Saturday, September 7, 2013

Learning to Teach Online

by Linda Stine

Shortly before this semester began, I woke up from a typical anxiety dream:  it was the first day of class and I could not find my classroom or my students; I was running around frantically, unable to ask anyone for help because I didn’t speak their language.
This time I chuckled a bit, once my heart rate slowed down, knowing that my anxiety was more real than symbolic.  In two days I would be starting my first online class, and  I really wouldn’t be able to “find” my classroom and students since they would be out in cyberspace, in a world where neither I nor my adult students were really comfortable with the language. (How do I explain the importance of regularly attending class, for instance, when there is no physical class to “attend”?)
As a writing teacher, I know that online courses can be successful, if only because most interactions – student/student, student/teacher, student/course content – will have to be conducted in writing, and I’m a firm believer in the adage that the more the students write the better they will write. So it’s a great adventure, for sure, and one I am eager to experience.  I suspect, though, that my sleep will be troubled frequently this semester as my conscious worries spill over into my unconscious.
Below are just a few of the teaching/learning worries that have been keeping me up at night. 
  • What can I do in my online course to set the tone of support and encouragement that a physical presence, a listening ear, and a smile can create on a first day of face-to-face class?
  •  What have I left off my syllabus or my assignment directions that students will need to know and that I normally would just explain orally?
  • And speaking of my syllabus, it’s already 11 pages long!  I know that online syllabi have to be more comprehensive than in-class syllabi, but will the students actually read it? Will it feel too overwhelming?  Have I broken it into clear headings to help them see the sections?  Do I need to keep referring to it in emails to remind them that it’s there?  Should I have started with a graded “test” that required them to go through the syllabus and answer questions?
  • What happens when technology problems (mine, theirs) occur?  Will the students have the necessary self efficacy to persevere?  What can I do to prepare them for the inevitable problems, beyond telling them to have back-up plans?
  • While I tried to include links to videos among the homework “reading” assignments, the course is primarily print based.  Is that going to be a problem for students who learn better by hearing and seeing images?  Should I have posted each module’s “lecture” as a video rather than a written summary?  Or at least as an audio file? Does the medium matter as long as the content is clear?
  • What questions haven’t I even thought of yet that should be added to my worry list?
For those of you who have taught online or been a student online, I’d be grateful for advice about what made online learning successful for you.  For those of you who are contemplating the leap, what kinds of issues are you most concerned about?  


  1. Linda, thanks for sharing your fears! Sometimes it's best to just jump in and trust that it is going to work out - or that you can fix it if it doesn't work out. I find our students to be very forgiving! I recently spoke to an online professor who told me that he feels like he has to add little assessments to go with every single online post to ensure that the students actually read/listen/view the material. I think that would be the most difficult thing for me - to make sure that I engaged the students online. The connection is so tangible in the classroom. But then again, writing is very different from biology! Do you feel connected to your students through the stories that you share with each other? --Anna Hull

    1. Anna,
      Thank you--I needed to hear that "or that you can fix it" part.

      Having spent a lot of yesterday painstakingly commenting on my students' first discussion posting just like your friend who teaches online, I am, like him, a little worried about time use. I've told myself, though, that it was important to establish a real conversation and the norms this first time around; hopefully soon they will be talking more with each other.

      As for whether I feel connected, it's interesting. I probably know more about my students at this point than I would know had I had them in a traditional classroom for one week, but I don't feel that I know "them" as well as I would my f2f students. So I guess there are trade-offs.

  2. Dr. Stine, I agree with you about the detail needed for online classes that lengthen your course syllabi. I also agree that you can refer students to it again and again but you can also reprint parts of it from time to time in other spaces/places. For example, on the syllabus you might provide directions associated with an assignment and all of the other necessary details. Students may gross over in that context but then you can take just that section associated with the assignment and post it in relation to the assignment. When I have a research paper I post all of the following sections some of which are on the course syllabi and some of which help students in completing the assignment: Assignment Directions, How to Pick a Topic, Research Steps, A Sample Paper, Grading Rubric, Additional Paper Tips. You can do this for as many assignments that you might have for the class. Just a suggestion and much success to you and your students.

    1. Yes, good point! And as I think about it, building that kind of redundancy into an online course is probably even easier than with F2f courses, since we can put links throughout the course to the different sections. That's a really good thing to remember when the course is being built (as Anna says, I can fix it next time!) For this time, I have already planned to write weekly email summaries/forecasts of past week achievements and coming week assignments, so I'm going to take your advice and build some links to the different relevant parts right into the email where they will stand out clearly. Thank you!

  3. Anna sounds like an optimist. I hope she is right.
    My main concerns relate to cheating and increased workload, particularly if Anna's online professor "friend" is right "that he feels like he has to add little assessments to go with every single online post to ensure that the students actually read/listen/view the material." The technology and company being used to deliver the course may add to the instructor's workload, particularly if neither is very user-friendly; and students, in my experience, often use the internet or online technology as an instrument of cheating or, at least, try to explore its cheating capabilities or opportunities.

