Can Socrates Go Asynchronous? Designing for Liberal Arts Online (Pt. 1)

Recently, I took on projects designing two longstanding courses – one a humanities seminar and the other an international relations requirement – in a pilot online formats.  However the unique challenges of taking highly interactive courses with rapidly changing content online gave me pause.  Everything from the learning objectives to the rubrics to the student success metrics needed constant attention given the subjective nature of the material and assessments.  I hearkened to my own college English literature seminars – the best classes of my life in which I learned to formulate arguments.  I empathized with these course instructors who were adept orators and highly trained storytellers.  But online, their courses fell completely flat.

Thus far, I had been a staunch supporter of the flexibility and freedom of accredited online learning.  Blended learning models – particularly with newer experiments in higher education such as The Minerva Project or College for America – promise the stimulating, hard-hitting dialogue of a traditional liberal arts college, but in a more targeted and cost effective way. Skeptics of alternative higher education argue that thousands of international students flock to American campuses precisely because of the in depth, personal attention a seminar style class affords.  American education is world-renowned for live professors sharing complicated arguments with students who interweave conversation, anecdotes, concerns and new findings. American campuses breed connections, which lead to a lifelong network of potential jobs.  This is all valid pushback to structured online learning.  However, given the astronomical cost of college in the USA today, these skeptics seem to me curmudgeons – unwilling to adapt and grow.

Still, online higher education has clear benefits over the traditional classroom model such as cleaner student data, convenient tracking, and flipped classroom options, wherein teachers deliver content online and meet students for office hours or questions alone.  This has been proven time and time again by hard and social science teachers using Khan Academy or Udemy to supplement their classes.   Personally, I am friends with classroom science and history teachers who swear by online learning tools to systematically convey content videos and easily check for understanding.  The arc of progressive education bends toward the Internet.

today’s online educators are not given the heuristics of interaction design that make online products successful in a way that resonates with their pedagogical training.

However, we are facing a tide of seasoned liberal arts educators who are pressured into to put their courses online to add value to their institutions, without the materials necessary to control that content.  From an experience design perspective, today’s online educators are not given the heuristics of interaction design that make online products successful in a way that resonates with their pedagogical training.

One example of this is snafu we encountered was teaching and evaluating student’s writing.  In a face-to-face setting, students are enduring constant, realtime (what online educators call “synchronous”) feedback from peers, and more importantly, professors.  A dedicated student who may have never written a complete essay in high school is nevertheless pushed to form a complete argument in class for participation points.  Humanities professors use the socratic method to extract logical arguments from students and guide students back when they make illogical leaps.  This is all very comfortable face to face, and similarly, writing critiques handled face to face allow for some room for debate.

However, the user experience of receiving critique in a blog or through online annotation has not taken into account the subtlety and back-and-forth nature of shaping critical thinking.  It makes for a terrible experience grading papers online.  In the next post I will delve deeper into techniques we used to better equip liberal arts professors to design their courses online.

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