montage of "read" posters

Online Discussion Groups

This week the students of Summer Art 110 gave me a lot of valuable feedback on our discussion groups. The Summer Introduction to the Visual Arts course is a 100% online course from the CSULB School of Art. Students were all over the map on whether they “liked” the discussions or not, but one thing they were nearly unanimous on is that they preferred Text Chat over Video Chat!


screen cap of WhatsApp appThis surprised me. I thought video chat would be more engaging and fun. And I know how hugely successful Google Video Hangouts are in the professional world. I think what I may have failed to realize is that a Video Chat is a lot like a Voice Call, and student-aged peeps have, I think, overwhelmingly chosen text apps like WhatsApp over voice. Just as email used to be “what you use to talk to old people,” a role that Facebook seems to have now, I think voice might be what you use to talk to parents, but WhatsApp is probably a more fun way to engage with friends.

It’s interesting that the already aging Facebook is trying to stay relevant by buying both Instagram and WhatsApp and trying to buy Snapchat. (Facebook bought Instagram in Apr ’12 for US$1B, WhatsApp in Feb ’14 for US$19B, and unsuccessfully offered US$3B for Snapchat in Nov ’13)

montage of "read" posters


Whenever you visit a library you see one of those well-intentioned Read posters featuring some cool celebrity. I do think reading is important and valuable and the decline of reading probably isn’t good. But it’s also important to remember that back in the days of yore, reading didn’t have a lot of competition. Today reading not only has competition from films and myriad other media forms, but it also has competition from, well, reading! When you see a poster in a library that says “Read” it might be suggesting to read a book. But if you count all the messaging, blogs, and other online media that peeps read, that probably adds up to plenty of novels worth of pages in a year. We can debate whether the nature of short chunks of reading offers the same intellectual and analytic value that diving into the mind of a novel does.

Maybe a novel is a much richer experience for a human being.

Or maybe the interactivity and discussion of text, chat, blogs, and other media offers a rich space of community, interaction, and a place to test perceptions and ideas.

Infinite Choice

ad for WhatsApp College Campus planWe probably should read more novels. It is an extraordinary form that at its best offers unique and powerful insights. But we should also appreciate that reading has a lot of competition today. Similarly, in the past, and in rural places, things could get boring. But in a place like Los Angeles in the 21st-media-century, boredom almost isn’t an option. One student commented that Foucault wouldn’t get tenure today! And I wonder how many students are ready or interested in embracing the subtlety of a John Cage or Allan Kaprow perspective when they have so many options and so much stimulation available in IRL Los Angeles plus the infinite vastness of YouTube and all the other online spaces.

Today’s academic model is about 200 years old. Affluent kids moved from boarding school to university. There wasn’t much else to do besides studying and pranks. I think college is still a place where new ideas and great friendship are formed. Does a class need to be part of that? Maybe. But the sorority, the anime club, the volleyball team, the debate team, and so many other options on and off campus also enrich the student experience.


Also dragging the discussions down is the idea that an online class is supposed to be at the learner’s convenience. So text chat: maybe. Video chat: way too much scheduling hassle.

collage of Art110 Summer 2014 Counterfactual Identity images
Summer ’14 Art110 students in their “Counterfactual Identity” outfits.


Weekly video chat is out. There could be a possibility of having a week or 2 of special meetups so students could actually meet each other. Text chat is a possiblilty. But as one student noted, since they’re doing weekly creative activities and blogging the results, why not have them look at and comment on each other’s work.

I think that’s the best answer for next summer. Instead of discussion groups move to commenting on each other’s blogs. In the academic year F2F class with 150 students it’s easy to be lost. But in a summer class with 25, commenting on each other’s blog posts could be a way to develop better insight into what others are thinking and doing. And it preserves the asynchronous nature of online classes & text chat that students value.


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