Lessons of a Summer Teaching Online

It was September of my first year as assistant professor at a liberal arts university when I read the announcement about teaching a summer online class. Summer seemed a long way off and the idea of the extra money I could earn was enticing. (My new baby, new mortgage, and the ever-lamented low pay of assistant professors weighed heavily on my mind.) As an avid user of Blackboard, I felt more than well-prepared for the task of teaching online and I thought it would be fun to challenge my teaching skills by depending entirely on the Internet to communicate class material to my students. Additionally, I was delighted to be able to teach students a seminar in my specialty area, cognitive neuroscience of memory. My university offered extensive course development and online training, including an assigned instructional designer for the entire process, so I fearlessly signed on for the adventure.

As I faithfully attended the monthly training meetings for Just in Time Technology (ex: how to use Skype) and for Course Design (ex: what is the conversion of 14 weeks pacing into a 30 day class), it began to dawn on me that I had underestimated the time and preparation required for my online course. I was one of a handful of new faculty who had added summer teaching to their first year obligations. As we sat in our classes and were shown the innovations of the online veterans, I doubt I was the only one who was feeling overwhelmed with bells and whistles. The online teaching veterans had planned every detail from music clips to the customized picture that would be shown behind the course title when students logged in. I learned that there are more than three ways to present a syllabus electronically, that I should probably post a video introduction of myself, and that the bar for creativity is set very high when an origami project can be successfully taught online. I had confidently thought I knew a lot about technology but I admit I had never considered such intricacies as whether presenting exam questions one-at-a-time or all on one page resulted in better student performance and ensured protection against cheating. As a cognitive neuroscientist, I know quite a bit about learning and memory but my mind was boggled by pedagogical concepts like “visual arguments” and “muddiest points,” and by the practice of making “concept maps” out of course material. As the summer crept closer and closer, I started to think that I had made a tremendous mistake.

A month before the class was supposed to start, I finally buckled down and decided to strive for simple and leave the major innovations for the next round of online teaching. I planned my calendar, finalized my syllabus, created my assignments, and most importantly, customized the course Web site (without a customized log-in picture). On the first day of class, I nervously checked (repeatedly) to see who had logged in and what areas they had visited and I worried once again that I was overloading myself since I had only recently finished an energy-zapping spring semester. For many of my students, this was also a new experience as my university is a traditional, residential institution, but the first day went by with only a few hitches and panicked e-mails. The second went by without any problems. This pattern held throughout the whirlwind of the course and then, suddenly, it was over. When I finally had a chance to reflect and read over student evaluations, I realized – shockingly – that teaching online my first year had actually been a great learning experience for both me and my students rather than a quick and easy way to earn some extra money. Here’s my take on online teaching:

