Take a Walk on the Wired Side

Want to teach online? Rob Weir provides warnings and tips.

May 11, 2009

Summer is coming, a time in which many colleges seek instructors to teach online courses. These are cash cows for campuses, a way to enhance the revenue stream without having to keep facilities open. (Or better yet, making those facilities available for outside groups to rent.) Math, business, and computer science professors have blazed the trail, but online teaching remains problematic in word-heavy disciplines such as the humanities, and it has a mixed record in hands-on laboratory-based sciences. (Biologists often complain that computer simulations are, at best, simulacra.) Teaching online can be rewarding, but be wary before you agree to tackle such a course.

There are several seemingly counterintuitive experiences I’ve had with online courses. In summary:

  • Older students generally perform better than younger ones.
  • The range of achievement is much narrower.
  • Online courses work best when they mirror live classes.
  • Discussion is generally more robust online.
  • An online course definitely will not run itself!

Younger students love the idea of online courses, but they are often the worst students -- despite their greater facility with technology. Yahoo! runs ads for “Why online college is rocking,” and that’s part of the problem. Online education is being sold as if it’s for everyone, when those finding real success are those who are self-motivated, highly organized, and in possession of well-developed study habits. And how many of your young undergrads fit that profile? Younger students approach online classes as if they’re just another “cool” thing to do on the Web. Be prepared to badger them if you want them to get through your course.

Accept the reality that many won’t. My live classes generally have grade distributions that look more or less like a bell curve; my online grades are more analogous to an EKG readout: lots of spiky As and Bs, quite a few Fs, and very little in between. The Fs generally go to those who disappear around the first major assignment.

The best way to limit the number of poor grades is to dissuade weaker students from entering and the way to do that is to set the same high standards as you do in traditional classes. Mirror that model as much as possible with a robust syllabus, airtight deadlines, vigorous assignments (spelled out in advance), regular lectures, and expectations that students must participate in discussions.

One of the pleasant things about online courses is that you will get more discussion than in most live classes. Students tend to post longer remarks and respond to each other in greater depth. Objectively speaking, there is much justification for assigning discussion grades in an online course and you’d do well to make it a major component of the final grade.

Don’t believe anyone who tells you that online teaching is easy once you get your course “set.” First of all, it will take you awhile to master the vicissitudes of whatever Web-based program your school uses. I’ve used four now and their logics are about as interchangeable as AC adaptors. Second, expect to spend more time preparing for an online course. You can’t “massage” anything online; every word you post must be clear, every assignment must be self-explanatory, and each learning module must be 100 percent self-contained. You don’t have the luxury of the routine self-adjustments that you can do in the classroom. You will also spend more time doing gate-keeping tasks such as checking to see who hasn’t logged in for awhile, contacting wayward students, and redirecting discussions. In addition you’ll burn more hours grading as students won’t be around to discuss their evaluations; hence your written feedback will be more extensive.

If you decide to give online teaching a try, here are some suggestions:

  • Discuss pay upfront.
  • Own what you post.
  • Be careful of copyright law.
  • Make sure your assignments are doable.
  • Don’t plan on synchronous learning.
  • Limit text-heavy lectures.
  • Be very active in discussion.
  • Set guidelines on posting.
  • Have a plan to deal with inappropriate postings.

On many campuses online teaching pays less than live teaching, or pays by the student. There’s a lot of work involved and you need to evaluate how much your time is worth. In many cases the rate of pay is pegged to attracting a minimum number of students, but the online coordinator will offer to allow the course to go forth at a lower pay rate for under-enrolled classes. My standard is that I won’t teach for less than I could earn doing comparable amounts of freelance writing.

Trust me on this as I once got burned: Don’t touch the class unless you own everything about it. I once developed an online class, taught it successfully several times, and saw it farmed out to a new hire on the grounds that the department “owned the course.” I had to go through my union to assert ownership of my content. Of course by then the new hire had already seen all my lectures, assignments, and course structure.

Don’t violate copyright laws by posting pictures you rip from Google images, texts from the Web, etc. It’s fine to post links to these, but there have been cases of professors being sued for online copyright violations.

Assume that your students will consult online sources to complete their assignments. This means spending a lot of time surfing to make sure those sources exist. Be proactive and teach students how to evaluate online sources. You’d also be wise to anticipate what I call “Googleygoop,” the frivolous way in which Google privileges commercial and popular sites over substantive ones. Searchers seldom go more than three screens in to find information, so you need to teach online search skills. (Few students even know about Google Scholar, for instance.)

The last time I taught my online “Folk Music and American Social Protest” course I had a student who was in a Costa Rican rainforest. Once a week he hiked to a village with an Internet café and did his work. The moral is that you’re likely to do asynchronous teaching so you might as well surrender to that reality.

Online teaching is more than just posting written lectures. Few professors enjoy reading 15 pages of text online and neither will your students. Check out programs such as Movie Maker and iMovie and consider combining short video lectures with short posted text. I also add things such as (legal) music clips to my site, require students to buy a DVD series, and give them assignments that require them to leave their computers. (One is to attend a concert and review it.)

You should participate in online discussion forums to send the message that participation matters. Structure the discussion, but don’t dominate. I like to ask short follow-ups on student posts. (“Bill raises an interesting point here. What do you folks think about….?”) I also play Devil’s advocate a lot. When it adds to the thread, I’ll be gently critical as well. (“Hmmm. I wonder if we’re on the wrong track here. What if we consider….?”)

The first time I taught online I left discussion threads open the entire semester. That created a logistical nightmare in which students were posting to weeks-old discussions. Set guidelines on how long a thread will remain open for comment. I find that closing it one week after the topic was assigned is plenty.

Finally, you’ll have to be a bit of a school marm at times. Set guidelines about how to post appropriately. I ban all personal attacks. You can say “I disagree that commodity fetishism explains the folk music revival,” but you can’t say, “Florence is wrong about ….” Still, chances are good you’ll have to do some offline interventions. Sarcasm and irony often come off wrong on the screen. So does intellectual showboating. Usually a simple email exchange resolves these matters but don’t hesitate to remove comments that stray beyond the Pale.

Good luck. Have fun. And take a vacation when you’re finished!

Other Sources:

1. See Michigan State’s guide to online teaching.

2. Belinda Lazarus’s study on how much time is involved. (Note: This data comes from 1999, though much of which she argues remains relevant. In my view, however, her sample underestimates the time required.)

3. Peggy Minnis discusses her experiences teaching environmental science online.

4. Ten solid tips from Judith V. Boettcher.

5. You can view a University of Wisconsin online course in education. (Note: In my view this course is too heavily text oriented.)


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