Colleges and universities are increasingly asking instructors to teach online classes. It is unlikely that this trend will slow in the coming semesters. More than one in four students took at least one online course in the fall of 2008.  Will teaching these online classes help or hurt your teaching and research or creative career?
These classes can help make you more marketable and even create more time for your own creative work and research.
Are You Ready to Teach Online?
Like anything, teaching online will only help your career if you can do it well and succeed at it quickly. If you answer “yes” to most of these questions, you’re ready to consider teaching online:
- Do you have a reliable computer and high-speed Internet connection?
- Are you comfortable learning new technology?
- Are you an independent worker who also knows how to ask necessary questions?
- Are you good at staying in touch with colleagues/supervisors?
- Do you rely a computer when you lecture -- for example do you create PowerPoint presentations and show video clips from TED?
- Do you check your e-mail regularly?
- Do you need more time for your research and creative work?
- Do you need more classes (read: more experience and money)?
- Is it impossible to relocate for a job?
If you have the technical skills or the patience to learn, teaching online will help your teaching résumé to show your flexibility and abilities. Many college search committees are giving extra consideration these days – even in searches for positions that involve classroom teaching -- to candidates with online teaching experience. And teaching online will also benefit your own work and life outside of academe because once you get set up, you’ll find yourself with more time.
Teaching online will let your supervisors know that you are a flexible instructor available to teach in multiple ways. In order to increase enrollment without needing additional classroom or office space, many colleges and universities are offering additional online classes. These classes allow students in the military, abroad, or in rural locations -- or just students who prefer to learn this way -- access to an education.
If you regularly teach online, you can also move face-to-face classes online as necessary. For example, if there is an emergency on campus, contagious illness, or extreme weather, classes don’t have to come to a halt. You will also have the potential to design hybrid classes.
Students spend a lot of their time online with e-mail, social networking, and even classes. If you are comfortable being online through e-mail and social networking, then you can use that to meet the students where they are and efficiently stay in touch with them. This is helpful for in-person, hybrid and online classes.
How to Get Started
You can start by taking an online class and studying how it works from the students' perspective. If you were educated in the traditional classroom model, you’ll learn how various technological tools can build upon what you already know how to do. For example, the discussion board, which is a part of most course software, allows you to pose questions and interact with your students. You might start with a free webinar offered in your discipline or follow a less interactive online class.
Another beginning step is to use online course software or CDs that are provided to you by book publishers. For example, the anthology Literature:Approaches to Fiction, Poetry, and Drama by Robert DiYanni comes with an interactive CD that the students can purchase. Diana Hacker’s A Writer’s Reference has a website  with interactive tests for the students. These online exercises will help you to become accustomed to what is possible, and already established, in the online environment.
You can start by integrating online tools in a face-to-face class. Most colleges allow and encourage faculty to use the course management software for their face-to-face classes. My first experience with the virtual classroom was integrating this software and online environment into my face-to-face classes. I was tentative at first – I only posted the syllabus and other course documents -- but I eventually integrated online discussions as a supplement to the in-person classes. When there was a snow day or if I was ill, I moved the meeting online instead of canceling the lesson. This is a good first start for most instructors.
Some courses are hybrid or blended instead of being 100 percent online; these are another beginning step before teaching an online course.
Many universities offer workshops to help their faculty become comfortable with their specific software. Talk to other online instructors and ask them questions about how they lead classes in your discipline. There are also many texts on the subject. For writing, I highly recommend Scott Warnock’s Teaching Writing Online. 
Some things to consider
- Colleges are increasingly offering classes online. There’s work to be had.
- Once you’ve built the course, you can often reuse or mold the materials for other venues.
- Save time and money not commuting.
- No photocopying, reserving materials or equipment.
- You can schedule your day.
- Unless you are video chatting with students, you can work wherever you want and be comfortable.
- It is a lot of time sitting in front of the computer.
- Sometimes the Internet connection will be slow and frustrating.
- It can be difficult to manage the onslaught of e-mail.
- Students will continue conversations without you and it sometimes takes extra work to get them back on track. After all, you were sleeping.
- You might never meet your supervisors and colleagues. You must work extra hard to negotiate personal relationships.
- No snow days or days off.
- You might befriend your colleagues on Facebook and/or have a water cooler chatty section of the course management system for faculty, but those casual conversations that can turn into projects won’t happen quickly or easily. Overall, you must make an effort to participate in your field through conferences and connecting with colleagues.
- The technology continues to change and improve.
- You’ll need a reliable computer and Internet connection.
- You’ll need a comfortable setup because you’ll be sitting there a lot.
- You’ll have to learn how to use the technology. And relearn it as it changes.
- There’s a lot of upfront work to get started, including writing your syllabus and planning activities and assignments.
- It takes initiative to really make something like this work in the virtual classroom and for yourself as an academic or creative person. Once you’ve gotten it started, however, it can run smoothly. Your main job will be to manage discussions, respond to e-mails and grade. In the long run, you’ll gain hours and control of your schedule.
- Different types of universities, from liberal arts colleges to research universities, will have differing views about online teaching. I strongly recommend speaking with colleagues in your discipline about these specific expectations.
- Final word of caution: if you are not working anywhere in-person, make an effort to get up from the computer, go outside, talk to people the old fashioned way. Sit in the sun. You’ll even have a few extra minutes to stay out.
Chloe Yelena Miller’s poetry and essays have been published in Alimentum, The Cortland Review, Narrative and other literary journals. She teaches writing at George Mason University, Fairleigh Dickinson University and privately. Her blog may be found here.