The rewards of online teaching – and its costs

I just got the teaching evaluations from my university’s Registrar’s office for a class I taught in summer sessions. The course was a three-week summer session version of a 10-week term, and I can say without any doubt (and with some pride) that it was an overwhelming success.  The numerical evaluations were very high, and the average final grade was a B, with a fairly normal distribution. I am always gratified when teaching evaluations are positive, but this was not just any class – this was the first class I taught entirely online.

We (the online course team included a TA and an instructional designer) also had students fill out an anonymous exit-survey. The results from that one also hinted at great satisfaction with the course material and the course experience. Many commented, and later echoed it in the teaching evaluations, that this was their first online experience, but that if this was what online education was like, they were sold.

I probably spent more time thinking and preparing this online version of my  “Introduction to Latin American History” class than I ever did for any traditional classroom course. The prep took more than 100 hours of work, including another 40+ hours of collaboration with the instructional designer from the University of California Online Education (UCOE) program, who herself spent hours creating the scaffold around which the content of the class would flow.

We tried hard, and I think we succeeded, in integrating a human connection to the recorded parts of the course and to tie it into something personal – namely my living room. We did not make a big deal of it, but when students saw me onscreen, they knew they were not in my office. We also decided to use very simple recording technology – which allowed me to record new segments easily and from anywhere, and add them as the class was running to respond to student requests.  This flexibility strengthened the connection and erased any feeling of virtuality. This was a real class, with an instructor who was present and responsive to questions, even if we were not interacting in real time.

This was a critical part of our success. The content of the course would have quickly eroded without nimble responses to fix technical issues and student questions, and these are twin priorities when working with undergraduates and their varied needs and levels of preparation.

The discussion on online education has focused a lot on MOOCs (massive open online courses), and for good reason. But MOOCs are by definition massive in scope, geared at a very self-motivated student. They may not be the ideal vehicle for massive undergraduate education.

It is inevitable that in the shift to an online environment there will be some glitches, so setting up a method that responded to those glitches quickly was important. We made ourselves available via twitter, Facebook, email and the online course discussion board – and often it took no more than a few exchanges to get a student set up correctly. This responsiveness reinforced for students the sense that they were operating in a structure, and that the structure had a sense and a purpose.

The assignments were also timed carefully to fit in with the material at a pace that was manageable. Students watched video lectures and movie clips, read primary sources and textbook chapters, took timed online quizzes with firm deadlines, participated in online discussion boards, participated in one live online discussion sections per week with 7 of their classmates and the Teaching Assistant (massive shout-out to Google Hangout for making the most flexible and “life-like” visual interaction system available for free) and shared their assignment with the group for further discussion.

The online learning platform was set up for very easy grading and comments, so students got grades soon after they posted their assignment.  Quick feedback loops are essential in creating a sense of belonging to an online community. Without the quick feedback loop, the time-gap between submission and comment runs the risk of becoming a reminder that student are not in a traditional class where they can come up to me after lecture. We were adamant not ot let that become a distraction.

By the end of the course all students had internalized the workings of the system, and they were communicating with us, and each other, almost exclusively using the discussion boards.  This allowed for great interaction and open communication without clogging up email queues. Students also got the hang of Google hangouts very quickly, and had barely any problems with the online quizzes or the assignments.  In short – 3 weeks from novices to experts!

As we prepare to scale-up this class and teach it to 100+ students in the Spring, we have already decided to spend the first week of class training students on the ins and outs of the online learning platform, because there simply is no point in frustrating students from the get-go if what you ultimately want is a productive online learning and working environment.

This realization has made me think that the same probably goes for faculty and administrators, who support or deride online education without necessarily understanding what it is and what it implies. There is great potential in this transformation, which will not only affect how student learn, but also what they learn and who they learn it from. It will also affect how faculty interact with students and with each other – and perhaps lead to more collaboration in teaching and course development than is currently common in the Humanities.

The large-scale implementation of online courses and the rise (or fall) of MOOCs is happening, but too many have staked a position without understanding the variety of its implications. Cathy Davidson’s latest blog post is a very thoughtful assessment of the lay of the land.

I’ll post more about this soon. But in the meantime, and in the personal, I just want to say that the experience of teaching online was so positive and rewarding that I am currently preparing two new proposals for further online classes. But until university administrators understand the enormity of the investment this requires, and the trade-off it represents for faculty in terms of research time (and therefore promotion), I am not sure how many of my colleagues will join me.

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