Improving the Experience of Online Education

Despite their surge in popularity, many harbor deep reservations about the quality of online courses. There are several possible reasons for this, but perhaps most fundamentally are serious concerns about the experience of online students. In particular, many ask: can online courses provide the kind of experience crucial for students to develop critical thinking, curiosity, and creativity, consistent with the highest ideals of liberal arts education?

I have taught online for several years, and I have struggled with this question as well. However, new thinking and research convinces me that all courses – including those online – have the potential to elicit powerful emotions that can inspire long-term knowledge creation.

University of North Carolina emotion researcher, Paul Silvia, suggests there are four major “knowledge emotions” important in this regard: surprise, interest, confusion, and awe. Although they differ in some ways, surprise, interest, and confusion are similar in that they typically are evoked by something novel. These emotions often function to “catch” individuals’ attention, a prerequisite for learning to occur.

Awe may be the most powerful knowledge emotion, and involves a response to something so vast or great that an individual’s previous way of thinking about a phenomenon no longer is adequate. When students change their fundamental beliefs, gain a newfound appreciation, or change their self-identity because of something they encountered during a course – when education has been a transformational experience – awe likely was evoked. In the past few years, scientists have discovered that awe influences behavior in unique ways. Most relevant here is how awe is implicated in inspiring greater critical thinkingcuriosity, and creativity.

In one study, for instance, research participants were instructed to identify with a main character as they either read about them climbing the Eiffel Tower to see Paris from on high or ascending an unnamed tower to see a plain landscape. Those randomly assigned to read the passage about the Eiffel Tower felt more awe. Remarkably, they also had a more expansive view of time and reported more satisfaction with their lives.

Additionally, several studies show that watching a video about something vast elicits awe and causes significant positive effects. For example, one study revealed that participants randomly assigned to watch a 5-minute video of vistas, mountains, plains, forests, and canyons reported experiencing a smaller self in relation to something greater or beyond themselves, relative to those who watched an amusing or neutral video. Those in the awe condition also displayed greater generosity when given the opportunity to help another.

These studies are important in this context because reading and audiovisual assignments often are recurring activities for students in online courses. Together, this research suggests that the emotional experiences that help shape students’ critical thinking, curiosity, and creativity hinge most importantly on the particular stimuli and tasks students engage, irrespective of the kind of course a student is taking.

So, what can be done – in any course – to provide the conditions needed to spark student knowledge emotions?

In his classic book, “The Courage to Teach,” Parker Palmer suggests there are certain “great things” that naturally intrigue us as humans, around which seekers have always gathered to inquire and understand. Examples include “the genes and ecosystems of biology… the shapes and colors of music and art, and the novelties and patterns of history.” Palmer argues that these kinds of things – “not the disciplines that study [them], not the texts that talk about them, not the theories that explain them, but the things themselves” – are “sacred” in the sense that they inspire surprise, mystery, and amazement, and therefore should be at the center of courses and assignments.

Some readings and audiovisual materials can transport people to meaningful encounters with “great things” and can be assigned in any kind of course. In my online courses, for instance, I assign readings that bring students closer to phenomena being studied, including scholarly readings in higher-level courses. Students are assigned TED talks for a similar reason.

Experiential activities that provoke knowledge emotions also can be assigned to students, sometimes maybe even more effectively outside the ordinary constraints of a traditional classroom. Depending on the subject, students can:

  • Be instructed to record observations of some vast, ancient, or intricate aspect of the natural world.
  • Travel to experience museums or historical sites that are repositories of “great things.”
  • Interview others who possess great virtue or life experience.
  • Witness various kinds of astounding human skill.
  • Personally experiment with phenomena that cause them to wonder.
  • Work through controversies or “big” questions that provoke passionate discussion, such as what caused fellow human beings to participate in the Holocaust.
  • Grapple intensively with the complexities of a particularly intriguing case study.

Surely, there are online courses that are designed in such a mundane or unengaging manner that they do not evoke knowledge emotions such as surprise, interest, confusion, and awe in the least. And, surely, there are challenges to online courses, including the difficulty some students have in feeling connected with teachers or classmates without having shared experiences in person. However, that does not mean that knowledge emotions cannot be elicited online or that online courses cannot be transformational. In fact, the modality in which a course is offered may be less important than the activities students do. The key educational challenge for educators therefore is how to provide the experiences crucial for students in all kinds of courses to become critical, creative, and curious, years after their formal education has ended.

Notes: Dr. Myles Johnson contributed to this post. An earlier version of this article was published by the Chronicle of Higher Education on October 28, 2016.


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