In 1981, Barbara Mandrell had a No. 1 hit with “I Was Country When Country Wasn’t Cool.” If we replace “country” with “online,” it could be sung today by professor Sam Gosling, a pioneer of interactive and online learning.
As the university moves thousands of its classes online in the throes of the COVID-19 pandemic, does he feel a little like a prophet whose prophecy has been fulfilled? “I’m not a prophet, because to be a prophet you have to predict something that’s not obvious,” he says. “Only a madman wouldn’t think that education wouldn’t look something like what we’re doing now. We felt, it’s coming — let’s get on with it, learn about it, and figure out how to make this work well.”
What Gosling, a Distinguished Teaching Professor and 21-year faculty veteran, has learned during his experimentation has never been more relevant, as students, parents and faculty members reluctantly enter the brave new world of online education under chaotic circumstances. Meanwhile, many wonder whether online college really can deliver a first-class education.
Of Computers and Classrooms
As social media really took off just more than a decade ago (Facebook topped 100 million users in 2008), teachers faced a problem: students bringing their laptops to class. Were they taking notes or were they surfing and posting?
But for UT psychology professors Sam Gosling and Jamie Pennebaker, who co-taught huge introductory courses in psychology and always had loved experimenting with technology, there was no dilemma at all. “We required laptops,” says British-born Gosling. “For those who couldn’t afford one, we had iPads they could borrow to get online.”
Getting students in the classroom simultaneously online allowed Gosling and Pennebaker to innovate at a feverish pace. They established chat rooms so students could better connect with one another, suddenly creating small communities within what had been a sea of anonymous strangers. They also had students take online surveys.
But soon the professors would be teaching students who were never in their classroom. In 2012, the term MOOC entered the higher education vernacular. It stands for “massive open online course,” and top universities were rushing to partner with educational technology companies such as Coursera, Udacity and Blackboard to get in on the ground floor of the MOOC movement. The University of Texas System, the largest early adopter, contracted with the non-profit edX.
The next year, Gosling and Pennebaker made national headlines when they launched the world’s first synchronous massive online course, or SMOC, “Introduction to Psychology.” (Gosling now co-teaches the course with Paige Harden.)
As the technological “tinkering,” as Gosling calls it, became more intense, they soon faced a fundamental question: Were they filming a class or were they essentially producing a TV show? The filming-a-class model was how they started, teaching a class with two or three cameras. They addressed the students in the room, and the people not in the room felt they were looking in on someone else’s class.
When they began experimenting with the TV show approach, they looked into the camera, and students who were in the room, with a camera sometimes blocking their view, understood themselves to be the studio audience. That model quickly won out.
The shift in approach has a parallel in early cinema. “Many early movies were essentially the filming of plays,” Gosling says. “Then they realized, ‘Wait a minute — if we don’t need to have an audience, that means we can do things like move the camera, have close-ups and have special effects.” The result was a new art form that in many ways was more engaging.
Gosling calls this is an important lesson for teachers across the world who are moving to online. “It isn’t just taking a class and putting it online. You might have had to do that when you had two weeks to get things ready over spring break. But if you really want to do this, you need to unthink that, and say, ‘All right, if I were starting with the idea of having an online class, what would the class look like?’ It wouldn’t look like a film of an old-fashioned class.”
It’s clear that the media environment in which students have grown up influences and is itself the evidence of the ways they prefer to learn. YouTube-accessible documentaries have replaced the in-class film reel, and YouTube’s homemade videos have replaced everything from the math tutor to the instruction manual for the most obscure kitchen appliance. The 10- to 20-minute TED Talk is now the gold standard for lectures.
“Let’s face it — traditional teaching is not even medieval; it’s ancient!” Gosling says. “Plato standing in front of people saying stuff and people writing it down — we’ve been doing that for two and a half thousand years!”
Gosling experienced a lot of resistance when he started integrating tech into classes, but not from students. It came mainly from other faculty members and parents. Why? Because it did not look like Plato. But less than a decade later, people don’t see it as a strange way to learn at all. “Just as we are learning now with COVID, as so many are working from home, work can look different, and it can be OK. And in some ways it can be better. We were never trying to make a cut-rate version of education. We were asking, ‘Can we do it better this way?’”
The Student-Teacher Connection
Gosling recalls that in the beginning, many were concerned — “very reasonably” — that with SMOCs, teachers and students would be disconnected. But it turned out to be just the opposite. “People feel they know us like they know their favorite chat show host, because we are looking at them in the eye, and they feel in a way that they have a relationship with us.”
When universities began enlarging classes in the last century to achieve economies of scale, introductory courses in particular became Orwellian auditorium experiences, and any personal connection to the teacher was lost for all but the most outgoing students, those sitting down in front, raising their hands and frequenting office hours. So ironically, the futuristic technology students and teachers now must use might be returning education to an earlier, more classical psychological space. “The online class experience is you and them; it is more like a one-on-one tutorial in a way.”
Then too, the screen has the power to turn charismatic professors into celebrities. “This had never happened to us before, but Jamie and I would be stopped on campus by our students. ‘Hey it’s you! I can’t believe it’s you!’ They’d want to take photographs with us,” Gosling remembers. “They feel they have a relationship with you because this medium allows them to establish that.”
The Student-Student Connection
There are dangers, though. While online classes make it easier for students to establish a relationship with their teachers, they can make it harder for students to establish relationships with one another. “A lot of our tinkering was about trying to make people feel part of a community. What is the best size chat group? Do you want it to be two people or 10 people? Should it be the same people every time? Should it be different people every time? Should there be someone leading the chat group? There is so much experimenting to do.”
He found that five to seven people was optimal for chat group sizes. He also found it critical to assign a student to lead and moderate the chat and to have that role rotate. Leading discussions becomes part of learning. At the end of the chat, everyone rates the session and its leader. At the end of the semester, students are told how classmates rated them as a leader and are asked to reflect on their leadership experiences and what they think makes a good leader.
Of course, a sample size of five students can result in a dud of a chat group. “Sometimes a student can just get into a bad group — people who don’t want to contribute or who are hostile,” Gosling says. On the other hand, scrambling the chat group after every meeting would not allow students to build relationships or any sense of community. The solution was to form three chat group configurations and have students rotate through them so they see familiar faces on a regular basis but all of their eggs are not in one basket.
While most faculty members have to balance teaching and research, Gosling’s class is his research. “There are two really robust findings in educational psychology, and they are completely unsurprising: If students are made to work hard they don’t like it so much, but they learn much more.” One finding from Gosling’s own research is that one predictor of grades in his class is engagement, and they measure that through clicks. “We can see how much students click on the readings and click on the various things we tell them to do, and we take that as a measurement of how engaged they are. Every word they type, every mouse movement they make and thing they click on is recorded, and we can learn from that.”