With the advent of the computer-mediated or "virtual" classroom have come dramatic shifts in the roles, responsibilities of and relationships between instructors and their students. This section will examine some of the new expectations of instructors, who, having been taught under and trained to teach within the lecture-based paradigm have, upon entering the realm of the virtual learning environment, been forced to undergo radical shifts in their thinking about the creation, nature of, and maintenance of a knowledge making community (formerly the neatly compartmentalized space of a classroom); their role as the knowledge-holder and "giver"; and the degree to which they will allow students to collaborate with each other and participate in the making of knowledge within that community.
The instructorís shifting roles, which are partially caused or at the very least enabled by the introduction of computer-mediated communication into the curriculum, also "trickle down" to create new roles and responsibilities for the students, who not only have to master new technologies but also devise new learning strategies to cope with the physical absence of both their instructor and their classmates; to search for and appropriate information that has traditionally been provided to them in the form of lectures or study notes; and to become active participants in cooperation with their instructor and their classmates in "making meaning" out of the course material.
The role of the instructor in the web-based course has evolved and expanded
dramatically from that which was expected in a traditional face-to-face
teaching paradigm. As has been discussed in previous sections, the instructorís
role has evolved from being a "professor" of knowledge to a facilitator
of learning experiences; from an evaluator to a coach; from a content area
specialist to a "technorhetorician"; from an all knowing fount of knowledge
to a tour guide on the information superhighway. In the same vein, the
role of the student has changed dramatically as well. The student is no
longer simply expected to appear physically in a classroom setting to passively
digest and regurgitate received knowledge; he or she is now required to
be an active learner--to follow links to information and make connections
between unrelated sources; to sift through thousands of possible sources
and hundreds of e-mail messages; to master techniques to manage, organize
and store all of that information in an efficient manner; to manage his
or her time effectively in order to meet course requirements without the
benefit of hearing reminders from the instructor; to not only react in
writing to an essay prompt, but to challenge other views and defend his
or her own using written rather than verbal rhetorical strategies; and
to choose among many possible ideas to respond to, rather than simply the
last comment or two as in a traditional classroom setting. In the following
section, these new roles and the perceptions of them by both students and
instructors will be explored.
THE DECENTERED INSTRUCTOR
These changing roles and responsibilities can often present challenges and conflict, especially from those instructors and students who are deeply ingrained in the proscenium-based model of "transferring" knowledge. Speaking of the possibilities engendered by universal access to education through informal means made possible by such mediums as the internet, Kemp notes the resistance that many educators feel:
sanctuary. Declare both our mortality and our inability to anoint the
I think this is a step most teachers don't want to make. (acw-l, 5-6-99)
Another idea that helped inform my pedagogical approach can be found in the notion that freedom in communication leads to freedom in society. This access to freedom of expression and the possible development of a "new and improved" social order through electronic communication is an underlying theme in the works of postmodern theorist Jean-Francois Lyotard and internet guru Ted Nelson; composition theorists such as Cynthia Selfe, Fred Kemp, and Lester Faigley; and members of online discourse communities such as the participants in listservs sponsored by such organizations as the Alliance for Computers and Writing, Netizens, and the Electronic Freedom Foundation. In the foreword to Selfe and Hawisherís Evolving Perspectives on Computers and Composition Studies: Questions for the 1990ís, Edmund J. Farrel reflects the collective views of many current computers and composition theorists when he claims that:
The results of my "experiment" were mixed: the "free-form" discussion and critiquing that developed out of my affiliation with and influence by these theorists and online communities worked well for some students, especially those who were among the first to send their essays to the list, and for those who were fortunate to receive comprehensive critiques such as the one sent to Sir Edward by Cassie that was discussed in Section V. For others, though, the format did not work as well. Some students complained that they received few comments from their classmates, or that the comments they received were not helpful.
