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Back in Class

Updated: June 22/19 (scroll down)

Tonight marks the fourth meeting of our class exploring discourses in education at UVic. We are a fairly small class or 14 new PhD and 3 MEd students who meet for 3 hours per week. We are a diverse group with people from Tanzania, Nigeria, Brazil, Mexico, Australia, Barbados, Canada, and other countries I can't recall. Many of the group have moved themselves and their families from far-off places to study in Victoria, and at least one is still unsure about being able to secure a study visa. It's an expensive prospect.

It's that expense that has me interested right now. Moving a family with kids to another continent is massively disruptive (I've done it...). Learning new cultures, cities, schools, homes, and lives costs an enormous amount of energy and effort.

My own experience represents just a bit of the disruption required of attending school. My wife and I both have full-time careers in the Vancouver area, two of our kids are in school in the area, one in elementary school and the other in 2nd year uni. Moving is disruptive and expensive, so we looked for PhD programs within commuting distance for me. UBC and SFU are both local, but the program that I really wanted was at UVic, which is not far geographically, but separated from my home by the Salish Sea. So here I am, starting a multi-year journey with a Monday evening course meeting every week for the next 7 months.

The class meets for 3 hours and our conversations are becoming richer as we get to know each other a little better, but it has been a little slow coming. The first few meetings most of the responses were very individual responses directly to our instructor and without much reference to other members of the class. This week's meeting started to show more dialogue about some of the topics of discussion, whic was nice.

Here's the thing though. The last time I was a participant in a f2f class was in my BEd in 2001, and even then I was a bit of an outsider as a mature student in a cohort of people mostly younger than me. My MEd was entirely online. I didn't anticipate that there would be too much of an adjustment to f2f classes after 18+ years of that model, but it has been more interesting that I thought.

In particular, it strikes me that the practice of meeting in one place to learn from one prof f2f is an enormously extravagant privilege. And while there have been criticisms of online learning environments being impersonal and isolating, I have found that this model of one class per week with absolute radio silence for the rest of the week is much more isolating than being able to sign on to whatever web environment on any given night or morning and interact with my colleagues throughout the week.

I can grant that I am a unique case in the class because I am traveling so long (3 hours each way to go 100 km), but the others in the course are all also busy with work, families, and lives, so I'm not convinced that even living on site would be much different.

For me, a mid-career professional with a family, it seems that online interactions would be far less isolating than one single 3-hour meeting where each of the 17 of us can't hope for any more than about 5 or 6 minutes of time to actually share our views. WOW! I just did that math now...

  • 180 minutes/week.
  • At least 30 mins is taken by direct instruction and logistics.
  • 15 minute break.
  • 10 minutes lost to downtime
  • Down to 125 minutes (assuming very little direct instruction)
  • 17 people
  • 7.5 minutes maximum talk-time each.
  • Then the rest of the week is spent alone.

So, if doctoral-level seminar classes are to be primarily about listening, then great! We're right on track. If instead, they should be about exchanging and testing ideas, wouldn't it be better to move the majority of that to an asynchronous environment of some sort where participants have far more time to consider and refine their responses and don't have to travel in order to participate?

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Revisiting this post...

Back in October 2018, I published this post that was a little critical of synchronous f2f learning environments. I have further thoughts...

Early in the course, I was feeling the difference between my fully online and asynchronous MEd, and being 'back in class'. It was odd.

By the end of that course, it was much more clear where the trajectory of the course had us going. Each of the assessments was one step along the way to publishing a paper. We started with a concept analysis, moved to a conference abstract (where we could use our concept analysis and build it into an concise abstract), then a conference proposal, and finally a conference paper. By the end of it all, we had worked through a sample workflow for a researcher, albeit quite generalized.

Looking back now, I'm grateful for the course and for the careful, measured, and highly professional approach taken by our prof. By any number of objective measures, it was an excellent class. Each session was very well-planned, learners were engaged, our prof was well-tuned to the energy levels in the class and adjusted accordingly, assessments were scaffolded and fair and we received lots of high-quality feedback along with opportunities to 'revise and resubmit'.

Another characteristic of the class was that one student was not able to attend weekly meetings but was able to connect to the class via Skype. This added an extra layer of complexity that our prof had to manage, but he was willing to experiment and was gracious in managing the process.

While this was arguably a 'traditional' class scheduled for 3-hour weekly meetings, it was humanized by a prof who modeled professionalism and a deep concern for having each of us succeed.

I think one of the things that indicated to me that this was a great class was the fact that many of us were in the same course in the winter semester and returning after Christmas was like a bit of a reunion, and we missed those who weren't in the class while we welcomed some new faces.