Five Things About Online Teaching

I’ve been asked to speak to our graduate level teaching history seminar today on teaching history online. Most of the students in this class are going to go off and teach at smaller state schools, junior colleges, schools with religious affiliations (e.g. Bible Colleges), or community colleges, and most of the students already have a keen eye toward preparing material for students.  So I don’t have to cover most of the basics.

In any event, I thought I would gather my thoughts here on a blog post. My online class consists of 15 weekly folders each with a two to three podcasts (1 being the main lecture), primary source readings, links to online content (secondary sources), links to places on Google Earth, discussion board posts, and a weekly quiz. Some folders also contain a short paper assignments.

I’m a big fan of lists. So here are five things about teaching online:

1. Start from the classroom. I found that creating my online class from what I do in the classroom has allowed me to test out my basic methods of content delivery before I have to rely on these to communicate with students in an online environment. I used my live classroom as a laboratory to experiment with podcasts, to create pages with useful links for students, and to get discussion board questions that stimulated useful responses online. The advantage of rolling things out in a live classroom (as opposed to online) is that I could receive continuous feedback from students on the utility and effectiveness of various online tools.  While this is theoretically possible online, a classroom setting ensured that I did not have to implement simultaneously new methods for delivering content and new methods of getting feedback on this contents effectiveness.

2. Embrace the difference. While most of us can readily understand the difference between a large lecture style classroom and a small seminar, I think that some of our models for online teaching continue to draw upon models rooted in the face-to-face classroom experience. Online teaching is different. Student expectations (and needs) in an online environment are different and the tools that we have to communicate with students in an online environment are different. We need to embrace this.

For example, I teach my class in a radically asynchronous manner to take full advantage of the ability to deploy all of my content (lectures, readings, quizzes, paper assignments, et c.) simultaneously. In fact, my class has only one firm deadline – the last day of classes in the semester.  Since many of my students take an online course because it’s more convenient or because their schedule would make it impossible for them to take a traditional course, an almost fully asynchronous approach to online teaching gives students the most flexibility in how they approach the material and the assignments. This approach would simply not be possible in a classroom environment.

3. Experiment. Once you have developed a solid core of content and assignments, take advantage of the flexible and dynamic nature of online courses to experiment.  Blackboard (or any course management software) makes it easy to introduce experimental sections to your course, to add content on the fly, or even withdraw failed experiments from the course. This software also encourages us to develop our courses in a more modular way which makes it easy to add new content, methods for engaging students, or evaluation material to a class even as they are going on.

For example, I’ve experimented with ways to embed Twitter in my online course so that students could move more freely between the walled-garden of Blackboard and the wilderness of the uncurated internet.  I’ve also begun to experiment with using Google Earth for geography, transcribing my lectures to make them available as either text or audio, and using interviews and other methods derived from mainstream media to generate interesting content.

4. Meet the students (at least) half way.  Many of our students do not have much experience taking classes in an online environment so they are likely to become confused and do truly bizarre things.  While it is tempting to expect students to be computer literate at a basic level and to be able to navigate the course management system and read and comprehend a syllabus without guidance, in reality most of these expectations are at least partially unfounded. Part of teaching online is to anticipate how students will, frankly, become confused and act in strange ways.

For example, having a quiz that tests students’ comprehension of the syllabus means that I can expect students to understand some of the basic expectations for the class. On the other hand, I’ve found it useful to become familiar with services like Zamzar to convert student assignments into .doc or .docx formats rather than insisting that everything be submitted in the same format.  It takes me little time to convert documents and it eliminates another technical (and potentially confusing) detail for the students’ to understand while also attempting to understand the content in the class.

5. Be Responsive. I have a four hour rule with student emails from my online class. I try to respond to student questions within four hours of getting the email.  (I know this is a luxury of teaching a single online class of fewer than 100 students). I have this rule as an effort to combat the feeling of detachment from from the human side of the educational process in an online class. I realize that part of this feeling of detachment comes from the asynchronous nature of my class and the limited opportunities for teacher-student contact in the way that I have designed my assignment. So, I take extra effort to respond to issues from students quickly and to show that there is someone, a real human “content provider” behind the curtain.


One Comment

  1. Two things I learned while I was teaching on-line for the New School.
    1. Some students will drown without being able to see the teacher’s face. There will be one or two in each class who cannot do without the personal clues they get f-to-f.

    2. Before students upload any file to the web, they should check the file name very carefully. That name will show up somewhere else. For example, one young man uploaded a paper he had called “Greek junk” which was actually a very good paper on the Agamemnon. A young Greek woman in the class, not as stable as one would have liked, threatened filed a complaint against me and the class for anti-Greek prejudice.


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