small online class, like the ones at I create the material once and the students choose their pace through it (within a week's time). As a class we move through the material together. Online teaching has done me a huge favor. No longer can I dedicate myself to the material, because that is fixed. All that is left is dedication to the student. The challenge becomes how to create that student/teacher dedication through a screen. Well, it is possible and it is actually easy: empathy. Just like I had to realize that the people in front of me in a classroom were people, the online teacher must realize that the people on the other side of the screen are people. Then the teacher needs to show the students that s/he is a person to.

Screens, typing, and asynchronous communication are barriers to empathy that the teacher MUST break down. All too often we use the internet and e-mail as a way to shield ourselves and who we are, but classroom communication needs to be the opposite. The personal student-teacher dedication thrives when there is true understanding between the student and the teacher. Often I feel like I am pushing my personality through the screen and pulling the student's personality off the screen.

In a traditional classroom I stand in front of the group and I set the tone. My carefully crafted teacher/performer personality sets the tone of the class. From that very first moment I look out to the students I set expectations for the students. Every class is different, and I craft my personality and the expectations based on the lesson material and the unique group of students. In the classroom, my dedication is now toward the group, the relationships, the people. 

The importance of setting the tone is even more important in online teaching because it doesn't happen naturally. Even if a classroom teacher doesn't consider the tone to the extent that I do, their personality and presence in the physical space sets the tone. In an online classroom the tone is set initially by the school,  it is like the default tone. And, if the teacher doesn't work hard at creating a unique atmosphere for his space that default will remain. In a traditional school, the tone is usually quite serious and teachers provide the contrast to that. Teachers provide the humanity and the empathy. It is the same online. But, teachers must use different techniques to set that tone, and it might not happen naturally as it does in a physical space. 

Setting a digital tone is tough at first, and runs contrary to "writing in a way that is unmisunderstandable" because setting a tone is an emotional thing and relies on emotional language and emotional language is tough to translate and can often be misunderstood. Saying: "this is a comfortable learning environment" doesn't create a comforting learning environment. We need to show that the environment is comfortable and learning. We need to teach the students how to interact within a digital comfortable learning environment.

The first challenge and what I would recommend first for new online teachers is practicing with  emotional language. So much of what is said in a classroom has a kind of emotional "meta-data" associated with it. Tone of voice and body posture inform how the information is to be understood. In a digital classroom this must be stated explicitly.

In a classroom, along with a smile and a nod, I might say: "The drums are too loud and the vocal melody needs to be EQ'd". The smile and nod say so much, they say "Loudon approves, but here is a little bit to make it better." The students hang on my every gesture to find affirmation of their work. I use that to push them harder.

Online, the smile and nod must be stated explicitly: "Great tune, I enjoyed the ride. The composition is well done and the mix is close. More attention to the drum level(bring it down) and to the vocal EQ is necessary."

This kind of emotional language is natural in critique, teachers often give written feedback, but this must be applied in all online class conversations. Class announcements in online systems go out as e-mails to all students. This is where a teacher can set the mood of the class through emotional language. Writing about the excitement of the new semester and the pride in the group goes toward creating that personal student-teacher dedication.

Creating student-teacher dedication is tougher for sure and there are more barriers like language and scheduling, but in an online system that is the majority of the teacher's job. With the material taken care of the online teacher's primary job becomes empathy. Focus on the student and support them through their time in the class. I know this can be done, and as a teacher I enjoy it much more. Communicating with students and helping them solve their problems is the best part of teaching in general. So, in an online system we get to focus on the best part of teaching.

Now, we come to MOOCs and things change. With thousands of students it is impossible to create student-teacher dedication and honestly I haven't come to terms with this completely. I think the loss of this teaching tool was the source of my stress in creating and running the course. How can I teach when the students don't have a personal connection to the teacher?

Emotional language can still set the tone. Weekly announcements that display the teacher's personality can help to create the environment necessary for learning. Frequent activity in the forums shows that a person is there answering questions and interacting with the community even when there isn't one-on-one interaction. Even though students are understanding of the massive nature of the class they still desire a figurehead, and it is the teacher's responsibility to provide that. I attempted to display my personality through weekly youtube video announcements, but I really don't know now effective they were in creating student-teacher dedication. Is this really a solution, I don't think so.

The MOOC system seems to revolve around the community replacing the teacher. The teacher provides the structure and the mood and the expectations, but students dedicate themselves to each other. They grade each other's projects and support each other through tough sections of the material. While this is a wonderful ideal how many people are really dedicated to their fellow classmates in this way? As a teacher I have struggled with empathizing with my online students. I practice it and work on the skill. The students have not had this practice. So, in addition to not having mastery of the material they don't have mastery of the educational format.

Without the one-on-one connection to students the teaching experience changes drastically. I focused on problems and details much more. The negatives jumped up and the positives remained hidden in the smoothly functioning class.

Where is the joy in teaching? it is in touching souls, in seeing the flash of student understanding, in minds rubbing against minds. How can the joy of teaching be retained in a MOOC? There is an intellectual joy, a knowledge that I helped thousands of people understand music production technology. I spread good information among the group and into the internet through the publicly displayed assignments. But, the visceral personal teaching satisfaction is missing. I hope I get a chance to try this again, because like my first time teaching in the classroom I was dedicated to the wrong things. I was focused on the format, the structure, the numbers, and the problems. Next time I will be dedicated to the students, and I have faith I can find the joy in teaching a massive class.