  • Reducing the amount of content does not mean reducing rigor for students or work for me. Like many others who have never taught online, I had entered this experience thinking that online courses were a little bit “fluffy.” I have a newfound respect for my fellow online professors. While my online course had fewer total journal articles than I would have expected my 14 week course to read, the standards I set for my online class were just as challenging as for my traditional classes. I was pleased to find that most of my students were able to meet these standards and a few even surpassed them.
  • Online classes monopolize time, but it’s worth it. My online class took up more of my time than any one of my on-campus classes does in a regular semester. Because I was teaching in a new venue and because I could not be physically present to teach my students, I found myself living on the discussion boards and AOL instant messenger (apologies to my family!). This was particularly true because many of my students were not psychology majors – or science majors of any kind – so they needed me to set a foundation for them. Asking them to learn about concepts like long term potentiation and the role of the hippocampus in memory meant that I spent hours each day monitoring the discussion, redirecting threads, emphasizing important points, and guiding/prodding their intellectual development. The good news is that this paid off, according to student feedback and performance.
  • Students can learn just as effectively online as in a traditional classroom, with some tweaks. I normally encourage a lot of class discussion and I give immediate verbal feedback so I was worried about how this would be possible online. It turns out that discussion boards work really well for this but you have to be vigilant about monitoring (see above). I would post discussion prompts and students would respond to the prompts, or post about their own insights. Writing so consistently with frequent feedback and being able to see their own thoughts written out helped students to steadily improve the quality of their writing. Students were required to ground their comments in the context of the readings and to support their comments with evidence from the readings. The distinction between posting an “I think X” comment and an “I think X because Y, Z, & Q” was a real challenge for the students but I found it is easier for students to write logically than it is for them to speak logically in an in-class discussion. It was exciting to see their intellectual growth and the improvement in their scientific writing ability as the course progressed.
  • You can create a safe and open classroom dynamic without being in a classroom. Both my students and I thought that the anonymity and lack of group meetings would make the class unnatural and lonely for each individual. Many students commented that they thought they’d feel isolated from their classmates since they would not see them physically. Instead, the discussion board allowed them to interact with their classmates and to “feel like [it] was a real class.” Posting an initial introduction and then posting daily afterward resulted in class cohesiveness even though the students never saw each other face-to-face. At the same time, the lowered inhibition of posting online freed students to make bold statements and to disagree (politely) about research conclusions, which made for wonderful discussion.
  • Project collaboration is not a good idea in an online class. Although I am usually a champion of group work because it mimics the collaboration that is key to scientific progress, I took a leap and required students to work independently on journal article presentations. I presented the first journal article and then let the students choose their own article for presentation. Viewing an individual student’s attempt to explain primary literature allowed me to quickly ascertain and target gaps in learning. I might have missed those gaps if the student had worked in a group because someone would have taken up the slack for the member who was falling behind. Fortunately, most students extracted a substantial amount of knowledge for the topic on which they presented (as evidenced by their exam performance and discussion board posts) and many expressed pride in their newfound expertise. Student presenters in each topic unit also monitored the discussion boards with me and responded to their classmates’ posts which allowed peer-to-peer teaching to take place.

Although I am a relative novice in the teaching arena, I appreciated the chance to revive my teaching mojo. I was forced to be creative about how to present course material and ensure that my students had a solid understanding of the information. I also realized I needed to revise my opinion of online teaching and those who participate in it. I now know that online courses are not a pale and lifeless version of traditional courses or worse, a “pay for an A” scam in which everyone teaches him/herself and everyone gets a good grade. Online courses can be distinctive and worthwhile ways of teaching in their own right.

Amy Overman
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Amy Overman is assistant professor of psychology at Elon University.

Let Professors Choose

Endowments have plummeted, alumni will donate less, and students won’t be willing to pay as much. Because of all this financial trauma, colleges will inevitably expect more from their faculties. But I urge college presidents and trustees, in responding to this situation, not to make inflexible demands of professors, but to rather empower us to decide which sacrifices we shall bear.

Colleges need to reduce costs, and one way could be to cut professors’ salaries. But some professors would do a lot to maintain their incomes, so why not give us the option of keeping our salaries as long as we agree to teach an extra class or take on significantly more administrative responsibilities? After all, if some professors did more work, a college or university could postpone when it needed to hire new employees.

To make up for a hiring freeze, some colleges might be tempted to force all professors to teach additional classes. But some professors live frugally, have lots of family income, or would do most anything to preserve research time. Why not let these instructors take, say, a 10 percent pay cut in return for not having extra teaching responsibilities?

A hiring freeze might also necessitate some professors taking on more administrative duties. But no school should push all professors into doing what college administrators do. If, for example, one instructor hates meetings while another dreams of being a dean, let the former teach one of the latter’s classes, thereby freeing up the latter’s time for paperwork.

Colleges should present professors with a menu of sacrifices they must pick from. Of course, there will have to be some planning so that not too many professors pick the same option. Perhaps the most senior faculty members would get their first choice from the menu, and less senior members would get to choose only among sacrifices consistent with their institution’s needs.

