In the rearview mirror: thoughts on virtually teaching social policy, virtually

At the end of this first semester of “blended” (half online, half traditional classroom instruction) social policy teaching, I’m fairly conflicted. There were some aspects of the experience that I found very rewarding, especially the blurring of the lines between “learning time” and “regular life”–I tend to think about social policy a lot of the time, weaving my ruminations into my daily interactions, and I think that the more fluid nature of the blended course prompted that among my students, too. But it was a semester with considerably more angst than usual, which, for someone who teaches people who want to be social workers about the part of social work (social policy) that we tend not to think too much about, is really saying something. I would love to share this discussion with my own students, current and former, as well as other students and instructors who have engaged in online or blended learning. Here’s where I sit, with one semester down:

  • Part of the psychological challenge for my students was that they did not have a choice to select blended instruction or a traditional model, and, while it hadn’t truly seemed like a make-it-or-break-it thing to me initially, it pretty quickly became obvious that it was: we know that people everywhere are resistant to change and, quite expectedly, more resistant when they didn’t choose the change. We’re now trying to figure out ways to build an element of choice into the curriculum design, because it seems that its lack is a hurdle that students struggled to get past.
  • Online instruction doesn’t seem to work as well in a course, like this one, where students are diverging into pretty new material, and, indeed, a new understanding of their profession, as compared to those courses which are an extension of what they already know. A lot of my job as a policy instructor is to make policy relevant, and accessible, and, indeed, conquerable for social work students, and that’s harder to do without the sustained face-to-face contact.
  • Students need real-time access to the instructor. We started off the semester with this blog, and closed-circuit discussion boards, and other online communication structures built in, but without a real-time chat set up, and I’m going to include that for sure next time. Students want to process their readings, in particular, and need a sort of free-form discussion in which to do that. Live and learn.
  • My sense that this blended model would work particularly well for certain students with certain learning styles was confirmed; I had several students who really flourished, for example, with the discussion boards, because they could look up material in advance, make connections between different parts of the course, and engage in “conversation” with students in other sections. I was right about that, but I underestimated the extent to which online instruction would fail students with other learning styles, and it was really a nightmare for students whose primary learning style is through oral communication with peers. There’s just no way to really replicate that outside of a classroom.
  • Online instruction is different, in so many ways, from a traditional classroom, that instructors are well-served to not try to pretend that it’s similar. I made the decision to allow students to engage in the online content for any week’s unit at any point in the semester, rather than assigning artificial due dates to “contain” that content, and that was the right decision.

    I believe that online instruction, in some form, will continue to play an increasingly prominent role in higher education, so it’s critical that we get this right. I worked harder this semester than in any since the first time I taught the course, and I hope that those efforts helped to mitigate the losses that this cohort of students experienced by being the experimental first class.

    What do you think about online instruction in higher education, specifically social work? How can we make sure that this technology will work for students, and for our profession?

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