Additionally, on the Gatsby-l listserv I rarely corrected students on their grammar or spelling, or even on ideas that seemed to be "off the wall" instead, I allowed their classmates and other list participants to point out errors or faulty arguments (which they more often than not were more than willingly to do). My attempts to "step back" and let students explore freely, though, were not always taken in the spirit in which they were offered. Although many students appreciated the freedom of expression and the opportunity to experiment with various rhetorical strategies in an attempt to arrive at a satisfactory (whether personal or group) level of understanding or consensus, some felt that my lack of participation in the discussions had an adverse effect on the course. Some would express this sentiment nicely, such as M.C., who said "I personally would of preferred to hear your opinion because I believe we all would of benefitted from your wisdom" (Q23, 5-96). Other students, though, were a little more outspoken:
>Last night I finished printing out ALL the messages I have received from
>the listserv (I have not been able to keep up with reading each one on
>line) there were over 500. Anyway I have now read each one and yes
some are duplicates. But what I wanted to learn about literature I am not
>seeing in these messages. A couple of people, Connie R., Kristie and
>Denise to name the main ones are the only voices from whom I am
getting anything close to some type of true observations on literature. The
>rest of the messages are so far, for me, just book review type comments
>and general blow offs. So, what I want to do if it is ok with you is to
>meet with Rebecca D. each Tuesday 5-6 (her office hours)do the
>literature from her class and let her give you a grade for me (she does
>not currently have an Amer Lit class. Rebecca says she has done this
>before with you. This does not have anything to do with you, I just
>cannot take a class that counts against my BA and not come out of it
>with all the skills I will need to take later classes. I understand the
>desire for students to discuss their opinions about what they have read
>and yes I do have definite opinons about most books I read. But Mark
>[the college districtís e-mail administrator] has suggested that later this
>semester you [and other online instructors] and I meet with him to see
>what we might do in the future for a listserv that would be monitored
>(apparently most are) for duplicate messages and/or the messages are
>sent a few at a time. Please let me know if this will be ok. I will still
>probably read some of the on-line information from you page, but
>REALLY cannot find what I need in this listserv.
In order for you to receive the full benefits of this course, you need to PARTICIPATE in the discussions, which you have not done. As I mentioned to you before, you do not need to read every single message. Yes, there is a lot of "fluff" between the good stuff, but that's part of the learning experience, for both you as a receiver of the information and the students who write the "fluff" messages, who will hopefully benefit from reading the comments made by older, wiser, and more literate students :). Take a look at some of the comments and discussion between Carrie, Sir Michael, Johannes, along with the students you have already mentioned, and you will see what I mean. There is some pretty deep stuff in some of those messages!
The discussion list is only one part of the course, though. There is also a wealth of information about the authors, literary criticism, tips on writing about literature, etc. available for you at the click of a button from the course home page, and of course, all the other literature you'll be reading the rest of this semester (Howells, Hawthorne, Dickensen, Whitman, Poe, etc., etc.)
In the coming weeks we will have some special "guests" appearing in our conversations, including a Hawthorne Scholar and a Whitman scholar, both of whom have written several well-respected books in their fields of study. We will have the opportunity to "meet" and converse with them about their research on these authors. We will also, as a "virtual" class, be developing a Fitzgerald home page with an annotated bibliography, sample papers by students, etc., after sharing our ideas and research papers with each other through the listserv. (See the Flannery O'Connor Home Page, which you can link to from my home page, for an example.)
My feeling is that you are overwhelmed by your work schedule and the problems you've had with our extremely non-user friendly mail system (did you get my message that I have deleted your ssl@mail account, so you should no longer be receiving double messages?). I hope that you will decide to stick it out and see how the discussions, the readings, the links to other World Wide Web sites, the research paper asignments, etc. all fit together to give you a greater understanding of the literature, rather than judging my class on the first few weeks when we had all those technical hurdles to overcome.
I do realize, however, that independent study courses like this aren't for everyone--my course is definitely not easy, but it IS easy to get behind if you don't stay on top of it. It would definitely be easier, with your work load, to meet with Becky for one hr./week than to keep up with the readings, list discussions, and writing assignments in my course, so my feelings will not be hurt if you decide to go that route. My #1 goal is to provide a flexible learning environment for people just like yourself, people who work full-time and/or have busy schedules and/or children, etc. Whatever I can do to help you to reach your goal of obtaining a B.A., I will be more than happy to do.