    Consider this an experiment, and you and your students "guinea pigs;" and provide us with a comparative study of online and offline (face-to-face) classes when you complete your current online teaching or class. Good luck! May the force, teaching or non-teaching, be with you! --Safro Kwame

    1. Kwame:

      I have indeed told my students that they were guinea pigs, and one mentioned in a posting this morning that they were such a good group they were setting the bar high for future students. I hope the optimism keeps up!

      I'm not sure that online students necessarily have any more access to cheating than in-class ones. Actually, given the fact that much of what students would normally speak in class discussions will be written on discussion forums online, I'll have a chance to know their actual writing style before they turn in papers which may make it easier to detect plagiarism.

      Of course the issue of identity --who is the person signed up and submitting work-- is a potential problem with online programs. Right now, since the same students in the online class are also in a face-to-face class on Saturday, that's not too much of an issue but I can see that it could be with a totally online program. Any ideas?

  4. You raise many interesting questions that I would love to discuss, and I can't wait to see how your class evolves over the semester. The question I want to address is "does the medium matter?". Your trepidation of teaching online versus f2f indicates that the medium does matter. The world is moving toward a more digital interface faster than Chip Kelly’s offense moves down a football field. (I couldn’t help myself; I am still excited after the Monday Night Football game last night). Although many of us use digital technology more than we ever have, online courses are not only relatively new to us as educators, but also to many of our students. This digital world also uses images and audio to communicate in expansive ways. Every online course has specific subject content to contemplate, but I think it is important that both students and educators learn to use the digital technology, both as receiver and sender of those messages. Despite an individual’s “preferred learning style,” there is value to learning how to “read” a visual text as well as produce a visual text to convey a message. Of course, there is a learning curve for everyone involved, but that is why we have a Center for Teaching and Learning ( ;-)

    1. Glad to hear that the Eagles were able to make you happy at least once this season, Bill!

      You make an important point when you say that "both students and educators [must]learn to use the digital technology, both as receiver and sender of those messages." As writing teachers we both know how the definition of "writing" has changed with the arrival of multimedia communication tools, and how much, therefore, our teaching of the principles of good writing has expanded and changed. It is definitely a steep learning curve for those of us more chronologically challenged.

      A big concern for me on the teaching side is not being able to anticipate where my students might need extra clarification. I guess that's something that will come as I work through the cycle once or twice and start developing FAQs.

      One of the things your post helped me realize is that, at least, the struggle students go through will have positive results beyond just what they learn in this course, because simply by virtue of being a distance education student they are expanding their learning style options and their communication skills.

      Now if Vick can just avoid getting injured... --Linda

  5. Dr. Stine,
    Here are a couple of things I have learned from my online classes:
    --in the discussion questions, if possible, phrase the question so that it requests the student to share from the online resources and share something from personal experience that relates to the question. Then, you get to know a little about the student
    --Also, my classes require each student to comment on at least two other students' posts. i.e., By Day 7
    Read a selection of your colleagues' postings. As you read their responses, note those to which you would like to respond with questions, comments, and/or support.

    Respond to at least two of your colleagues’ postings in any of the following ways:

    Build on something your colleague said.
    Explain why and how you see things differently.
    Share an insight from having read your colleague's posting.
    Offer and support an opinion.
    Validate an idea with your own experience.
    Expand on your colleague's posting.
    Ask for evidence that supports the posting.

    Grading is based on your participation and posts. You do not need to respond to every post unless you feel the need to do so. Feedback can be given when the post is graded.

    1. Brenda,

      Brenda, thank you! I have copied your list of how people might respond to postings and am planning to plagiarize it shamelessly. I do have the forums set up with an initial response to the question and then in the latter half of the week two responses to classmates, but I hadn't thought to include suggestions for how to respond. That's going to help a great deal.

      As for responding myself (and all the time it is taking), I think as the course goes on I can respond less and less, but in the beginning I wanted to make sure that students know I am out there reading their posts and also to model some useful ways of responding.

      In your online classes, do you like "discussing" things in writing via discussion postings as well as you would like doing the same thing in an oral class discussion? Most of my students--counselors, supervisors, case managers, etc.-- feel at home talking but less comfortable getting those ideas out in writing, I suspect, at least initially. I'm hoping that practice will bring more of a sense of mastery and comfort. --Linda

  6. Linda,
    I'm paying enough for the class, so I think we should be allowed to plagiarize! I guess I should have referenced it. I agree with you about your responding to your students. In my opinion, it brings validity to the class. However, I know time is a precious commodity! As for my class discussions, I enjoy hiding behind the computer! (I know I'm weird!) I am a much better writer than I am a talker. The good thing about writing the discussion is you can go back and review (review before you post and review others' work whenever). Encourage your students to type their discussions in Word first, then copy and paste to the discussion board. As digital immigrants, your students are accustomed to talking rather than typing on the computer. Rewiring their brains will take time and practice! I wish that LU would invest in Grammarly. It helps me immensely.

    1. Brenda, you make the same point that Bill did about changing learning styles, rewiring brains. (Mine, I fear, may be permanently shorted out...) I think that's something very important to keep in mind, both for teachers and students. Comfort in the online environment may not be immediate, it may not be easy, but it can indeed have far-reaching benefits.

      As for Grammarly, I don't know about it. Consider this your official invitation to blog about it later in the semester! --Linda