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Online pedagogy: beyond digital "chalk and talk".


Courseware provides efficient data-management for higher education; however, less clear are the ways it serves pedagogical innovation and democratic practice. This article illustrates the challenges of creating an authentic online pedagogy through a case study of a graduate level teacher education course. While professional felt needs drive in-service teachers to achieve online interdependence, lack of proficiency with the technological side of courseware and tension between process and product pose significant challenges to developing an authentic and democratic online pedagogy.


Courseware, also referred to as course management systems, is software designed for faculty and students to use in teaching and learning in higher education. Common examples include WebCT and Blackboard. Academic courseware affords students access to course content from anywhere and at anytime. Courseware is user-centered, as it affords information access and delivery outside the boundaries of time and space. Yet, as a "plug-n-play" model of delivering content to an end user, courseware by itself cannot provide meaningful learning experiences for the individual student. Posting course syllabi and reading materials online for students to access may technically qualify as an educational use of technology; however, it rarely signifies the use of technology to teach. Student-centered uses of courseware move beyond administrative uses into the more unpredictable processes that comprise teaching and learning.

As an online template, courseware can provide a centralized location within the decentralized medium of the World Wide Web and provide a conventional structure that offers familiarity to novice students (and instructors) who experience unpredictability and ambiguity of an online environment. Courseware can provide instructors with formalized features to assist them in the administrative side of teaching (e.g., class roster, assignments, quizzes, grade book) yet often these features dictate a top-down management of data, rather than student-centered inquiry. There is also an inefficiency associated with the use of courseware. Katz (2003) observes a socialization curve in implementing courseware within higher education, "accompanied by a short-term loss in productivity as new tools, methods, and processes are assimilated" (p. 54). Higher education faculty cite as the main reason for using courseware to solve a pedagogical problem or challenge, yet at the same time find the use of this technology time consuming, inflexible and difficult (Morgan, 2003). Using courseware can increase an instructor's weekly workload from approximately seven hours to nearly twenty hours (Palloff & Pratt, 1999). This significant increase in workload is a high-risk investment, as the added workload does not guarantee an increase the quality or quantity of student learning. The added time and effort required to use courseware does not guarantee the creation of authentic learning contexts--teaching that is grounded in students' own lived experience and concern for the larger world of which they are a part (O' Hair, McLaughlin, & Reitzug, 2000).

Given that higher education is steeped in a history of balancing pedagogy with new technology (Katz, 2003), the administrative trend of courseware poses significant challenges particularly for teacher educators responsible for preparing teachers in content knowledge, pedagogical knowledge, and practical knowledge (Sternberg & Horvath, 1995) in addition to technological proficiency (NETS-T, 2000). Faculty must pay close attention to the democratizing features of courseware (e.g., discussion board, student administrator access, e-mail) that empower students to take responsibility for their learning and secure them a position as legitimate members of a discursive community. Thus, an important question to ask is, "How can courseware support a pedagogy of authenticity?"

Using Blackboard in Hybrid Mode

As part of a larger study of pedagogy within teacher education, this case study is illustrated (not represented) through abbreviated examples of student usage of courseware within a graduate level (in-service) teacher education course at a mid-size university in the Northeastern United States. The Blackboard courseware system was in its second semester of implementation at the university, with less than one-third of the faculty using it in their teaching. In this study, Blackboard was used in hybrid mode--to complement face-to-face instruction. Qualitative and quantitative data were gathered during the Spring 2003 semester and obtained from Blackboard discussion board transcripts, courseware usage statistics, and anonymous student surveys. The purpose of this inquiry was neither to generalize across courses nor students, rather to generate pedagogical insight into these in-service teachers' courseware experiences and to offer considerations for using courseware within teacher education.