Let me know,
Many students, though, preferred the freedom of expression and independent learning that the open discussion method allowed. Penny Daniels, a student in the first-year course, stated:
On this point, most students tended to agree. In question #31 of the survey, students were asked if they would have preferred audio, video, or printed lectures rather than participating in the e-mail discussions. In response to that question, Caryn responded with the following comment:
because the information is actually spoken and goes directly into my brain; unless, of course, it's a boring class and I fall asleep, which I didn't do in this class! Plus, in this class, I could always go back to my saved mail and refer to information I needed.
Of the students who responded to the voluntary survey, 40% responded positively to my "laissez-faire" approach, 35% stated that my staying out of most of the discussion had a negative effect on their learning, 15% were not sure, and 10% did not answer the question. Interestingly, though, even though my original intention was to leave the students "to their own devices" and monitor the results, I realized after reviewing the listserv for this dissertation that I did participate in many of the discussions, especially during the reading of The Great Gatsby. In addition to sending the original discussion prompts and responding to questions about course assignments, technical difficulties, etc., I wrote several dozen messages commenting upon the studentsí responses to the discussion prompts or to each other; some of these messages were discussed in Chapter III in the section covering the formation of the gatsby-l virtual discourse community.
Although it is important to note studentsí perceptions of the effectiveness of a course, and there is much to be gained from their input (each semester I make several changes to my constantly-evolving web-based courses based on studentsí comments and suggestions), an essential task for future researchers in the area of online instruction is to conduct meta-studies which examine several aspects of computer-mediated courses in order to discover trends and patterns in an attempt to discover the most effective pedagogical strategies. In one such study, Moore and Kearsky make the following observations:
significant differences between learning in the two different environments, regardless of the nature of the content, the educational level of the students, or the media involved...reasonable to conclude (1) there is sufficient evidence to support the idea that classroom instruction is the optimum delivery method; (2) instruction at a distance can be as effective in bringing about learning as classroom instruction; (3) the absence of face-to-face contact is not in itself detrimental to the learning process; and (4) what makes any course good or poor is a consequence of how well it is designed, delivered, and conducted, not whether the students are face-to-face or at a distance. (Eller 1998)
Students also had a variety of opinions related to the status of their relationship with me throughout the course. Some of this I discovered through personal comments directed to me via e-mail or in person, and some through the post-course surveys and taped interviews. On question 26 of the survey, students were asked, "How would you compare your relationship with me as opposed to your relationship with professors in the traditional "face-to-face" classroom environment?" Of course, any answers to the survey must take into account the possibility of the Hawthorne effect, in which case subjects often give researchers the answers they think the researcher wants to hear. This is particularly possible in the case of the gatsby-l participants, since most of them were enrolled in my course, and at the time they answered the survey questions they had not yet received their final grades for the semester. Since the surveys were answered via e-mail, I tried to quell this fear by promising that I would not read the surveys until after the final grades were turned in, but nonetheless, this factor must be taken into account. Also, since some of the students had taken courses via internet or in computer-based classrooms before, it is possible that some of the responses regarding their relationships with me as their instructor may be based somewhat on a combination of face-to-face and virtual communication (such as with Irene). As discussed in Section II, though, I did attempt to minimize the skewing of the data by variables such as the Hawthorne effect by using multiple sources of data rather than relying on the survey responses alone to draw my conclusions.
Most of the students had a positive view of their relationship we me, and the fact that all or most of our communication took place in a virtual rather than "face-to-face" environment was a positive or at worst neutral factor in their dealings with me. Students who came into the course as more advanced critical thinkers and who had previous experience in distance learning courses that did not incorporate e-mail discussions tended to appreciate the personal attention they received. Sir Edward, for example, made the following remarks on his end of the semester survey:
personages, so it is straight out difficult to say how dry and
empty a "Net" course might be with a traditional professor. The
key to the relationship is connection, and as you know from
"The Tale of Two Mugs" proximity does not equate to this
connection. You breed this connection from the orientation
through to your attitudes in your writings to your intelligence
reflected in your prompts. You could push us more, you know.
