Confessions of a SMECWID 1: The Loss of the Live

One must start from that which is barely knowable but knowable to oneself and try to know what is knowable without qualification, passing, as has been said, by way of those very things which one does know.

—Aristotle, Metaphyics


As someone who does research for HotChalk’s Learning Design team, I am in the process of creating a course on French theatre that is not only an introduction to the subject, but also an example of what happens when a Subject Matter Expert (SME), Course Writer (CW), and Instructional Designer (ID) work in perfect concert. Although such harmony is unlikely given human nature, it is at least theoretically possible, because in the case of this course:

Tom Armbrecht (self-conflict notwithstanding)

A former professor of French Literature who is now an instructional designer, I am relying on my previous area of expertise to create a model online course while essentially preparing to teach a subject about which I am still passionate (although I will not actually teach the course, which is only an example). I have decided to write about the experience in hopes that my reflections might make other people aware of the challenges and rewards that SMEs and CWs (aka professors) may face when creating online courses about subjects they have previously taught in traditional classrooms.

In writing a course about a performing art, my principle challenge is to overcome the “loss of the live,” by which I mean the non-mediated exchange that can take place in a shared space. The objective of Introduction to French Theatre is to give students enough foreknowledge (specifically, historical information and analytical skills) to engage critically with a dramatic text and its potential for performance. If I were teaching face-to-face, I would accomplish these goals simultaneously, not only by lecturing about the history and analysis of French theatre, but also through synchronous discussion, live student presentations, and an assignment involving the in-class performance of a scene. If doing something is one of the most effective ways to learn it, then it is worth noting that the loss of the live is even more significant in a course about a live art, like theatre. The impossibility to perform, as an instructor or student, before one’s peers without electronic mediation means that the very idea of live performance remains abstract in some capacity.

In a traditional Humanities classroom, the most significant intellectual connections often occur during lecture–discussions, those conversation-like interactions between the instructor and students about a topic presented during the course. When I taught, students’ questions prompted me to refer to concepts previously introduced while simultaneously pursuing new ideas that emerged through discussion. I would also ask students to respond to what I had said, and then elaborate on their ideas to guide, rather than map the development of their thoughts. Spontaneous interaction and Socratic exchange are hard to replicate in a class with only occasional synchronous meetings. This fundamental pedagogical tool is used less frequently in online classrooms due to the inappropriate burden that real-time meetings place on students, as well as the difficulty of replicating the atmosphere of a physical classroom. Unfortunately, the mediation or absence of in-person discussion makes it harder to knit the strands of a course—and its participants—together. While online discussion forums are a rich form of exchange, they lack both the risk-taking inherent in extemporaneous thought and the “ah-ha! moments” that occur when both the students’ and the teacher’s thoughts gel simultaneously. I have not yet figured out how, if not to recreate Socratic exchange, then to reincarnate the liveliness of its spirit, but consider doing so one of the principal challenges of writing this class.

Although I regularly adapt courses originally written for traditional classrooms as part of my job, doing so with my own course has proven harder than expected. I have realized that I must distance myself from past ways of not only structuring, but even of conceiving of courses to make them work in an online classroom. Although such pedagogical innovation will provide an opportunity for the sort of creative effort I enjoy, the need for it has made me feel some nostalgia for face-to-face teaching. This sentiment has, in turn, made me suspect that the residual professor in me is still distancing himself affectively from teaching itself, which might imply some internal discord after all. Far from being a disadvantage, however, the tension I feel is perhaps a symptom of growing pains not only as a designer, but as a teacher, too. Development in both areas is essential to my work, since some of my greatest strengths as a designer are my abilities as a teacher, and because creating a course on French Theatre means acting as both.

Tom Armbrecht has a PhD in French Studies from Brown University. Formerly a tenured Professor of French, he taught literature and philosophy to both undergraduate and graduate students at an R1 university before deciding to focus his career on online learning. Tom has been involved in educational technology since its inception, first as a student, then as a professor, and now as an instructional designer. His current position as an Online Learning Architect allows him to capitalize on his pedagogical expertise to create courses that engage and inspire students and teachers alike.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Confessions of a SMECWID 1: The Loss of the Live

by Tom Armbrecht