Pushing through the perils of teaching online

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I knew the student evaluations from my spring online class would be harsh, but that harshness exceeded anything I had imagined.

The class was disorganized, students said again and again.

The professor was distant and uninvolved, others growled.

Several students dismissed my attempt to promote peer learning, complained about a lack of feedback, moaned about the added cost of an online class, snarled about my ability as a teacher. One even suggested that I was unfit to teach.

This was unfamiliar territory. In my march toward tenure, I had consistently received stellar teaching evaluations. I throw myself into classes and experiment with new material, techniques and technologies. I work at learning the strengths and weaknesses of my students, always making time for them and learning about their aspirations. That has paid off, not only with tenure but with an award as the college journalism and mass communication teacher of the year.

I bring that up to offer perspective, not to boast. On the one hand, I was being told I was among the best of the best teachers. On the other hand, many students told me I was a failure online.

So where did I go wrong?

As I’ve replayed the semester, I think I’ve figured it out, and the lessons I’ve learned seem worth sharing, especially as a new semester nears. As online and hybrid classes grow in popularity, more and more teachers are being asked to transfer class material to a digital format. That is easier for some, perhaps impossible for others. As Jason has written in his series on teaching online for the first time, an online course comes with its share of surprises, frustrations, and unexpected roadblocks. (None of that ever happens with classroom teaching, right?) In this post, I take a longer view, reflecting on some of the mistakes I made in my first venture online.

Don’t let the technology get in the way

This was perhaps my greatest failing. My class focused on technology and communication, and I wanted students to work hands-on with tools they would use in their jobs and their lives. Blackboard, our learning management system, doesn’t provide that. So I created a WordPress site, found a discussion plug-in I thought would work, and started building. Once the semester began, I immediately started getting technical questions. Log-ins didn’t work for the site, for the discussion plug-in, or for the VoiceThread account I had created. Many students didn’t have webcams or didn’t know how to use them. They didn’t know how to create posts within WordPress, to load photos or video, to create links. Discussion posts began disappearing. Then the entire site went down. The WordPress site was hosted on university servers, and the tech staff could handle that. I was on my own with the rest, though. And I was doomed. My intentions were good, but next time I’ll scale back my ambitions. I’ll use Blackboard to handle the routine posts and the discussion threads, pushing students to WordPress to create assignments.

Think differently

I started the online class with what I thought was a good plan: re-create online what I had done in a recent seminar. It didn’t work. In the classroom, I adapt to the circumstances, take discussions in unexpected directions depending on what students are curious about or what questions they raise. I found that hard in asynchronous discussion groups, especially because I was spending so much time trying to make the technology work. Students said the class fell into a rut of read and post, read and post. They were right. I was thinking too conventionally. I needed more variety, especially some assignments with built-in feedback and interactive elements.

Prepare as much as you can before the semester starts

That may seem obvious, but an online class can be difficult to catch up on if you fall behind. I started strong (I thought), having set up the WordPress site, recorded video presentations for the first two weeks, polled students before class about their knowledge and expectations, and assembled readings for every week of the semester. I even created a class hashtag for Twitter. It wasn’t enough. My plan for creating weekly videos quickly fell to the wayside as my inbox swelled with student questions, as I revamped the site to make it easier to use, as I created technology tutorials for students, and as I searched for a calendar plug-in that would work effectively. Students wanted immediate feedback, and I struggled to provide it because I was bogged down in technical problems. I hadn’t had time to finish rubrics, which I finally sent out a few weeks into the semester. I was overwhelmed. The harder I worked at trying to catch up, the more I seemed to fall behind. My students were right: I was disorganized.

Temper your ambition

In my online class, I wanted my students to do a little bit of everything. They posted about interesting apps and websites they had found. They introduced themselves using VoiceThread. They discussed readings and videos, created web projects, tweeted, and led discussions. I divided the 24 students into three discussion groups, and required that each student post at least twice in each thread. I chided them when they simply posted material rather than engaging in a discussion. Most students began doing that, creating even more posts for me to read. The volume inundated me. My colleague Diana Marrs offered excellent advice for next time: Instead of trying to weigh in on every discussion, have students in each group reach collective answers that they bring to the entire class. Then weigh in on those. That’s great advice that I’ll follow the next time I teach online.

Establish limits

My students were generally online at night. So that, of course, was when discussion posts disappeared, when site problems flared, when questions of all sorts generally came. I’d work on material for the class during the day and spend most of my evenings answering questions and troubleshooting problems. I quickly grew exhausted. Like many teachers, I’m a perfectionist, and that perfectionism plagued me. Next time, I’ll set better limits for myself. Trying to work day and night on a class simply doesn’t work.

Don’t give up

The movement toward online and hybrid education is strong and unrelenting. It seems destined to change the face of higher education. That means instructors must be willing to adapt, experiment and innovate. They also must be prepared to take their knocks online without abandoning the format in frustration. In an excellent article in The Journal, Richard Rose writes that online teaching “requires a much higher level of emotional security and confidence in one’s own professional competence.” That’s because students generally think of online classes along the same lines they do an appliance, with their instructors becoming more like refrigerators than humans. He says collaboration is often harder online, cheating is easier, hours are longer, and students harder to read.

He’s exactly right. We all have classes or even entire semesters when it seems we’ve lost our touch. Too often, I hear of instructors giving up on online classes, though. Don’t. Take your hits, learn, and move forward. When you move online for the first time, you’re as much student as teacher, even when you think you have things figured out.

What advice would you offer for someone teaching online for the first time?

Doug Ward, is an associate professor of journalism and the Budig Professor of Writing at the University of Kansas. You can find him online at www.kuediting.com and www.journalismtech.com

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