One of the other ways the role of the instructor changes in the virtual classroom environment is the opportunity, and in fact, the necessity to be, flexible with students. One of the chief reasons that many of the students enrolled in the course in the first place was because of the flexibility it provided by not requiring them to appear in person in a classroom for lectures or exams; as has been previously mentioned, the demographics of the typical internet-based distance learning student differ widely from those opting to take courses on campus. Since the student participants in gatsby-l were enrolled in a two-year college, the likelihood of their falling into the "non-traditional student" category was much higher than would be the case at a typical four-year institution. Non-traditional students tend to be more mature and have a higher level of motivation than the average student coming directly out of high school, but at the same time these students often have many obligations outside of their college work, including spouses, children, one (or often more than one) job, church and civic activities, etc. As their instructor, and as one who knew I was dealing with/catering to a "special" population, I felt an obligation to respond to the various problems that these outside influences often precipitated.
One student, Laurie, who had participated regularly in the listserv
discussions and had done well on her assignments for the first few weeks
of class, sent me the following message when she learned that her husband
had been transferred to another city and that the entire family was going
to have to move:
I wrote to you a few days ago about having trouble with our
e-mail. Actually, my husband was a bit frantic because our e-mail
was down and he had a message from the president from the company
that he works for. He's getting a promotion, but it means a transfer
to Dallas in two weeks. As long as you are willing to work with me
just a little bit, I can stay in your class. I just need to know how
frequently you will require me to attend an actual class. This will
be a commute, I understand, but if it's only once or twice, I can
probably make it. Please let me know ASAP.
Also, about the e-mail. I found out that the problem was that
the e-mail program that I was using couldn't handle the load of
everything that comes in for this class. I did some research and
thought i would pass it on to you. Pegasus e-mail in Stroud's Web
page is much better than Eudora. I no longer have any problems with
the e-mail. Just a tip.
Thanks for helping me about the commute and everything else,
Laurie M. (02-21-96)
Another student, Carla, gave birth to a baby girl just a few weeks before the semester began. Although she struggled hard to keep up with her assignments, there were times when she was just too exhausted to meet the deadlines. While I still required that she complete her assignments, I was able to be flexible with her regarding turning in assignments after the original due date, and was able, via e-mail, to give her one-on-one advice on her rough draft, which was submitted to the listserv too late to receive much useful feedback. In question 37 of the survey, the students were asked to explain their "satisfaction level" with me as their professor. Caryn expressed her appreciation for the flexibility I had shown with the following comment:
chance, especially since I was probably the last person to respond to the
prompts! You didn't grade us primarily on whether or not we turned in a
responce; like some teachers with the "all or nothing" theory--turn in all
of the assignments or you get counted off MANY points. Students, or at
least I, don't learn specifically from turning in assignments. You take the
"quality, not quantity" approach, and I believe students benefit more from that. I was over-all satisfied with you as a professor, and would difinitely recommend you to other students taking English courses.
Since the students rarely or sometimes never met any of their classmates
in person, I sometimes played the role of an intermediary or, in the following
instance, a "matchmaker," encouraging students to work collaboratively
with others who were pursuing similar research projects:
>The topic I plan to do my research paper on is fashion in the early
>1900's. So far, I have had no luck in finding journals, papers, etc. on the
>internet. I think I am going about searching wrong. Tips on making searches
>easier or useful sites would be greatly appreciated.
In my response, I directed Judith to another student who was also researching fashion in the 1920ís:
Contact Bree at GJbrownjr@aol.com--she was in the computer lab the other
day and she was finding all kinds of cool stuff about movie stars of the 20's,
including pictures of the fashions they wore, etc. Maybe y'all could share info . . .
Also, I teach in computer lab S212 9:30--12:20 T-TH, and also have it
reserved for my students 3:30--5:30 on Tuesdays. I or the lab assistant on
duty will be happy to show you some search internet techniques, etc. If
those aren't good times for you, let me know and we can arrange another time to meet.
WIDENING THE CONVERSATION: SERVICE TO THE GLOBAL SCHOLARLY COMMUNITY
One of the joys of teaching online is that occasional message from a
member of the general public who stumbles upon the course listserv or website
and demonstrates an interest in the subject matter. I have been fortunate
to receive several such messages over the years, and it can be both gratifying
and annoying (for example, when someone sends a message only to correct
the spelling on a Web page). The benefits of "outsidersí" participation
to the enrolled students have been discussed previously in Section III.