Each semester, one section of MEDI 550 (Administration and Supervision of Media in Education) is offered to graduate level in-service teachers who seek state licensure to work as school library media specialists. The Spring 2003 course was programmed as a traditional evening course to meet face-to-face weekly in a non-mediated classroom for a total of 16 weeks. Given the novelty of Blackboard courseware to this university environment, the course was reconfigured to meet face-to-face bi-weekly in addition to using Blackboard. The professional teaching experience of the 8 students enrolled in the course ranged from 5 to 25 years of teaching experience. Half of the group of students cited home and the other half cited the school in which they work as their most reliable source of Internet access. All 8 students worked in a school fulltime and lived off campus at a distance of at least 5 miles. Seven of the 8 students used a non-university, non-work email account--but inconsistently and not frequently.

Since the content of the course was the administration of media and technology within the school library, it was important to privilege the technology skills required to navigate Blackboard. lt was also important to model authentic and democratic pedagogy for these in-service teachers and future media specialists. Blackboard could serve as one example of courseware the students could administer at their own school sites. In these ways, both course content and use of courseware addressed a professional need among these graduate students.

Blackboard user statistics and transcripts revealed a high level of student acceptance of the discussion board as a mechanism for commenting and questioning course content and networking with their in-service peers. Although discussion board participation constituted only 30 percent of the student's overall course grade, Blackboard usage statistics reflected a high volume of participation, with students posting an average of 5 postings per student per week, with an average of 200 words per posting. End course evaluations revealed a strong desire for online discussion and an equally strong desire for traditional face-to-face lecture mode (to achieve clarification on specific assignments). One student described it as a "hunger" for discussion with their peers. As a group, the 8 students thrived in an environment of independence (contributing original responses) and interdependence (relying upon other students" to generate substance for discussion). Students reported a "freedom to express their epiphanies" from the textbook readings and the "need to share" their own professional successes and failures at their school site. The discussions also carried a tone of formality (apologizing for misspelled words or an accidental posting). Occasionally, discussion threads would evolve into a "gripe" session about situations at work; however, the teachers used it mainly to support each other and provide insight. Face-toface meetings became opportunities to clarify and emotionally respond to the online discourse generated the week prior. Course usage data indicate that most of the students accessed the Blackboard site regularly within the same time periods (after school and late evenings). These data suggest live chat might also be an option for this group to "vent" while using the asynchronous discussion board for more course-driven discussion. The discussion board was more than a container for insights about course material; it was a mechanism for sustaining one another professionally. Through their discussion threads, these graduate students interwove course material, shared expertise and experiences in the field.

On the technical side, all the teachers had a high level of difficulty conceptually understanding how files were sent and received through the digital dropbox. Most of the students would "add" their file to Blackboard without actually "sending" it to the instructor. Five out of 8 students continually bypassed Blackboard and sent assignments directly to the instructor using a nonuniversity email account. There were several cases of data corruption and loss, as the students were not technologically savvy enough to back up their data on a regular basis. One teacher responded that "the technology got in the way" of her learning. Another student cited Blackboard as "limiting" her course participation, as she did not have administrator access as a student to easily post her recommended web sites within the External Links section of the course. This student's lack of experience with courseware limited her ability to see alternative means of sharing hyperlinks, such as manually entering them within a discussion board thread or emailing them directly to all users. More recent versions of Blackboard courseware address this challenge as they allow for students to be designated as administrators and to share ownership of any and all areas of the course, including posting external links and creating discussion forums.

Initially all of the graduate students indicated a moderate to high level of anxiety about using Blackboard for the course. However, their lack of technological proficiency allowed them to directly experience issues of inequity and access that are still prevalent in the world of K-12 education. Thus, the students' high level of professional motivation to learn from the course and one another overshadowed their initial fears. The graduate student uses of the discussion board to connect with one another and share lived experiences eventually reached a level where the technological features were transparent to the discussion itself.

Toward an Authentic Online Pedagogy

If teacher educators expect students to discursively participate in university and school settings, the technological infrastructure must be easily accessible and useable by new and re-entering students. As universities continue to implement courseware and mandate its use among faculty members, it is critical that all students receive orientations to the courseware environment as early in their academic career as possible. To better integrate the courseware environment with students' non-academic lives, universal email systems should ensure students have access to email forwarding (to non-university email accounts), and internet browser requirements for off'campus access and use of courseware. Ultimately, the technological side of courseware must reach a state of transparency to enable students (particularly those within teacher education programs) to begin to question the pedagogical implications of these technologies.

