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The 12 Days of an Online Class

Or: Things I Wish I Had Known before Signing Up.

December 23, 2015

Heather VanMouwerik is a doctoral candidate in Russian History at the University of California, Riverside. Follow her @hvanmouwerik or check out her website.



Right now is the golden moment that comes after submitting grades and grant proposals and before writing next quarter’s syllabus and more grant proposals. Not having to work too hard the last few days has put me (temporarily) into the holiday spirit, which is evident from the silliness and retrospective nature of this post.


So put some cider in the crockpot, turn the twinkle lights on, and, please, bear with me as I present a festive little song: The 12 Days of an Online Class.


On the 12th day of class, my online course gave to me a list of things to think about before signing a contract! Talented and pioneering teachers all around the internet offer their advice on planning, running, and evaluating online courses. Not only is the development of a digital pedagogy important for the future of higher learning, it is necessary preparation for our students. Although this is fantastic news for professors and other instructors with strong institutional ties, it leaves me—a sometimes-TA, sometimes-instructor, and always-graduate student—cold.


Advocating for advanced preparation, innovative strategies, and the future of learning is very laudable, but, if I am honest with myself and you, most of the time I am just trying to pay my bills, apply for grants, improve my CV, and finish my dissertation sometime this century. Oftentimes teaching an online course is couched less in terms of “Would you like to?” and more in terms of “You will be an online instructor.”


Regardless of how you are assigned an online course, I want to provide you a list of things to think about before starting. Unlike the more specific advice I have given in past posts, this advice falls into the category of #advicetomyyoungerself and is geared specifically to those of us who rely on our teaching income to cover tuition.


11 Students Troubleshooting! What? You thought you would be spending your time instructing? Your first week will disavow you of this misconception very quickly. Even if you provide a detailed How-To for each of the programs you plan on using, your inbox will be overwhelmed with requests for help. Many students are fearful of technology, and, when something goes wrong, they lack the confidence to run through even the most basic troubleshooting techniques. Though time consuming, most of these issues are quickly fixed with a simple, “Have you tried turning it off and on again.” The only way to prepare for this is to be well acquainted with the assigned technology, inquisitive in your own problem solving, and in contact with your university’s IT specialist (seriously, buy that person some coffee!).


10 Broken Hyperlinks! As I have argued before, it is important in an online class to set everything up in advance. On the first day if you can press the metaphorical “Go” button, then you can spend the rest of the term focused on the students and not on the technology. Despite all of this preparation and effort, something will break—a link to an online video will expire, a .pdf file will become corrupted, or a software update will reset all of your preferences. Just this past quarter, for example, I created a dropbox for students to turn in an assignment. Apparently there is now a button that you need to select to have the system check an assignment for plagiarism, a button that was not there last spring. I had to have all of the students re-submit their papers the next day, which was embarrassing for me and annoying for them.


9 Hostile Questions! At the holiday party a month before I TA-ed for my first online class, a professor actually asked me, “How do you feel about being the reason your generation will never get tenure?” I was so taken aback with the hostility of the question that I stuttered something about the future of pedagogy, downed my glass of wine, and quickly excused myself to get a refill. Because this person was a professor, someone who helps award fellowships and sits on committees, I found it very difficult to respond to his question. I wanted my answer to be honest and thoughtful, but I also had to take into account the power-laden nature of his inquiry. No matter what your reasons are for wanting (or having) to teach an online course, understand that you will become an instant ambassador for online education writ large. Most of the questions I am asked come from a place of genuine interest and mild confusion, which I answer happily; however, be prepared for a little vitriol, too.


8 Access Issues! Most campuses provide professors and instructors with the information and tools necessary to ensure each student has an equal opportunity to learn. Although prevalent in physical classrooms, providing quiet test rooms, audio recorded lectures, handicap accessible classrooms, and sign language interpreters, I have found the support for online students with disabilities to be lacking. There is an assumption, one which I initially had too, that online learning was inherently more disability friendly than traditional classrooms; however, that is not the case. When planning your class, you must take into account students with disabilities. For example, I never put audio or audio-visual material online that is not either closed captioned (there are programs that can do that for you) or transcribed. In addition, make sure that any websites or programs you use have scaleable text and provide support for alternative interfaces, like keypads designed for students with limited mobility. I am still a novice at this, so please check out the Center for Online Learning and Students with Disabilities.


