THE BLOG
06/09/2014 06:02 pm ET | Updated Aug 09, 2014

Logistics and Content: Lessons Beyond the Classroom

After teaching online English classes for more than a decade, I've come to anticipate with amazing precision the challenges that will pop up in the first few weeks of class. They have nothing to do with course material. If compared to a traditional classroom, they involve students finding the room, opening the door, and taking a seat. Simple, right? Not so much, in the online realm. Even worse, these preliminary tasks can become obstacles to learning that, if not resolved quickly, cause big trouble for the student. Some don't have a reliable Internet connection. Some have trouble logging in to various components of the course. Some are unaware of the starting date of the course or don't know where to find the link.

Predicting these initial tragedies, I use the first week of class to acclimate students to the online environment. Their assignments are, essentially, to show up. They must post to the class discussion board, log in to an ancillary website, and submit a document to the class drop box. The goal is for them to move around the online platform and demonstrate a basic understanding of its areas (find the room, open the door, take a seat). I work through the details with individual students via email, phone calls, or whatever means necessary to lead them smoothly into the virtual classroom.

Now, I tell myself, we're ready to get started.

During the second week of the course, we move into content mode: students have a reading assignment and discussion board questions due. Their posts to the class site must reflect understanding of the assigned material, just as in a traditional classroom they would show up with their books ready to take part in discussion. Starting with this second week, we follow a regular pattern of assignments that progresses throughout the semester, just as in a face-to-face course. Each week: reading, discussion board questions, quiz or writing prompt.

However, for some students, this is where their online education crashes.

In the third, fourth, and fifth weeks of the course, I still have students asking questions about course layout. One still can't find the discussion board, or he just got an Internet connection, or she needs the code for the online activities site. These queries have been asked (by other students) and answered (by me) during the first week of the course, when logistics was the focus. By the second week, I'm ready to move on, and the semester time frame demands it. By the third week, I'm dismayed and a little pissed off that some students are still stuck in Week 1 mode. We've got to start talking about the rhetorical analysis essay, for God's sake, or studying the Federalist papers; I don't have time for access denied or a frozen computer! At some point, as a class, we have to start focusing on content over logistics.

One day, as 3:00 rolled around and I changed my hat from professor to mom, I continued thinking about the tension between logistics and content. Could the online learning atmosphere hold a lesson for family dynamics?

Applied to a family, logistics would involve basic needs and scheduling. If the kids are dressed, fed, sheltered, at school on time and ready to learn, then logistics are complete; we can move to content. At first, I think, check. I do those things. I must be a good mom!

But then I look closely at how much of our day is spent. When the kids get home after school, my questions involve logistics: Do you still have that sniffle? What did you have for lunch? How was your quiz? Do you have any homework? Remember, you have soccer practice at 5:00. Most days, I feel accomplished if I'm able, during the course of afternoon and evening, to check the kids' homework, help them study for a test or quiz, remind them to walk the dog, get them to sports practice on time, and get the dishes and laundry done. I direct them for most of the day. Then, like most parents, I'm exhausted.

So when do we get to the content?

Just like the content of a course is new information and ideas, the content of family life is interaction that yields reward and growth. It could be planning a fun day, asking what the kids hope to do on the weekend or in the summer, talking about why they like a particular class, or finding out what they talk about with their friends. It can even be taking a bike ride or looking at a funny website with them. Content, for a family, is an experience that serves to enrich our lives rather than simply fulfill a need or obligation. It's moving forward with new ideas and experiences, sharing them in a way that only our family can -- something we want to do rather than something we have to do. The problem is, we usually don't make time for content.

Once this light bulb went off and I started viewing my family time in terms of logistics and content, it became easy to shift the balance, even if just a little bit. Can the dishes wait so I can play soccer with my 6-year-old? Can I make time to watch the kids' favorite TV program with them? The answer is usually yes. Even changing the direction of our conversation can favor content over logistics. Rather than asking how the quiz went, I start after-school conversation by discussing recess or which of their friends is going to see the movie coming out this weekend. The conversation becomes less directive, less authoritarian, and more real.

Of course, homework must be done, dinner must be cooked, rooms must be cleaned up. Unlike an online course, the logistics of family life are never complete. However, it's worth viewing the family dynamic in terms of how much content we're delivering in a given day. If we're always talking about logistics, we'll never get through the course material.