RUNNING IN CIRCLES?: ONLINE TEACHING AT UOC

Last Saturday I attended a seminar on the use of up-to-date computer technologies at my other university, the online Universitat Oberta de Catalunya. I’ve been teaching an ‘Introduction to English Literature’ for undergrads, compulsory for the degrees in ‘Humanities’ and ‘Language and Literature’, since 1998; it’s currently the 27th semester I do so. And I still enjoy it.

I don’t write much about UOC, or rather, very little, because, somehow, things run more smoothly there. The virtual campus platform is fine, so is administration and organisation; the students are usually highly motivated, with an interesting mix of ages (20 to over 65!!) and backgrounds. And of locations: I remember a glorious semester in which I had students in China, Japan, Florida and Ghana (I mean Catalans working there). I have learned plenty from UOC that I keep applying to UAB, as they have always been far more demanding concerning the clarity of the contractual relationship between teacher and student. I still hate it, though, that we, associate teachers, who used to be called consultors, are now called ‘teaching collaborators’ but still not quite ‘teachers’. And payment could be higher…

The issue that soon came up yesterday in the seminar is how the emphasis on learning skills and competences has affected learning content. In plain words: students do the exercises quite well but do not read nor learn in depth the course materials: they do not study. This is basic in the Humanities, as essentially, you cannot improve your competences and skills without constantly working on your intellectual capital, your fund of knowledge. This is common to both presential and virtual universities, as we’re both stuck with the same dilemma: students tend to limit the time used for study, whereas in my time it was very clear to us as students that the amount we needed to learn was up to us, provided we understood that it should take all of our free time. Consequently, the measures we are developing to make sure students do study pass through assessing or monitoring them on what they learn. And they’re self-defeating.

A colleague presented a method to have students develop the quizzes to test themselves on the course materials, arguing that in this way they need to understand well the texts. I liked that idea and will implement it in my two universities, in my own style. Yet, as I’m sure you see, whether the quiz is done on paper in class or virtually through Moodle, the wrong principle is at work: we need to ‘force’ students to study; besides, as the amount of background reading on which they can be tested is limited and usually focused on one text or kind of material, we don’t fulfil our aim at all: that they self-educate by choosing autonomously what to read from the bibliographies we provide (as we, teachers who were college students in the 1980s or earlier, were expected to do –and as the new competence-focused pedagogies require as well).

After another presentation, in which a UOC colleague showed the very hard work he’d done in turning his ‘linear’ class materials into an enticing hypertext, another very experienced colleague argued that, in the end, we’re working to back up a very classical pedagogy with new technologies without computers really changing the pedagogy at all. She worried that maybe UOC was becoming obsolete but I disagree: no matter how and where you teach a subject in the Humanities, the principle is the same –students need to study, as we, teachers, must study all the time, whether we use books or the computer. Yes, we have new tools; yes, they’re useful; yes, they can even be thrilling. However, they’re worth nothing without old-fashioned cramming and it is indeed the worst fault of some constructivist pedagogies to have encouraged students to think that using computers for study would decrease the effort needed to learn.

I am also personally quite tired of this carrot-and-stick approach by which I, as a teacher, am made responsible for forcing students to read-learn-think (=study!), worrying all the time about which shortcuts they’ll use to short-change me. Just remember: when I complained last June about the poor results of the first-year Literature quiz a student wrote in this very blog that if I was so concerned I should have worked harder on that quiz in class –when, actually, that quiz tests the students’ capacity to study on their own. They should be concerned, not I. And, above all, they should be concerned to learn, not to pass the quiz. Personally, I’d rather trust that everyone will learn the contents of the handbook independently than waste my precious research time marking quizzes.

In the end I’d like to make all my students more autonomous and not more dependent on my monitoring them. I’ll work on that, in my two classrooms. Promise.

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