Rob Gee is a PhD candidate in the History Department at the University of Maine and a permanent author at GradHacker. You can follow him on twitter at @robgee18.
It struck me as a bit odd, given the orientation of GradHacker towards technological tools that can support and promote grad student research, organization, and productivity (basically...life), that online teaching did not make more frequent appearances in the great pantheon of blog topics. I went back a year or so in a staggeringly unscientific survey of GradHacker offerings and found only two posts dedicated to the topic. One was a piece last spring in defense of online teaching and learning generally, written by Nick Sproull. The other a great piece last winter from Andrea Zellner about the more nitty-gritty aspects and approaches to online pedagogy—a piece I could not recommend more highly for anyone who missed it. Because I was sensitive to the criticisms by online and distance education detractors that all of the proponents of online tools and techniques in higher education were coming from the ed, ed tech, and library science corners, I wrote my own defense of it last summer, which you can find here.
I'm inclined to leave the technical aspects of online pedagogy and teaching tools to those who, like Zellner and Katherine O'Flaherty (whose piece on Blackboard you can read here), have greater experience and expertise than I. What I want to talk about here is whether or not online teaching makes sense for you as you strategize your trajectory through graduate school and into whatever professional future compels you. So this is not about how to do it better, this is about whether, as a graduate student, to do it at all. As with most questions you encounter in this business, there is no definitive answer—merely a disjointed collection of more questions and things to think about.
Online Teaching in Theory
Despite what critics would have you believe, there is a vast spectrum of online teaching, and what it looks like in practice varies dramatically from one learning management system to another, one institution to another, and one discipline to another. One thing most experts and probably most students would agree upon is that courses that are created by merely making face-to-face course material available online are among the least successful. Course content, approaches to instruction, assignments, and assessment and feedback all need to be completely reimagined in order to succeed in an online format. This means that the work load of delivering an online course may (depending again on the system, institution, and discipline) be wildly out of step with what you've grown accustomed to either as a TA or instructor for more conventional courses.
For starters the semester's timeline will look very different. While much of the time commitment to a conventional course falls during the semester itself as you write lectures, prepare lessons and activities, and generate and ultimately grade assignments, much of this type of preparatory work in an online context needs to happen before the semester begins. In my own experience I would take the time spent writing a syllabus and choosing texts and multiply that by, say, 15x to 20x. Certainly these figures would ease a bit for courses you've offered multiple times. Additionally course evaluations from online courses demonstrate that students report the best experiences when their instructors are highly visible. Just as you can't simply transplant content, you also can't transplant the concept that you only need to appear before the students one to three times a week. You need to carve out time to be active and visible to your online students EVERY day. Your daily time demands may not be large, but may require different approaches to time management than you're used to. Consider this and be prepared to adapt if you opt to undertake online teaching.
Online Teaching in Graduate School
Generally speaking, I would say that the greater breadth of experience and skills you can amass during graduate school the better. If you're interested in online teaching there are a number of things you can do to get started. If your institution offers online courses at any level, they likely also offer faculty development seminars that you can take for free to get some orientation to the learning management systems supported. Even if you don't seek to teach a course, being able to list these completed seminars on your CV and honestly claim you have some familiarity with them can be a positive step. You can also seek out faculty members in your department or college who teach courses online and offer to TA or help with grading in exchange for some orientation to the process of online teaching. Given the need for visibility and frequent contact, many instructors would be overjoyed by such an offer—and may even be compelled to reciprocate with a nice recommendation and/or teaching evaluation, which will come in handy down the road. Armed with this experience you can develop a course of your own, either for your own institution or for others that may have a broader commitment to online teaching and learning.
A number of institutions also have pre-packaged online courses—not unlike courses at community colleges or business schools where you inherit your syllabus and textbooks when you get hired. Here you will need to be familiar enough with the delivery platform to maneuver in the course and provide content instruction and feedback, but the development work has been done for you. While not ideal from a variety of perspectives, these can be a means to some valuable experience, and may yield opportunities to develop curricula and course content down the line. We can have the philosophical debates about promoting the use of adjunct labor and relocating more teaching away from content experts another time—the fact of the matter is the job market it tight, both inside the tower and out, and if you can position yourself as someone conversant in the issues and technologies germane to your chosen industry, I think you probably owe it to yourself to do that. And if in the process of doing so you can rake in a little extra gas money (assuming you don't drive much) then that doesn't hurt either.
Online Teaching in the Job Market
As I've said, experience teaching online, knowledge of the tools, and some sense of pedagogical issues at play are all good things to bring with you into the job market. What you inevitably find when you get there though is that the academy is a far wider and more diverse place than your experience of two or three campuses would ever have led you to imagine. You may be applying for jobs outside of the discipline in which you were trained, and you may also find that your own discipline is imagined in dramatically different terms, such that prospective colleagues are compelled by a whole different range of issues and priorities than what you've grown accustomed to. You will find some places very interested in your online teaching background. You will find other places very NOT. Try to discern this up front when crafting your cover letters, but certainly take steps to find out before engaging in a phone or campus interview. A search committee may be interested in your online teaching background because it jives with their own commitment. They could also believe that online education is the bane of their existence, the origins of their exploitation, or merely the topic of unsavory discussions with their administration. If they take no interest, ask yourself how important online teaching is to you and if you'd be satisfied to see it relegated to the less active regions of your CV. If they are interested, ask yourself (hell, ask them) if it's because it is reflective of their institutional mission, orientation and interests—meaning, you'd be joining a team of like-minded professionals—or if it's because someone has told them they need to begin to embrace online teaching and rather than comply and do so themselves, they've opted instead to merely hire someone who will. If that be the case, ask yourself if you're willing to teach every online course the department offers.
More and more academic job ads feature references to online teaching. In some cases they make clear what the job will actually look like in that respect. In most cases though, the reference is vague and underdeveloped—almost as though someone else edited the words in there! It's the 21st century and regardless of what we might think of its merits or shortcomings, I think we owe it to ourselves to be the strongest job candidates we can be, while recognizing that those jobs, while not as plentiful as we'd like, are actually tremendously diverse. You do not need to dedicate your life to online teaching, but some familiarity with the tools, and even just the ability to carry on an informed conversation about the future of technology and approaches to higher education may serve you very well—both in thinking about your own research and development of course content and in preparing for your next step.
What's your approach to online education? Let us know in the comments below.
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