Live Classroom Sessions
Live class sessions form the core of Scholars Online education. Teacher-led discussions of the material challenge the student to grapple with ideas and their application to real-life situations, and provide practice in the art of civil discourse. Students learn to listen carefully to each other, to identify points of confusion and dispute, to ask questions that lead to understanding, and to defend their own positions with both clarity and charity.
Class sessions meet in real time on a regularly scheduled basis, usually once or twice a week for an hour to ninety minutes. Some classes may meet more often or have extra sessions for course or standardized test preparation. Education is a community effort. We expect students to attend all scheduled class sessions, to notify the teacher in advance if they must miss a session for unavoidable reasons, and to make up any work missed during absences. Individual instructors may grant exceptions on a case-by-case basis.
Our classes are not lectures: students could just as easily read teacher-written “lectures” on course websites. Classes instead provide lively interactive discussions — a chance for students to ask for clarification, get help with homework, explain what they’ve learned to their peers, and interact socially with each other and their teachers. Participation teaches students to think on their feet and view the materials from different perspectives. Teachers can lead students on web tours of other useful sites, or present pictures, diagrams, or interactive models to help students visualize and engage with the course material.
We currently support two classroom technologies: a custom-written text chat program (which we’ll simply call Chat hereafter), and the WiZiQ audio and whiteboard system. We are committed to finding and using appropriate technologies for course material, rather than chasing every new feature for its own sake.
Scholars Online’s Chat is text-based. Every member of the chat session can see and reflect on what other members type into the common window. The software was designed and programmed by Dr. Bruce McMenomy to work with our educational model. Being web-based, it provides a reliable low-cost way for students to participate on an equal footing, regardless of computer platform or what kind of bandwidth they have available.
Chat is the chief interactive tool for most but not all classes. It allows teachers to embed images, sound files, and even video clips directly into chat to supplement the experience; these remain part of the chat logs after the session is closed. Teachers are free to use other conferencing techniques where appropriate to the subject matter or their teaching style. Some of our math and language teachers use WiZiQ system and Skype for their whiteboard and audio capabilities; teachers have also explored different conferencing software. We remain open to new developments when they are stable enough to be reliable and useful.
We’ve given the use of text-based chat a lot of thought. Here are our reasons, some of which are technical, but others of which have more to do with the pedagogical underpinnings of the process itself. The latter issues are really more important to us, since, though technology is constantly evolving, in most respects human learning remains constant.
One size really does not fit all: there are students for whom this extremely verbal (but non-spoken) mode of communication is liberating. Its precision can be energizing. For others it is not the right medium. We’d much prefer for you to go somewhere else if that’s what you need for the best pedagogical outcome. Watch your students; think about how they learn; pray about it, and make the best choice you can for them.
Audio and video conferencing is not yet so widely available that all our students can use it. Despite technological progress, we have determined that using it everywhere would be more of a hindrance than a help. When an audio or video chat is interrupted by internet delays, sound comes in fitfully, and quickly becomes incomprehensible. With our Chat server, however, a few seconds’ delay has no such impact. Many audio and video packages require specific computer platforms; virtually all require high-speed connections that are not available everywhere. For some subjects (math, in particular) we have determined that the pedagogical advantages of the broader-band medium outweigh the cost of narrowing our student base; for others (like literature, history, and science) we have concluded that, at present at least, our Chat is the better solution.
Because students have to express themselves in text, they are constantly practicing writing. This may seem obvious, or trivial in any given case, but the cumulative effect is considerable. We expect proper grammar, mechanics, spelling, and usage in class to reinforce this. Taking the written word as the baseline of our discourse honors and promotes familiarity with text as the fundamental medium of classical education.
There is less pressure to “shoot from the hip” in text interchanges; the time it takes to write a line or two, consider it, and hit “Enter” affords a little extra opportunity for reflection. A number of studies have shown that this can have a positive effect on a student’s experience.
The shape of the unfolding discussion remains visible. Participants can verify that what’s currently being discussed makes sense in terms of what has been said before. Nobody ever has to ask, “Can you repeat the question?” It’s still right there, a line or two above. There’s no question of what was said: “But you said...” — “No, I didn’t.” When disagreements arise (as they will in any form of communication) we can instead attend to what was actually said and how to clarify the meaning if it’s unclear.
Speed of delivery is also a consideration. However counter-intuitive it may seem, the reality is that, though any given student almost certainly cannot type and enter new material more quickly than he or she could speak it, in groups the dynamics are interestingly altered. A well-prepared teacher and a responsive class can put more material out there in an hour or ninety minutes than could be read aloud in the same time.
Some of this is because of overlap. If six students simultaneously answer the same question in an audio medium, all that emerges is noise. In Chat, those answers are distinct and comprehensible. WiZiQ allows the teacher to control who can speak, in order to avoid such collisions, but in a large and lively discussions of more abstract subjects like history or literature, a freer approach encourages more participation, rather than less. We like to see that.
Being browser-based, Chat is fully Unicode compliant, so it supports text using non-Roman alphabets. Mr. Wynn Rust graciously built us a utility to allows students to enter Greek text easily from the keyboard without special software of their own. Our Old Norse and Old English classes are able to use the special characters required there. We anticipate extending these features in the future.
We have also installed a utility to handle MathML, which allows the proper display of complex formulae. These are used in math and science classes, as well as occasionally elsewhere.
Several of our teachers have used dictation software to allow nuanced responses to be composed quickly in real time, but the result is still exchanged as text and can be preserved as such. You may be want to investigate what dictation packages are available for your computer.
We preserve and document what we do, both so that students and parents can review it, and in order to provide accountability for all. When class ends, the content of each chat appears as a log. This is something permanent. Our teachers still occasionally look back at class sessions from ten or more years ago, adapting questions that arose there for current classes, thus bringing the past and present students into community with one another in the learning experience.
To get a sense of how a chat session works, look at the examples on our Sample Chats page. These are actual logs from past chat sessions. Only student names are changed to preserve privacy.
Our secure browser-based chat runs on most modern standards-compliant browsers:
None of this requires any special software. Chat rooms are enabled as part of each Moodle course, and admission to them is automatically limited to enrolled students enrolled in the course, ensuring security and reducing interruptions.
Orientation sessions during the summer and early fall familarize students and parents with our chat features as well as chat etiquette. Students in our math classes and any others that may require further features will get separate information on how to join and use the software from their teachers.