But a better way to allocate sacrifices would be to have professors bid for what they want. For example, a college could declare that all but 100 members of the faculty must teach an extra course each year. Professors could then bid with their salaries for one of the 100 slots, with some kind of limitations built in so that not too many professors from the same department win the auction. The auction winners would be the professors who value money over time, and the “losers” those who value time over money. Each professor would be making the choice that best suits his or her needs. True, affluent professors might seem to have an advantage in such an auction, but it would be the least affluent who would most benefit if the auction’s revenue prevented the college from cutting everyone’s salary.

Departments, too, should be given choices over how to share their college’s financial hardships. A department, for example, might be told to either postpone its next hire by a few years or give up half of its administrative budget. Each department would use its knowledge of its own needs to make the decision that would best serve it and would probably best serve the college.

Professors care about many aspects of their jobs, including salaries, teaching loads, administrative work, sabbatical opportunities, travel money, office space, research expectations, and grants. Most professors accept that, because of the financial crisis, our terms of trade with employers will become less favorable to us.

By giving professors options over how these terms will change, schools can potentially get more out of their professors while inflicting less harm on them (and so encountering less resistance). And this most holds true if different professors can make different choices, rather than the college negotiating with the faculty as a whole for all professors to make the same sacrifice.

James D. Miller
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James D. Miller is an associate professor of economics at Smith College.

Dear Adjuncts: Don't Get Sick

I’m sick. And I don’t mean sniffles and tickle in my throat. I mean swallowing pitchforks and a jackhammer on the brain. That kind of sick. The doctor calls it strep throat. I call it hell on earth.

In this state, in this death-bed existence, I feel lucky.

I have written a lot about unfair pay for adjunct faculty, or how they aren’t included enough in most departments. These are all important issues, but I think I’m overlooking one of the biggest problems in the adjunct profession: health benefits.

This is an issue some will squawk at. They’ll say adjunct faculty members are part-time faculty and they shouldn’t have any benefits. That’s true … some of the time.

At many institutions, mine included, adjuncts are expected to teach the maximum number of allowed classes in a semester. For me, it’s four. I suppose I could tell the administration that I don’t want to teach all four, but is that really my responsibility? Does a 15-year-old part-time busboy who is saving for a car during the summer remind the boss that he’s only a part-time employee? Not really. It’s the boss’s job to make sure the kid doesn’t work more than he’s legally allowed. And really, since adjuncts teach the majority of required, gen-ed courses in so many departments, it’s hardly fair to brush them off as teaching fodder.

Let’s face it: “part-time” and “adjunct” are no longer fitting monikers for so many faculty members. It seems clear that departments, maybe even entire universities, have come to rely on adjuncts so much that they would fail without the adjuncts.

Like I said, I’m lucky. My wife works and I get health insurance through her. Strep costs me a $25 co-pay and about $15 for two prescriptions. A colleague in the cubicle near mine can’t get sick. She can’t afford it. And the thought of a personal injury -- a car accident, perhaps -- nearly causes her to have an anxiety attack. For me, strep throat means Percocet for the pain and amoxicillin for the infection. For my colleague, strep would mean herbal remedies and drinking lots of juice.

Only recently, and thanks to Obama’s health care initiatives, more and more institutions have begun to offer health care buy-ins for adjuncts. This would be great if all these adjunct issues were mutually exclusive. Unfortunately, they’re not. The truth is, adjuncts have always had the option to buy health care; anybody with money can buy health care. But adjuncts don’t receive adequate pay.

What we’re talking about here is academe demanding full-time work from adjuncts, but failing to adequately compensate them for that work. Institutions rely on adjuncts to meet the institutions’ basic needs (in many cases, required, gen-ed courses) but they fail to meet the basic needs of the adjuncts (living wages).

This method, like fighting strep with juice, just doesn’t work that well.

Isaac Sweeney
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Isaac Sweeney is an adjunct faculty member in James Madison University's School of Writing, Rhetoric, and Technical Communication and an adjunct instructor in Blue Ridge Community College's English department..

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