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.
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. Because we recognize that education is a community effort, all students are expected to attend all scheduled class sessions, to notify the teacher (in advance if possible) when a session will be missed because of illness or other 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 can easily and more efficiently read teacher-written lecture materials on course websites. The classes are lively, interactive discussions of the material—a chance for students to ask for clarification of textbook and website materials, get help with homework exercises, gain experience explaining what they have learned to their peers, and interact at a social level with each other and their teachers. Participation in discussion forces students to learn to “think on their feet” and see the materials from several different perspectives. Teachers may enhance the classroom experience by leading students on web tours of related or useful sites, using pictures, diagrams, and even interactive models to help students visualize and engage with the materials presented in the course.
We currently support two classroom technologies: a custom-written text chat program (which we’ll simple 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.
Chat is a text-based method of communication. Every member of the chat session can see and reflect on what other members are typing into the main chat window. Our browser-based chat software was specifically designed by Dr. Bruce McMenomy to work with the Scholars Online environment and procedures and provide a reliable, low-cost, accessible method of class participation for all students regardless of platform operating system.
We continue to use text chat as our primary mode of class interaction for most but not all classes, at least at present. This does not prevent teachers from using sound files, podcasts, video clips, or other such materials to supplement the class experience. They often embed web media directly in the chat or have students start a second browser window to view the material in real time. Over the last year, our math teachers have pioneered for us the use of the WiZiQ system, allowing them whiteboard and audio capability, and they have been generally pleased with the results. We remain open to new developments when they are stable enough to be reliable and useful.
We’ve given this 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 a constant.
We also hasten to recognize that this is something you need to figure out with your own students, and we are aware that the medium has to adapt to the material being offered. We are seriously looking into audio software for possible offerings in modern spoken languages as early as next year.
Here as almost everywhere else, one size really does not fit all: there are students for whom this extremely verbal (but non-spoken) mode of communication is liberating and energizing, and those for whom it really is not the right medium. We’d much prefer for you to go somewhere else if that’s going to produce the best pedagogical outcome for your students. Watch your students; think about how they learn; pray about it, and make the best choice you can for them.
Audio or video conferencing is not yet so broadly available as to enable all of our prospective students to use it. Despite continuing progress in the field, it is clear from discussions with our students and parents that applying this everywhere would be more of a hindrance than a help. When a text chat is broken up by router problems on the Internet, and the pieces come in somewhat fitfully, the whole meaning of the discussion is retained and presented in order. In an audio chat, this is far less likely to be the case. Some require specific computer platforms; virtually all require high-speed connections (DSL or better) to support streaming sound or video. For some subjects (math, in particular) we have determined that the pedagogical reasons justify the concomitant narrowing of our prospective student base; for others (like literature, history, and science) we have concluded that at present the text chat medium is the better solution.
In the hands of an experienced user, the text chat allows a number of options to enhance the look and feel of text presentation. Teachers can use colors, various fonts and text sizes, and even graphical items to enrich the student experience.
In composing written text, one is engaged constantly in writing practice. This may seem trivial in any given case, but the cumulative effect is considerable. We try to insist on proper usage in class to reinforce this. The constant return to the written word as a baseline of our discourse makes it less strange and strained for the student. We believe that the primacy of the written word is fundamental to classical education, and we strive to preserve that where possible.
In written communication, there is slightly less tendency to “shoot from the hip”. The amount of time it takes to write a line or two, consider it, and hit “Enter” affords more opportunity for reflection. Studies in a number of contexts have shown that this can have a positive effect on a student’s experience.
One can continuously see the shape of the discussion as it unfolds. Both the student and the teacher can verify that what’s currently being discussed really has to do with 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. Similarly, there’s no issue of debating what was said: “But you said...” — “No, I didn’t.” When communication problems arise (as they will in any form of communication) we can instead attend to what was meant and how to clarify the meaning, rather than quibbling over irretrievable facts lost to scrutiny.
Some will be surprised to find that speed of delivery is also a significant issue leading to our choice of text chat for most classes. The reality, however counter-intuitive it may be, is this: though any one given student almost certainly cannot type and enter new material more quickly than he or she could speak it, in groups the dynamics of this are interestingly altered.
If six students simultaneously enter answers to the same question, all those answers are still discrete and comprehensible. The same cannot be true of audio chat. The WiZiQ allows the teacher to monitor who is able to speak at any given time, to avoid such collisions, but in a large and lively discussion of a more abstract subject like literature, a somewhat freer approach can encourage more participation, and we like to see that.
Our text software is fully Unicode compliant, so it is possible to enter text in languages other than English that require different fonts. Mr. Wynn Rust has graciously supplied us with a utility that allows students to enter Greek text easily from the keyboard without special software of their own. Our classes in Old Norse and Old English have been able to use the special characters required there. We anticipate extending these features in the future.
In an attempt to increase the responsiveness in class presentations, several of our teachers have been using voice-to-text dictation software (especially Dictate from MacSpeech). Only in the last year or so has this technology become stable enough to be useful, but we have been monitoring it for several years, waiting for it to become sufficiently robust for our purposes. This allows more rapid and nuanced responses to be composed quickly in real time, but the result comes across as text and can be preserved as such. (There is nothing aside from the cost of a system to prevent students from using such software as well.)
Though few typists can actually type things more quickly than they could be spoken, it’s possible for a teacher prepared with materials and questions for a discussion to insert material into a text channel (and for a student to read and assimilate it) more quickly than would normally be the case even in real-time audio or video chat. The net result is that (contrary to many expectations) more material can actually be conveyed in the same amount of time.
We are dedicated to preserving and documenting what we do, for students and parents to review, and to provide accountability for everyone concerned. After class ends, the content of the chat appears as a log. Similarly, we chose WiZiQ over a number of other competing platforms because it preserves a log of class sessions as well—though these are not preserved for more than a year.
A text transcript of a discussion is something permanent. Some of our teachers still occasionally look back at class sessions from five or more years ago, adapting questions that arose there to the use of current classes. This allows the latest students to benefit from the experience and the ideas of earlier students.
To give you a better idea of the dynamics and content of a real chat session, example chats from our varied course offerings are available in our Sample Chats page. These are actual logs from 2008-2010 chat sessions. The only changes we've made are to student names to protect student privacy.
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.