Sometimes, though, the beneficiary is the non-enrolled participant. In
the following instance, a student from a tiny village in Brazil uses the
miraculous technology of the internet to contact fellow students in a small
community college in Texas to seek assistance for his teacher who is writing
a paper for a graduate seminar:
Date: 96-02-26 06:26:24 EST
From: antonio.goncalvesjunior@MANDIC.COM.BR (ANTONIO GONCALVESJUNIOR)
I have subscribed to this list in order to help my english teacher, who
doesn't have a computer to access the Internet. He is developing a
thesis about The Invisible Man, from Ralph Ellison, at his advanced
university course. His aim is to get information on articles or
abstracts about this author, writen by critics. These articles can be
new or old ones. It does not matter.
I've got in the Web some material for him, using the Altavista searching
enginge, but I'd like to get more information, specially with people
subscribed to specific lists on american literature, like this.
So, I'd like to ask if someone could send me articles or abstracts with
opinions from critics about Ellison. I'd like also to know names of
other sites where I can retrieve articles on this issue through the
The name of my English teacher is Ronaldo. If someone wants to send him
messages, I can deliver them to him, and transmit his replies to the
list. We live in Brazil, in a small town called Cruzeiro, between the
two largest cities of our country, Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro.
Thanks in advance.
Most of the students, as has been mentioned throughout this study, did not know each other, and typically saw each other only once, at the required orientation session at the beginning of the semester (although some did know each before signing up for the course or met other students while doing research at the college library or working in the campus computer lab). Two of the students in the first-year composition course had attended an on-campus course together the previous semester (taught by another instructor) and, since neither had computers at home, completed virtually all of their assignments together in the campus computer lab; this pair frequently sent me joint e-mail messages or shared a call from a pay phone to ask me questions about assignments. Other students developed online relationships with each other, which fostered collaboration and the development of the course discourse community. As was discussed in Section III, students formed relationships via the listserv that ranged from allies to "sparring partners."
On the survey, I asked students how their relationships with their classmates compared to the relationships they formed with other students in courses they had taken in traditional classroom settings. On the whole, the responses were fairly positive, and the students seemed to adjust well to communicating and relating in a virtual environment. One student, Clara, commented that she "still felt like they were traditional classmates, even though [they] never personally met." She went on to note what she felt was a positive difference in that she "felt less intimidated to talk to them and ask for advice than [she] would in a traditional classroom" (5-9-96).
Other students supported Claraís assertions that she felt less intimidated by their classmates in the virtual environment and that this caused them to participate more. Nikkie, for example, responded with the following on her survey:
The virtual learning environment, then, creates a very different set of expectations of and relationships between students and instructors. Although much further research is needed in this area, this study has attempted to point out some of the unique characteristics of these modified roles and relationships.
It is interesting to note, though, that gatsby-l and other discourse communities that develop in virtual environments, although they can become intensely personal and stimulating, are at the same time extremely ephemeral, disappearing almost as fast as they emerge--gatsby-l participation (and therefore most of the relationships that had been formed) was almost non-existent after the end of the semester. Within a few short months, without the unifying element of my weekly discussion prompts (and without my presence, as I did not monitor it for over a month while on summer vacation), gatsby-l quickly generated into a "vanity list" to which list members from around the country posted original poetry and short stories and commented on each otherís work. Unfortunately, the quality of the work (and the comments) was not what one would expect of college-level literature students; in fact, somehow a group of high-school-aged "corporate raiders" discovered, invaded, and colonized the list, driving many former list members to unsubscribe. One young virtual entrepreneur even attempted to wrestle control of the list by claiming that he, rather than I, was the actual listowner. As with the notion of reader response theories as manifested in e-mail discussion lists mentioned previously in this section, an analysis and discussion of this attempted coup would make interesting research material for another type of study, but as it is peripheral to the goals of this section and this study in general, I will not explore this subject further.
Section VII will offer this studyís conclusions and recommendations, but will also include commentary and examples which illustrate some of the difficulties of being a pioneer "cyber-instructor." Some of these challenges include learning new technologies and dealing with technical difficulties; educating and persuading skeptical and/or uncooperative administrative and technical personnel of the potentially negative pedagogical implications certain policy decisions can have; and the exacting of personal tolls (such as expenditure of time and personal funds) on the instructor.