Joseph Zeppetello, Marist College
In 2001, I went “accidentally online,” that is fully online from never even using an online platform. This came from various pressures. At that time, I was interested in earning extra income and the institution wanted people to use their new online platform. Thus, I agreed to develop an online College Writing II course for adult students. After a three-hour training session on the platform, I spent a few weeks planning my course and setting up the platform. I then spent hours online making the thing work the way I wanted, and in getting the students to use it the way I had intended.
Some of the students online in my first classes had little or no computer experience, some had computers that were not compatible with our platform (Apple computers working on an IBM platform), and some were so much more savvy and were so comfortable online, that they shut out the rest of the class. (The savvy students even figured out ways to text each other while having a conversation in the chat room with the rest of the class). I had to learn on the fly. After a few years, and some confidence, I gave a presentation at the Conference on College Composition and Communication in 2005 with the linguistic coordinator who had developed and taught our Introduction to College Writing online. We presented on the various problems with online platforms, and what we found that we needed to watch out for, which will be mentioned later in this essay. Since then, our students are more computer literate, and many of the problems we experienced even five years ago are not that much of an issue. As a faculty administrator, and because of the difficulty I encountered in setting up my first class online, I suggest that any teacher who wants to develop an online class first teach a hybrid class using our current online platform, iLearn, which is produced by Sakai.
The first thing I ask a teacher who has expressed an interest in teaching online is whether he or she has ever used iLearn. Regardless of the answer, I encourage anyone interested in online instruction to sign up for a training session, and then to try using the platform in some form of hybrid or blended manner. Our new platform has, at least, fixed one of the above problems; it is compatible with PC and Apple platforms. At my school, all courses are assigned an iLearn space. Professors can elect to activate the space or not. The simplest form of hybridity is to have the assignments and syllabi for a stationary course put online, and to post all assignments online; sometimes this is called “blended” (Hewett 1). This approach helps eliminate the problem of students forgetting the assignment, or misplacing the syllabus. Our teachers are strongly encouraged have an online platform corresponding to each of their stationary courses.
For workshop courses, my students and I use the platform to email each other the required written assignments. Students can then download and print the material for class. I also open up a forum for each member of the class, so that if anyone wants to comment further, they can log on to iLearn, and post comments on their fellow writer’s forum. I also open up a wiki where we can keep conversations going that were begun in class. Occasionally, if there is enough interest, I will open a forum to continue a conversation started in the classroom. On more than one occasion, I have used the platform to conduct class because I was unavailable on campus due to weather, or because I had to be out of town.
The next form of hybrid class is one that is planned to be taught from the start both in online and in stationary form. Some schools will offer several of these, often through adult and continuing education, and they are a nice way to make good use of scarce classroom space, or to target a specific population. Classes will meet one week in a classroom and the next week online; this schedule can vary depending on the program, the school, and the student population served. Other forms of hybrid courses involve meeting half the year in a classroom and the other half online, or having a two-week rotation cycle. In any case, a hybrid model works alternately with face-to-face and online meetings; some have only two or three face-to-face meetings the whole semester. These courses have been shown to build a sense of community that is sometimes lacking in a fully online environment. I also feel that they can be a good stepping-off place for any teacher who wants to teach fully online classes. However, hybrid courses are not for everyone, and many of our online classes target specific communities of students who will not ever be able to make any meetings in a hybrid class, some are in another state, some are overseas, and some are in the service having begun in ROTC on campus, so the classes must be taught fully online.
The Move to Online
Once a teacher has taught at least the basic hybrid or blended class, i.e. an online supplement to a stationary class, then the move to a fully online course seems to be smoother and simpler for the teacher involved. Although my evidence is anecdotal, I have found that online classes can often have a much lower student evaluation rate than stationary courses, and can have a large standard of deviation. Either the students like the online platform and “get it” or they do not at all. By at least using the online platform to augment a stationary class, a teacher will already know the problems of technology, and will already be familiar with the challenges of building an online community. Another fundamental issue in teaching online is the issue of authority in an online class. The more one familiarizes oneself with the online community, the more this issue comes to light. As Palloff and Poratt point out, the traditional power role of the teacher is quite different in an online environment, and in some cases much of the teacher’s power is relinquished (117-18). I’ve found in many cases where a chat room will no longer be under my “control;” students will take the initiative and redirect the conversation. Some will make bold statements, or think out loud while working through complex ideas from the texts while in a synchronous chat room. Hewitt points out that it’s sometimes best to move in what she calls “mini-lessons” and “next steps” especially when it comes to online conferencing for essays (97). This has held true to my experience too, as I found that slowly and carefully showing students what I expect of a chat room session, or in helping with a paper, works better than being as prescriptive as I might be in a face-to-face classroom or conferencing situation. For example, there is no body language that can be used online to modify or underscore an instruction. Similarly, in an online writing conference a student will start thinking out loud and suddenly not be paying a lot of attention to instructor input. While this can be disconcerting, the instructor needs to develop the skills to subtly guide the student back on topic, and use the musings and digressions as teaching moments.
In general, I have found that the following list is helpful for anyone who is in the process of developing, or who is already teaching an online class:
- Preparation: Be sure to prepare the course so it is as transparent as possible. Adult learners especially might not be accomplished computer users.
- If possible, meet by telephone conference or by other means to establish original contact. Telephone conferencing costs about 10 cents per minute per participant.
- Be on time or early for chats or conferences so students will know they are in the “right room.”
- Use an announcement tool to direct students to various areas of the platform, or to remind them of deadlines or reading assignments.
- Learn to use word processing tools to help in electronic grading and commenting (the “track changes” tool is helpful, as is the “comments” tool).
- Establish clear protocols for uploading and downloading assignment, even to the extent of what form the paper must be in (Word) and how the file name must be designated. (yourlastnameassign1.docx)
- Give extra time for online conferences. Some students do not type very quickly.
- Keep track of students who are not contributing to the online conversation. If the platform allows, email them private messages to make sure they are not having technical problems.
- Allow for synchronous and asynchronous postings on the same readings or topic.
- Require students to attend at least one synchronous chat a week in order to develop a sense of community and to get students in the habit of logging on.
- Put hyperlinks in your syllabus and in your email correspondence. Remember, they will be online when they read your communication.
- Establish clear communication protocols. Which email box should students send material to? What time(s) are you available for questions? If they have an emergency, how do they contact you? If you have an emergency, how will you contact them?
- Start slowly. Do not try to use every “bell and whistle” in you very first course.
- Let the students guide the class if they want to. They will sometimes act as if you are not there, which is not a bad thing. It takes some getting used to. Who knows? They might teach you something.
I hope that I have made clear that the transition to online teaching is not simply taking the class one has taught for years and putting it in an online platform, there are many macro and micro adjustments that need to be made in order to successfully teach online.
Hewett, B. L. (2010). The Online Writing Conference: a Guide for Teachers and Tutors. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, Boynton/Cook.
Palloff, R. & Pratt, K. (2001). Lessons from the Cyberspace Classroom: The realities of Online Teaching. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.