My Thoughts on Online Teaching

So, my department is preparing for summer teaching in the next couple of weeks. For many it is the first time they have taught online (all of our summer courses are online). When I was first trying to figure out online teaching I was talking to everyone I could about it because I found it very intimidating, especially since I had never even taken an online course. I also recently had a conversation in which I was asked to explain what I meant by the fact that online teaching is a “different ballgame” than teaching in class. With these two things in mind, I thought I would write out some of my thoughts on what has worked and has not worked in my four semesters of online teaching. It plays on my mind a lot and I do write about it within some of my other posts, but I wanted to get some of my thoughts in one place. Almost like a 4-semester reflection for myself on what I have learned and still potentially want to change.

Some of how I approach online teaching is influenced by my teaching philosophy, especially in the part that I want students to be self-motivated learners and spend time on areas that excite them the most. At times that is easier than others. I also want them to be somewhat self-sufficient in my class. Something that I have discovered with online classes is that you have to repeat yourself in many different ways and in as many locations on the site as possible. I try and put everything in the same location and label it as clearly as possible (for example: Week 1/ Chapter 1) yet students will still miss the information. One thing I would really like to figure out how to do is to imbed links to the specific folder where information can be found within my syllabus. I may even do that within my introduction PowerPoint. Many students seem to take online classes because of the flexibility of time with them and I try to honor that (in addition to the fact that it also fits within my self-motivated learner philosophy) by having all work open for them 2-3 weeks prior to the due date. I do still use due dates as I want to be sure they turn things in so that I can provide feedback before the next bit is due, though I have contemplated doing away with them completely.

In a similar domain to repeating instructions and information in multiple places and multiple ways, this semester I decided along with my introduction announcement I would include tips and tricks to doing well in my course. It included items such as the fact that my tests are considered hard (I always get this feedback and no matter how hard I try to ease up a bit seem to do—just one of my quirks), to read instructions carefully, and read any feedback provided. I am really glad I did this as it re-iterated certain expectations while still making me approachable as someone who cares and wants them to do well. And in fact, I have seen an improvement in quiz grades (my guess is that they took my advice and studied prior to them rather than relying on the open-book format) and overall work in addition to really good e-mail relationships with students.

In some ways having the anonymity of an online class can be good for students, but there are still ways for them to be seen, heard, and to build a community. I use forums a lot. I sort of fell into using them by accident, but love them for the students. I have them complete a forum every week (multiple in a week for summer or winter courses) within their assigned groups. I aim for 10 students in each group and divide them alphabetically. This backfired on me this semester due to add/drop and have a group of 5 and another group of 16, but I want them to get to know a small group of their classmates rather than all ~80. It has been wonderful to read the posts and watch them grow in their thinking by having to type out what they think or how they understand a concept and explain it to their peers. There are often great discussions through this format. Depending on the prompts, some forums are better than others and get them fired up in different ways. These really do help to build a community, even when we do not meet within a physical space. I have seen people build friendships and support each other through job interviews, sports events, etc. That part has definitely been gratifying but I really cannot take credit for that.

What I like about the anonymity is that it allows students to process controversial topics without the eyes of ~80 of their peers watching. They can read, think about, and form thoughts and opinions before reacting. That is where I often see some great growth. When I read one of their privately turned in assignments and provide feedback and then in their next assignment (or a few assignments later) see how their thoughts have grown or changed. That has been amazing to see at times. It was something that I didn’t necessary feel as though I saw or at least saw so intimately when I was teaching a seat-based course.

If you had asked me a year ago if I would like teaching online, I would have told you no, especially coming from a residential all seat based undergrad experience myself. However, I am truly seeing the benefits of it and love it. Not only do I see the strengths of it (of course there are weaknesses/limitations too, especially in what you are able to do) but I also see how much it has taught me about my own pedagogical beliefs and practices. I feel like for someone like me who is fairly quiet and naturally shy, it has helped me grow and gain confidence as an instructor, so when I do go into the classrooms, even for guest lectures, I have a better handle on what I am doing, how I am teaching, and why.

2 Responses to My Thoughts on Online Teaching

  • lbalis says:

    Thanks for your reflections on teaching online! I am currently taking an Online Education Systems course (for the PFP certificate), so I’ve also been thinking about good pedagogical approaches to teaching online. I like your idea of splitting up the students into smaller groups for forum posts. It seems like this would build a better sense of community, and I know lack of community is a drawback for some (probably more social) students who take classes online. I could also see the anonymity being helpful, especially for large classes. I TA for a class of 160 undergrads, and it’s very hard to get them to talk in class (which is another issue…), so having to write out their thoughts for online posts / assignments can be a good replacement.

  • Mr. TFI says:

    This post is so relevant for me right now. I’ve been dreading teaching an online course this summer because I don’t feel like it allows me any access to my teaching self. However, I like the way you framed anonymity. Family is an inherently political topic, so it might be really great to have students dip their toes into controversial discussions related to the topic, particularly as their values are challenged. It’s a nice way to get a feel for academic discussions rather than emotionally-driven discussions without having to track vulnerability and judgment during the process.

    Reading your post made me feel a bit better, so thank you!

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