Ula disappeared in the middle of class when her mother had a heart attack. Wiola and the kids were sick a lot this winter, and now she has a new job. Julie will soon be off to Southeast Asia to ride the elephants. I didn’t hear from Ihsan for weeks. Michiko, are you still there?
My online course in “English for the Media” has sputtered to a halt.
When I wrote a business plan as part of last fall’s entrepreneurial journalism class at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism, I was far too optimistic. Ten-week pilot class starting in January! Refinements! Rollout to paying audience in fall 2014! More classes and more teachers by 2016! Onsite classes worldwide starting in 2017!
The course is based, for now, on the one I taught last summer at my academic second home, the University of Lower Silesia in Wroclaw, Poland. My target students, I reasoned, need to be able to study on their own schedules, whatever their jobs and wherever in the word they might be.
So I designed a course in which students could do most of the assignments on Pathwright.com, a platform recommended by Jeremy Caplan at CUNY. Actual class meetings — vital to the course, since students need practice communicating in English — would be kept to a mere hour a week.
The pilot class was smaller than I’d hoped. Journalists in India and Iran, who had found me on the Internet and e-mailed me to the effect of “Gee, I wish I could take your course,” completed a market research survey but never responded to invitations. In the end, the class consisted mainly of people I already knew: Ula and Wiola, students/colleagues in Wroclaw; Ihsan, whom I had mentored in UPI Next’s recent Pakistan project; and Michiko, a CUNY student last year, now back at work in Tokyo. The exception was Julie, a French career-changer I pounced on when she introduced herself on LinkedIn for Journalists.
As it turned out, even a three-hour-a-week commitment was a lot to expect of people with many other claims on their time. Then there were the technological problems: it’s not easy to round up six people in five countries spanning 13 time zones, with varying degrees of Internet reliability. France and Japan were fine; Poland was sometimes sketchy, as I well knew from the biweekly Skype lessons I teach. As I learned in UPI Next, whether Pakistan has electricity, let alone Internet, on any given day is a toss-up.
We held our first class meeting via Skype Premium. It started well but ended after half an hour when we lost Julie and loud noise took over. Still, it was mind-blowing to hear Ula introducing Michiko, and Wiola introducing Julie (whom I’ve never met in person), and everybody interviewing Ihsan — to have all these people from various parts of my teaching life connected.
“This was really great,” Ula e-mailed me right after class. Ihsan soon followed: “It was good first lecture and congrats on this. Pleasure to see you delivering lecture . . . good teaching style. We may have troubles in the beginning but we will overcome them through our consistent efforts.”
Skype didn’t seem sophisticated enough for what I wanted to do: write and maybe even draw onscreen during class. For lesson 2 I switched to Blackboard Collaborate on a 30-day free trial. Only Julie and Michiko managed to connect, and I couldn’t get the whiteboard function to work, even though it had worked perfectly in a test with Ula the day before. Still, I managed to teach an hourlong lesson.
The next week, no one could connect. Blackboard tech support talked down to me and lost me when I learned that the software wouldn’t let me move materials I had accidentally put on a “private” page to “public.” Next I tried switching to Vyew.com, which seemed a lot like Blackboard, only simpler; importing my files actually worked. The next Monday at 9 a.m. New York time, Ula, Michiko and Julie all signed in. But we had problems talking, and then Vyew froze, on three different browsers. That’s when Ula disappeared.
I explored Adobe Connect but couldn’t get to first base. Eventually, I returned to Skype Premium, which theoretically allowed screen-shares. They didn’t work, but as I triumphantly e-mailed those who couldn’t make it, “WE HAD A CLASS!”
Triumph was followed by three weeks of cancellations and finally two resignations for personal reasons. Clearly it was time to suspend operations. Two students wanted to continue the assignments on Pathwright, but they fell behind. Now lessons can no longer be viewed because the course end date has passed.
Since then, in classic cart-before-the-horse fashion, I’ve been taking an online course myself: “Innovators of American Cuisine,” a four-week course from the New School’s food studies program, offered free because “we already had a series, and we had a lot of material left over,” said Fabio Parasecoli, the program’s coordinator. “We want to build on what already had, and we came up with the idea of a free open course.”
This is a MOOC — a massive open online course — with more than 1,500 students around the world, and a far cry from my course, whose selling point is personal feedback. On a platform called Canvas Network, it used video lectures (mostly talking heads harvested from panel discussions), readings, YouTube videos (Julia Child making omelets, dissecting lobsters, roasting a chicken), written discussion and quizzes — but no online class meetings. “We use them for smaller classes, with a maximum enrollment of 17,” Parasecoli said. “Not here, because it’s a MOOC; it’s not in the nature of the beast.”
I suppose I’d be called a lurker. I had little to say about the discussion questions. (“How do Julia’s TV shows differ from contemporary food programs in the country where you live?” I don’t watch them, so how would I know? “Do you think that women now play a more relevant role in the food business?” Yes.) Perhaps a lurker is just the quiet person in class who rarely speaks.
I already knew most of the course material, having edited The Boston Globe’s food section in the 1980s. So my real learning outcomes were seeing how someone else’s course works and realizing I cannot run one alone.
The instructor, Andy Smith, had an entire team behind him — “faculty, videographers, a video editor, a graphic designer, Canvas people, Internet people, legal,” Parasecoli said. To make my course succeed, I need the backing of an institution or organization with a teaching system up and running so that I can focus on actually teaching the course.
Well, no one can say I didn’t try, and won’t again. What startup ever ran perfectly the first time? (Ask Kathleen Sebelius.) The “English for the Media” page on this website keeps getting hits — just this week, from Portugal and India. Last week my former student Andrea finally surfaced in China and said she’d love to take such a course. And I’ve started making friends with a media college in Argentina. Watch this space.