Reflections on IECA's Online Environmental Communication Course
I have just finished up grading and other final tasks for the January 10-week session of IECA's online course Environmental Communication: Research Into Practice. I almost called it the Winter session, but I am not sure we had winter here in the northeast US and I know it wasn't winter in other parts of the world where some of the participants live.
From my perspective, this was a great session, the best yet. The course was over-full and we had an amazing group of participants, including practitioners, graduate students, the curious, and even a couple of profs. They hailed from India, the US, Singapore, Canada, Brazil, Australia, Ecuador, and other places. All of this led to some really rich discussions and the sharing of diverse perspectives and experiences.
When we first offered this course in 2014, I wasn't sure how it would go. I hadn't taught online before and I didn't know if I would like it. I didn't know how well the subject would work being taught at a distance and not in real time. And I didn't know what kind of participants it would attract. It was definitely a kind of experiment.
Two years and four sessions into it, I have to say I find it one of the more rewarding teaching experiences I have ever had, and I am fortunate to have had a lot of rewarding teaching experiences. I know this will be blasphemous to some, but in my view, there is more to be gained than lost with this format when compared to in-person teaching. Among other things, the conversations, though mostly not in real time, are more extensive and well-thought out. In part that's because there is more space/time for them: time to reflect on what people have said, time to compose thoughtful responses, and basically unlimited space/time in the forums. Furthermore, everyone can easily share multi-media examples with each other which has been fantastic. Also, a sense of community develops quickly among the participants. All of this may be well-known to those of you who teach online, so I'm sorry if it seems like I am being Captain Obvious here.
Yes, you lose the in-person live back-and-forth of a physical classroom, but that is unavoidable with distance education. To try to make up for that a bit, I started using Flipgrid as part of the course so that participants can record short video responses. Thanks to Joy Hamilton for suggesting this because it makes a big difference in allowing the participants to get to know each other, see each others' faces and hear each others' voices. I also use weekly Skype calls, but scheduling them during reasonable waking hours for busy people in multiple time zones around the world is difficult.
There are some other challenges. Participants tend to already have full personal and professional lives and have carved out space for the course. If something goes off the rails or they just get too busy in their personal or professional lives, then some of them have had to scale back their participation in the course. So, there is some attrition as the course goes on. Those people often switch to an Audit and stop participating, but still avail themselves of the course materials.
Another challenge I have had is finding readings that i) provide a good overview of a topic while also reflecting the latest thinking on that topic, and ii) are accessible to a general audience (not too jargon-filled). It also helps if those readings offer a critical perspective on the subject. I have avoided using a textbook for the course for a couple of reasons. None of the textbooks align well with what I cover in the course and they may not be available to participants in all parts of the world. Since I reconsider the readings with every session of the course, this may change. This challenge isn't related to the course being online. I think it's a challenge for our field generally: making the most up-to-date research-based knowledge and good practices accessible to practitioners and students. It's something The IECA will be working on.
Clearly, there is demand for this kind of learning experience out there. That's because environmental communication is just not taught in most places, so the people who want and need this kind of course don't have access to one. We also think there is a need for shorter, more focused, training opportunities. So this year we'll be looking into what else we might do in that regard. If this lights up ideas for you, please send me your suggestions, requests, offers to help, etc. or post them in the comments below.
We're offering Environmental Communication: Research Into Practice again starting in September. Registration opened last month and we already have some folks signed up, so I am looking forward to another fun and productive session. I hope some of you will consider joining the course.
Finally, I want to say a big "Thank you!" to everyone who has taken the course over the past couple of years. I have appreciated your patience with me as I continue to try to figure out how best to approach this project. More importantly, I admire your generosity of spirit, willingness to challenge yourselves, and concern for the planet and each other. You give me hope.