Online and Off Kilter: Navigating the Online Classroom

istock-18586699-monkey-computerIn my composition class this semester, we’ve been talking a lot about education: teaching methods, evaluation, structure, etc. There’s a new documentary out called Ivory Tower, and, though I haven’t seen it yet, we read a few articles about it in class, like “The Hi-Tech Mess of Higher Education,” which links panic over the value of education to increasing emphasis on technology. It’s not new or surprising to say that online education is on the rise. More instructors are offering online classes, and more students are electing to take them. Not only will they allow you to pursue your education from anywhere with an internet connection, but many of them will allow you to have a flexible schedule as well. Personally, I will probably always prefer the traditional classroom setting (and my current students told me they would, too), but there are undeniable benefits to an online course, alongside many challenges for those of used to the face-to-face interaction with students and/or teachers.
This is a very basic self-assessment of my first experience teaching an online course, a literature class on ghosts and technology that ran this past summer, called “The Ghost in the Machine.” I was ecstatic to write this syllabus, and I’m still quite proud of it. But, if there’s one piece of advice I’d give any instructor getting ready to teach an online course for the first time, it’s this: be prepared to adjust and readjust your expectations for the first week or so, or even longer. This means, be patient with yourself and with your students. Chances are, you’re both figuring out what this course is going to look like, and you have to do it together. You might find yourself dropping things from the syllabus that would be a piece of cake in a traditional classroom, but you may also find yourself adding things as you discover different ways to achieve the same results. Below are three areas where I found I had to do the most experimentation. Like any good experiment, some things were a great success, while others just made a mess.

This is how I imagine the online space between the teacher and students. --H.R. Giger
This is how I imagine the online space between the teacher and students. –H.R. Giger

This is difficult to plan without knowing more about your students. In the traditional classroom for undergrads at a four-year college, most students live on or near campus and will (theoretically) be able to attend most classes because it’s part of their main schedule. This is not true for the online classroom. Many of these students, especially if the class is during the summer, have very different schedules. Some may not even be in the same time zone as the instructor. I tried to make our schedule flexible, while still adhering to time restraints, by creating three two-day blocks per week. Every day, they should be checking our Course Site page in order to keep up with discussion, but the blocks gave students with jobs and internships two days within which to complete the main assignment. For some students, this worked great, and they often wrote more than was required and submitted it before the deadlines. Others still struggled to keep up, making me wonder if smaller, more frequent deadlines might have been worth experimenting with, as well. Getting to know your students a little beforehand would be the best way to create a schedule that helps them. This isn’t always possible, but even requesting a quick intro email can give you a sense of what’s going on in your students’ lives to plan what would help them most.
Moving the classroom into the digital space suddenly opens up so many doors that it can be overwhelming. For the most part, I tried to use the online resources I knew would work, things that I always wanted to bring into the classroom but couldn’t, like images, short video clips, and blogging. The first half of my course was very literature heavy, but the second half moved more into technology, and the daily assignments often involved watching a video or looking at images in order to engage with the technologies we were discussing. I also tried a limited number of new resources to help me present information that I would normally provide in a lecture. Our university just invested in a program called Panopto Recorder, which allows both instructors and students to make video and audio recordings. Worried about making my classroom feel more like a community, I liked the personal touch that this added. I did two video lectures, one power point lecture, and several audio lectures (with word documents also provided). If I were to do this again, I would get the students more involved in the process, allowing them options to present their reading responses via video, rather than writing forum posts. It might also be an interesting option for final projects, once the students feel comfortable with it. The other new resource I tried was called Grademark, a program available through Turnitin that allows you to comment on a paper, both within the text itself and at the end. What I liked about this was that it also allowed you three minutes of audio recording. Again, that personal element was really important to me. I wanted my students to know there was a person on the other side, reading their work.
A huge challenge for me was achieving frequent and seamless communication. I’m not sure I achieved it, but it seemed to improve gradually over the course of the class. As grad students and instructors, we all check our email a billion times a day. Our students do not. It took a while for them to realize that they needed to check more frequently, and I tried to encourage this by giving them times when I would be contacting them, or at least a heads-up that I would be contacting them. I had to teach them to expect communication from me by also referring to our correspondence on the more centrally located Course Site page and in forum posts. Once per two-day block, students posted answers to discussion questions I posted, and they also had to respond to one of their fellow students’ posts from the previous block. So, they produced new material and responded to old material several times per week, and I often responded to each new post as well. Yet, this never turned into a back-and-forth conversation, despite my encouragement. The communication I missed the most, however, was the spontaneity of classroom discussion, not just the easy back-and-forth, but also the unspoken ways that teachers know how to read students by their expressions, attitudes, and questions. When I sent lectures out into the void, it was difficult to know how they were being received (if they were being received at all). Did I simply confuse my students further, or did what I say make sense to them? Were my examples relatable, or not? Romantic and Victorian texts can be strange and foreign to students and often rely on candid questions during discussion to lead the class to a place where it’s comfortable with them. I’m the kind of teacher who, when explaining something new or challenging, constantly asks her students, “Does this make sense?” This was not an easy question to ask across the void of the internet.
In sum, teaching an online class is extremely challenging: it requires a lot more reading and writing on the parts of both the instructor and the students, and it requires more self-directed engagement from the students than I was used to. However, I also found that it forced me to confront the things I take for granted in my regular classroom.
I’d be very interested to hear how others have tackled online classes and their different challenges!

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