Monthly Archives: April 2015

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.

Connection with Instructors

As I mentioned in the previous blog, on Wednesday I went to the Classroom Inclusion panel. Two different students asked questions of the panel about having more of a community with faculty, getting more support from them, and having more of a connection with their instructors and peers. The answer these students got bothered me, even though I had to agree. The response faculty said was that in some ways they would never get that because faculty at places like Virginia Tech and University of Georgia (where Dr. Bettina Love is on faculty) put more emphasis on research, so to be able to keep their jobs they have to close their door to students frequently.

This is true. If your appointment is anything greater than 40% research there probably is not enough time to have a completely open door policy for our students. I am not saying that one way is better than another and in the end it is what is right for students and individual faculty members, but when I heard those students ask those questions, I felt bad for them. These large research oriented universities have great benefits for students, but there are drawbacks as well.

As someone who came from an extremely small undergrad, it has been difficult for me to not have the individual time and open door policy for my own students that I had with my faculty. I think my biggest class in undergrad was 15 with the average between 3 and 6 (and this pedagogy course may be the biggest one I have ever had). I knew the faculty very well, which I still appreciate. I try my best to get to know my students individually (with the added challenge of it being online) and give them individual instruction and feedback. Though, admittedly, I really can keep about 20 students stories and challenges straight in my head out of ~70 and the rest I keep notes about. When I taught face to face, I would recognize student’s faces but often could not remember their names.

As I mentioned in one of my earlier posts, I often feel like our students are just on a conveyer belt that we help them check off boxes. The Gallup survey has shown that making at least one connection with a faculty member helps students succeed after college. Each student may need different things and will connect with different faculty/instructors. I like to think that it may not be our job to connect with all 100+ students we have in our courses each year, but if we can connect with a few, we are doing our job well.

Pedagogical Style

This week our pedagogy course and my department’s teaching seminar were very complementary. On Wednesday I took the option to hear Bettina Love speak followed by the faculty panel and I am really glad I did. Not only was Dr. Love’s lecture amazing and powerful, the panel gave me a lot to think about.

During the panel Dr. Love was saying how she likes to kill her students with kindness. She tries to be open and flexible with her students. However, that is always within her own pedagogical strategies. Dr. Perez from computer science was also on the panel and he made a comment about doing something similar with deadlines for his students, where they can turn something in until he is done grading them. He also said that deadlines are not make or break for jobs. For them and their pedagogical styles and philosophies are open and flexible.

Those comments and thoughts made me think as it always does when people ask me why I am so strict on deadlines and following instructions with my students. Something I feel is important in every course I teach no matter what the content is to help students develop skills that will last them a lifetime no matter what discipline they are in or what career trajectory they have. Two skills that are important for applying to a job, working at a job, and simple life skill is how to read instructions, which often include deadlines. I have seen people have trouble obtaining work because these skills had not been developed, even with a bachelor’s degree. However, that does not mean that I never budge from deadlines for students. I am aware that life happens (believe me I went through my fair share of life in undergrad). I prefer to be upfront about the fact that I am strict about deadlines and work with students one on one as things come up. It is easier for me to be hard at the beginning and lighten up as the semester happens when need be.

Thursday morning my department has our teaching seminar, which this week was a big group session of all the current graduate instructors. This week we were discussing student feedback in the form of SPOTs and informal evaluations. This was in part to prepare the new instructors with what to expect and tricks those of us who had received them before had used when trying to process them. One discussion that we had was what to do with the feedback we receive. And in many ways that is a tough one, especially for those of us who are people pleasers. As we were talking I came back to Wednesday night’s panel and how in the end it is about what fits with us and our style and philosophy. Of course we should take note of student’s feedback rather than ignore it because we are the “experts”. But as has been pointed out time and time again, we can’t please everyone and each student has a different view of what we do. In the end I feel like we should be proud of the way we taught the course and that it fits with us and our end goals, with the students still in mind.