In making the transition from a solely face-to-face teacher to an online educator, I’ve had to uncover and address some of my own biases toward what “online education” looks like… and I’ve realized that they are many. I keep thinking about the job of faculty here at UAF, ranging from the adjuncts to the tenured professors, and I’m always trying to negotiate between what I now know as an Instructional Designer and what I know from my experience teaching a full face-to-face load for many years without the persistent use of technology in the classroom.
It would take quite a while to deal with ALL the fears that faculty possess surrounding this topic, but here are a few of the specific concerns that I had when I first began teaching online.
Lack of Student (and Professor) Engagement: Engagement is a continuous variable in any classroom… if a professor doesn’t ask questions that evoke a response from the student or if the student isn’t asked to engage with the content beyond passive consumption and privately completed assignments, then the transactional distance is as large in face-to-face classrooms as in online classrooms. Current technology is able to compensate for spatial distance by providing a virtual environment (the course website) in which avatars for the students and the teacher can interact in real-time, and not simply interact with one another, but interact with the entire world of the internet. More importantly, engagement must be built into the course design. If you want engagement, even face-to-face engagement, there are multiple ways to do this.
Academic Intergrity: The question isn’t “does the online classroom possess academic integrity”, the question is, “are you willing to design the course in such a way that the student is held accountable for his or her work?” It’s important to draw a distinction between problems that are administrative in nature, those that result from the limitations of the media, and problems that are the result of poor course design. There are a number of ways to encourage honesty, respect, and fairness among a cohort of online students. By using good design principles, one can create a classroom that is intellectually challenging, engaging, and populated with real people who are accountable for their actions.
1. Cheating: It’s too easy for students to cheat on exams and there is no way to know who is doing the work.
If there are to be exams, there must be a proxy. Otherwise, students are no more in danger of cheating for an online class than they are in a face to face.
In discussion forum settings or in blogging areas, questions have to be crafted carefully to allow for multiple opinions and perspectives. If we ask questions that only have one right answer, clearly we’re setting students up to simply use the answer of the student who writes first.
2. Deadlines and Quality Feedback: Students don’t have deadlines and will wait until the end of the semester to do all of the work. That’s too much of a headache. *Students need high quality, individually tailored, immediate feedback.
Instructors can be as hard-nosed or as flexible as they wish. Deadlines should be tied to the content of the course. If a research paper topic must be approved by the instructor, then a deadline is appropriate for such an assignment. Learning to stick to those deadlines is something I could stand to improve upon and is, in my opinion, the most difficult part of online teaching.
3. Being in the Classroom: I like the performance aspect of teaching and the improvisational nature of lecturing. I enjoy the relationship that emerges between myself and the students. Won’t those things disappear in the online environment?
The real answer to that question is… it can. But does it have to? To solve that problem I needed to uncover the source of the fear. Why did I believe these things and why was I afraid of them?
Identity: We like having (and interacting with) personalities, both students and teachers. Just because we’re online doesn’t mean we have to become nameless, faceless, entities. As a matter of fact, your students will be much more comfortable if they feel a real person with an actual personality is teaching the course and much more invested in a course with real peers with whom they are interacting.
Give yourself and your students a place to construct an identity (digital footprints and avatars) and allow them to interact with one another and with you. Group projects, discussion boards, etc.
Relationships: Human relationships are a big part of the face-to-face classroom. Good online courses should make those relationships possible by offering multiple means of interaction. Again discussion boards, required conferencing that takes place in person (many of your students live right here in town or very close), via phone, Skype, iChat, and so forth. Teachers should have office hours as distance educators, not just as face-to-face educators.
The misconceptions surrounding online education are legion, but like all emerging social constructs, the maturation and evolution of the field is subject largely to those who are most deeply entrenched in its birth: if online education is to grow up to be the supercool adult I want it to be, then it’s my responsibility to make sure that I help guide and shape the ethics and values of its future.