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Online Uni Life #14: One size doesn’t fit all

Last trimester was an opportunity to test the repeatability of what I did last year for my online classes. It didn’t require a lot of planning as I already had the structure in mind. The Moodle course site will look mostly like how it has with my previous classes. The new Discord server would also look like that of last year’s. I even had some of my students from last year come back as volunteers to help out with the set up and getting things in order. Things looked promising and I couldn’t help but feel optimistic.

My overview and invitation to join volunteer study groups in class

And then I wasn’t…

The class ended with me frustrated — wondering what was missing and if there was anything else I could have done about it. Now that the previous trimester has all but disappeared from my rearview mirror, I’ve done a bit more self-reflection with regards to the experience.

I suppose that, since I haven’t really done any blogging in over a year, a little recap is in order.

For the past few years, I had been studying ways to improve student-teacher engagement in our online classrooms. I understood that, despite how important I think that is, not everyone prefers to interact more with their peers and teachers, perhaps even to the point where forcing the issue would be detrimental to their performance. So, my idea was to offer both options to students within the same class. The presumed majority of passive-leaning students would stick with the standard content and requirements in the course site, while the ones seeking more interactions would have a slightly different setup — operating both in the course site and in a different platform for optional activities. Discord had been the favored platform for this. I ran multiple groups in Discord last academic year, which was an experience filled with lessons learned and happy successes. I came out feeling fairly confident that I was finally getting it — that I was finally achieving some consistency in terms of keeping students engaged and invested in the courses.

On the surface, a different story can be told. Most of the volunteer study group did well. I haven’t compared the numbers, but I’m fairly certain grades were generally higher among group members compared to the rest of the students in class. I think generally speaking, the experience of the group members were a net positive. If I had to, I could probably get away with a report to my office stating that this method of handling a class continues to prove effective.

And yet, I closed the trimester feeling thoroughly unsatisfied. There was something missing and I struggled to figure out what that was. I started questioning myself if there was something I did wrong. I pestered the students about it. I even consulted my students from last year. And that’s when someone hit on something that’s been on the back of my mind for a long time. I was missing my main movers. I’m not necessarily talking about student leaders — the kind who’d want to run the student council. I’m talking about catalysts — those who wholeheartedly believe in what I was offering and can inspire others to follow suit. These are rare students who are not only driven to excel, but are also comfortable enough to regularly communicate even with someone like me, an allegedly strict, harsh and demanding teacher. But most importantly, they have the capacity to lead, and not hesitate to do see when deemed necessary. I’ve always been cognizant of their importance in community-driven efforts. But now, I am conceding that they are critical to it. Without them, the volunteer study group really is little more than a group receiving extra mentoring from me, the teacher. And that is quite unfair to the rest of the class.

This is not really the most recent group’s fault, even though I, at times, gave them a hard time for it. However, they also have to understand that if none of them are willing to be their batch’s movers or catalysts, then I don’t think there’s any point in forming another volunteer study group in their next class, or at least not in it’s current form. Should I be willing again to go the extra mile as far as teaching is concerned, I would rather do it for the entire class. Or maybe try this again with a new batch of students. I have also thought about this long and hard. As far as the most recent group I’ve handled is concerned, it’s not that there aren’t anyone who can be catalysts. Out of a group of just over 20, I can easily identify 4 or 5. It’s just that they probably either don’t think they can, or maybe they simply don’t want to. As a teacher concerned about engagement, I find that more frustrating than having none in the group.

On a personal level, I don’t come into these classes with the intention of being the only source of knowledge. For years, I refused to refer to myself as a teacher because of that. I wanted to see myself as a learner like everyone else in class. To this day, I am constantly on the lookout for new knowledge that might come from my students. They are, after all, the ones who are so much more in tune with current technologies than I am. Last year, I had inquisitive students that prompted me to keep my game up and despite some feeling intimidated, would generally go ahead and question things in the course. This year’s batch is generally a bit too quick to concede to me. It would take some aggressive prodding to get the most out of them. And that by itself, is not the best way, because it tends to elicit emotional responses. Emotion can cloud perspective in an academic discussion. I get nothing useful out of them. Maybe this is how they’ve been trained in their previous schools. Or maybe they truly are detached, like I was when I was a student. Either way, I hope they can overcome that soon, unlike me who only did so when I was already a graduate student.

The point I’m trying to make here is that group composition matters. Just when I start believing I’ve got things figured out, a new batch of students come along to shatter my prevailing assumptions and conclusions. And that’s something I would have little to no control over, unless I start hand picking students, which I don’t think would be fair. I don’t even want to consider the possibility of having no one to pick, in such an event.

Perhaps my intercalating this year from my PhD program is a blessing in disguise. I wouldn’t know how to handle this development in the middle of an on-going study. This dependence over the presence or absence of something out of my control is potentially concerning for me. I am now considering to think of something different if and when I do resume my studies. Or perhaps at least perform an overhaul of my ideas, because they’re not as solid as I had thought. Or maybe I can just try and see how things go again next year.

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