Week 1 of Bonk Online: Motivation

Week 1 of  Curtis Bonk’s Massively Open Online Course about teaching online is all about motivation.  The main article assigned/discussed was the chapter “Well Leave the Light on for You:  Keeping Learners Motivated in Online Courses,” which is from a book called Flexible Learning in an Information Society. It’s really more of an article about things teachers can do to try to foster motivation, which (as anyone who has lead the horse to water only to watch him not drink knows) is not the same thing as students fostering motivation in themselves.  It’s basically advice on setting an engaging tone (including “ice breaker” activities), giving feedback (which I agree is a huge deal in online teaching), making sure students are engaged in meaningful ways, fostering choice and curiosity, valuing peer interaction, etc.  Though as I typed that sentence, I’m not sure what of these things are really all that unique to online (versus face to face) teaching.

In any event, I think in a very general way, Dennen and Bonk have fine ideas here.  There is no doubt that a big part of the problem of online pedagogy is teachers not recognizing the ways in which the online experience is different from the face to face experience of teaching in some really unexpected and interesting ways.  I think what Bonk is saying here can at least get teachers to begin to think about these differences.

But I don’t think he’s really addressing student motivational problems here, or at least he’s not addressing the problems I see.  In my experience at a public “opportunity-granting” university, a lot of courses are offered online to a population of students who don’t have the maturity or the “buy-in” to higher education generally to take the next self-disciplinary motivation to succeed in an online and largely self-guided class.  Simple example:  at EMU, we don’t teach first year writing classes online because the students we have in our program– especially the traditional freshmen– need to first learn how to routinely show up in person to class, how to complete assignments independently, etc.  And given the high drop-out rate of students in online versions of these classes at other places, I think we’re right about that.

I also think that when students don’t succeed in online classes it is often because they have misguided or flat-out bad motivations, self-guided or otherwise.  In the upper-level and MA classes I teach online, I see this all the time– or maybe a better way of putting it is I see students who don’t succeed online as often having a misperception problem.  Often, when students don’t succeed online:

  • They struggle with the technology in a way that is very difficult to address (and they often grossly overestimate their technological abilities in the first place), no matter what we try to do to help;
  • They nderestimate the amount of self-discipline it takes to get to the online class and participate, complete exercises, etc. (in that sense, an online class is a lot like buying an exercise bike:  it only does you good if you can motivate yourself to ride it every day); and /or
  • They bite off more than they can chew based on other classes that they’re taking and/or their complicated lives.  Show me a student who is taking 18 credits, working 40 hours a week, tending to an ailing parent/spouse/sibling, and/or at home with a newborn baby who thinks that her or his “problems will be solved” by taking an online class and I’ll show you someone who drops out or fails.

So I don’t know if this is missing from Bonk’s essay per se and I think his basic advice to help teachers new to online teaching is sound.  The point I’m getting at is when students don’t succeed in online classes, it is more often than not largely because the student wasn’t ready for the class and/or otherwise in over their head.

As for the MOOC experience so far:  it’s so-so.  A lot of the comments/posts by others are pretty good.  There’s certainly as much worthwhile stuff there as say the WPA-L or Tech-Rhet mailing lists– which is to say there is a lot of not worthwhile stuff too, but that goes with the territory.  It doesn’t really feel like a class in any meaningful way to me– more like a mailing list or blog discussion.  I don’t think that’s a bad thing; it’s just not the same as actually taking a class.

And so far, I think the Blackboard CourseSites stuff blows chunks.  Makes me appreciate eCollege, frankly, and that’s saying something.

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