Online learning: Definitely possible

There’s been a lot of talk over the past several years about online learning. Some people sing its praises without reservation. Others claim that it doesn’t work at all. I have successfully learned over the internet and I have successfully taught over the internet. It can work very well, but it requires a commitment on the part of the teacher and the learner that is not always present. In this series of posts I will discuss what has worked well and what hasn’t in my experience, specifically in teaching linguistics to undergraduate speech pathology majors.

Online learning is usually contrasted with an ideal classroom model where the students engage in two-way oral conversation, exercises and assessment with the instructor and each other, face to face in real time. In practice there are already deviations from this model: one-way lectures, independent and group exercises, asynchronous homeworks, take-home exams. The questions are really whether the synchronous or face-to-face aspects can be completely eliminated, and whether the internet can provide a suitable medium for instruction.

The first question was answered hundreds of years ago, when the first letter was exchanged between scholars. Since then people have learned a great deal from each other, via books and through the mail. My great-uncle Doc learned embalming through a correspondence course, and made a fortune as one of the few providers of Buddhist funerals in San Jose. So we know that people can learn without face-to-face, synchronous or two-way interaction with teachers.

What about the internet? People are learning a lot from each other over the internet. I’ve learned how to assemble a futon frame and play the cups over the internet. A lot of the core ideas about social science that inform my work today I learned in a single independent study course I took over email with Melissa Axelrod in 1999.

My most dramatic exposure to online learning was from 2003 through 2006. I read the book My Husband Betty, and discovered that the author, Helen Boyd, had an online message board for readers to discuss her book (set up by Betty herself). The message board would send me emails whenever someone posted, and I got drawn into a series of discussions with Helen and Betty, as well as Diane S. Frank, Caprice Bellefleur, Donna Levinsohn, Sarah Steiner and a number of other thoughtful, creative, knowledgeable people.

A lot of us knew a thing or two about gender and sexuality already, but Helen, having read widely and done lots of interviews on those topics, was our teacher, and would often start a discussion by posting a question or a link to an article. Sometimes the discussion would get heated, and eventually I was kicked off and banned. But during those three years I learned a ton, and I feel like I got a Master’s level education in gender politics. Of course, we didn’t pay Helen for this besides buying her books, so I’m glad she eventually got a full-time job teaching this stuff.

So yes, we can definitely learn things over the internet. But are official online courses an adequate substitute for – or even an improvement over – in-person college classes? I have serious doubts, and I’ll cover them in future posts.

Category fights: Splitting

Imagine that you belong to a category, like “tourist.” You fit all the necessary conditions for membership in that category: you are traveling to another part of the world for recreation. But that category has a bad reputation – literally a bad name. What do you do? You split the category.

In the past I’ve talked about other kinds of category fights: watchdogging alleged bait-and-switch tactics, or gatekeeping to prevent free-riding. Tonight I’m going to talk about splitting.

I grew up in the lovely arts colony of Woodstock, New York, which is crowded every summer and fall with tourists. They never bothered me too much, and they bought lots of stuff so that the merchants could afford to hire my parents, but my family and neighbors liked to complain about them. They drove too fast on our country roads, possibly contributing to the death of some of our dogs over the years. They filled up the parking lots and caused traffic jams on Mill Hill Road. They asked annoying questions – where was Yasgur’s farm? They were demanding and unreasonable to my sister and friends who worked in retail.

In terms of non-Platonic categories, there is a wide diversity of actual tourists, but the category is dominated in people’s minds by a stereotype of the Tourist, who is entitled, disrespectful, and lacks a proper appreciation for the people they are visiting and their culture. All tourists are tainted by the stereotype of the Tourist, but some people do pride themselves on being respectful, humble, open and curious. What can they do to advertise that to others?

As Lara Week documented in a study of several blogs in 2012, and described to Laurie Taylor on his Thinking Allowed podcast, one thing you can do is to split the category. A number of people have chosen to call themselves “travelers” instead of “tourists.” Week reports that they distinguish themselves by “doing what the locals do,” “respecting local cultures” and “being frugal,” and have added features like “seeking authenticity” and “going to ‘untraveled’ places.” She goes on to summarize critiques that argue that the self-styled travelers have “fail to address all of the problems created by tourism,” but that is not directly relevant to the linguistic issues here.

The travelers, notably, split the category of “tourist” so that they are outside of it. They have concluded that the category is irredeemably contaminated, and their only hope is to escape it. In contrast, as Ben Zimmer reported last year, a number of people have tried to split the category of “pedestrian,” keeping the stereotype of pedestrians clean by placing people who text while walking into subcategories of “petextrians,” or “wexters.”

The cleanliness of the stereotype is one factor in determining whether people choose to split themselves off into another category or to split others off. It also determines whether people try to split themselves (or others) into a subcategory or into a completely new category. Another factor is how rigidly the category is defined. It is very hard to leave the category of “men,” so some men who feel that the stereotype is contaminated have responded with the #notallmen hashtag, trying to reclaim it by splitting the bad men into a subcategory.