7 Faculty Meetings (You’re Not Invited to)! Yes, this is nothing new. Most of what goes on in a department is necessarily done behind closed doors in faculty-only meetings. This includes, though, almost all discussion of online courses—from what courses will be offered online and who can enroll, to larger issues of how digital efforts fit into your department’s mission and what is required of online teachers. You need to become familiar with whatever policy your department has adopted and what expectations it has for you and your students. If no such policy exists, force the issue. Though as a graduate student your voice doesn’t always have much power, this is a situation where you need to be vocal and persistent.


6 Weeks Ahead of Schedule! Although my song is breaking down a bit (I am a historian, not a poet!), structuring an online class is difficult for graduate students because of all of the work that needs to be done in advance. At the exact moment you are being overwhelmed with your own coursework, grant proposals, and grading term papers, an online course asks you to add one more thing to your to do list. If this is not going to work, then you need to be honest with yourself and the department as early as possible.


5 Union Violations! Everything I just wrote about preparing your course in advance flies in the face of most union regulations on TA and instructor labor. You need to understand this in advance: regulations meant to eliminate your exploitation in the university were not written to deal with the type of labor needed to put together an online course. I do not have an answer to this. It does make me uncomfortable to put all of this work into a course without immediate compensation, but I cannot think of a better way. Depending on how your university organizes its online education, this might not be an issue for you. In addition, I have been able to negotiate for a one-time stipend in return for making video lectures in advance. This is something that you need to be aware of, and, please, do what you are comfortable with.


4 Cases of Social Isolation! Teaching an online course, especially if you have no other on-campus commitments, is equal parts liberating (No commute! Pajamas everyday!) and socially isolating. A few years ago I earned a fellowship that liberated me from teaching for two quarters in order to prepare for exams. Ostensibly a fantastic opportunity, it turned out to be one of the lowest points in my life. Without the structure of a working environment, I would go days without interacting in a meaningful way with anyone else and alternate between obsessive workaholic behavior and slovenly TV binges. I am not naturally a social person, but I learned that I require structure, social connections, and a flexible routine. So, even before I signed my TA contract for an online class, I set up a system—a weekly dinner date with a friend, regular in-office office hours, and mandatory attendance to departmental talks. This kept me balanced and sane. Again, be honest with yourself. Will you continue to be productive when you do not need to go to campus? Do you thrive without a schedule? Or are you like me, prone to social isolation and in need of a more strict schedule?


3 Internet Connections! If my love of rock-climbing movies has taught me anything, it is that you need to be touching the mountain with at least three parts of your body at any given time. In the case of the incomparable Catherine Destivelle, that means both hands and a foot; in the case of online teaching, that means three devices with three different ways of connecting to the internet. When I lead discussion sections online or host digital office hours, I make sure to have my laptop computer connected to wi-fi, a cell phone, and be in proximity to a desktop with a physical connection to the internet. Although infrequent, I have had to cycle through all three trying to talk to students—once resulting in me running through the TA offices trying to borrow a pair of headphones 20 minutes into a discussion section! Misconnections will happen, but, by being prepared, you can minimize their impact on the students.


2 New Computers (or Smartphones)! Teaching an online class, especially as a graduate student, is expensive. Your computer needs to be reliable and able to run all necessary software, which includes audio and video recording, pdf building, and online course management. Luckily, to celebrate advancing to candidacy earlier in the year, I had bought a brand new laptop a few months before my first online class. In the smartphone department, though, I fared much worse. One of the apps that was necessary for the class did not work on my first generation Windows phone, so I had to suck up the $400 and get a new one. This was a choice I made because I wanted to be an effective teacher and I love tech gadgets—when I can, I will always buy a new phone!—not because it was a requirement. That being said, it was still an economic burden on a TA’s salary. Make sure to talk with your department to see if you qualify for technology assistance in any way. I was able to get some software reimbursed but not any of the hardware.


1 Awesome Experience! I do not want to leave you with the impression that for TAs and instructors teaching online is particularly onerous or to dissuade you from signing your contract. Quite the opposite, actually. As long as you are cognizant about these issues before you begin teaching, I think you will enjoy the experience. Teaching online may not be the same as in a physical classroom, but it offers a different way to interact with students, provide quality instruction in digital competencies and course content, and reimagine university instruction.


Have you taught an online class? What would you have wanted to know before you signed your contract? Please, let us know in the comments section.

[Image by Flickr User GotCredit and used under Creative Commons license]


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