In this study, the students' desire for traditional face-to-face lecture mode of instruction is understandable, given their neophyte state within the changing technology environment of the university setting. However, it may also indicate a "reliance on instructor response rather than student inquired learning" (Vonderwell, 2003, p. 88). Such resistance is essential to overcome within teacher education courses, where students must master the knowledge and skills of collaboration and inquiry based approaches to teaching and learning. Given the need for technological proficiency among all teachers and the high exposure of young people to online environments outside of the classroom (e.g., chat rooms, instant messaging), using discussion forums to prepare teachers and media specialists is an essential means of developing technological proficiency as well as a pedagogical stance. Thus, an important question to ask is, "Does the use of courseware support a felt professional need among students?"

Teachers and library media specialists must also reconcile the fact that their students are much more tech savvy and even find the educational uses of technology disappointing and uninspiring (Oblinger, 2003). Given the current pressures on in-service teachers to become technologically proficient, it is in their best interests to more heavily weight the technological side of their courseware experiences (e.g., navigating the drop box, file management, accessing content) to compensate for the lack of access to professional development in this area. Additionally, teacher educators should demand that courseware experiences be more portable that merely a set of files to be archived. Students and in-service teachers should be able to display or replay their online experiences as part of building their professional portfolio. Similarly, as part of the tenure and promotion process, teacher educators should be able to select and replay those Blackboard sessions that illustrate exemplary online teaching and learning.

What instructors do with course content and how students communicate their knowledge and understanding to and with others are essential elements to consider in developing authentic courseware pedagogy. From this perspective, the potential of courseware technology such as Blackboard lies not what it contains but rather what it enables. To this end, teacher educators must ask, "Does the use of courseware privilege and model the democratic values of inquiry, discourse, equity, and authenticity?" Teacher educators are responsible for moving pre-service and in-service teachers beyond the novelty of accessing online content towards the transformative possibilities of communal learning. In this case study, the use of courseware required students to translate academic ideas into online transactions, requiring a level of critical thinking for which students and teachers are not formally equipped prior to (re)entering a university setting. For students within teacher education programs, it is essential that they experience online learning before teaching within online environment.

Instructors must also decide when to privilege the courseware process (online pedagogy) over course content and vice versa. Making explicit these assessment decisions provides in-service teachers with possibilities in eventually developing their own pedagogy of technology. Ultimately, courseware experiences that compel faculty to rethink the purposes of the traditional face-to-face instructional setting provide opportunities for strengthening pedagogy, what Morgan (2003) refers to as an "accidental pedagogy" of courseware. If faculty, especially those within teacher education, expand the definition of the classroom to be a discursive community where students together generate and transform course content, then courseware will become much more than an online template to hang courses on.


Katz, R. N. (2003, July/August). Balancing technology and tradition: The example of course management systems. EDUCAUSE Review, pp. 48-59.

Morgan, G. (2003, May). Faculty use of course management systems. Washington, DC: Educause Center for Applied Research.

National Educational Technology Standards for Teachers (NETS-T). (2000). Eugene, OR: International Society for Technology in Education.

Oblinger, D. (2003). Boomers, Gen-Xers, and Millennials: Understanding the "new students." Educause Review, pp. 37-47.

O'Hair, M.J., McLaughlin, H. J., Reitzug, U. C. (2000). Foundations of democratic education. New York: Harcourt Brace.

Palloff, R. M., & Pratt, K. (1999). Building learning communities in cyberspace: Effective strategies for the online classroom. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Sternberg, R.J. & Horvath, J.A. (1995). A prototype view of expert teaching. Educational Researcher, 24, 6, 9-I 7.

Vonderwell, S. (2003). An examination of asynchronous communication experiences and perspectives of students in an online course: A case study. Internet and Higher Education, 6, 77-90.

Vanessa Domine, Montclair State University, NJ

Domine, Ph.D., is Assistant Professor of Educational Technology and a scholar of technology and democratic education. She studies media literacy among young people.
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Author:Domine, Vanessa
Publication:Academic Exchange Quarterly
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 22, 2006
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