Lessons of a Summer Teaching Online

Amy Overman found rewards, but not those she expected, in her first experience offering a class through distance education.

November 6, 2008

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 is assistant professor of psychology at Elon University.

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