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Some Lessons I’ve Learned from Teaching Online

On Friday, I posted a short call to arms to share thoughts about some of the most helpful ways to think imaginatively about teaching online. I wanted to reflect upon how the online experience should be seen as a different animal from the in-person one, not attempt to superimpose one over the other, and to see what lessons could be learned from this.

Today I’m going to share a little about what I have learned while teaching my first online course in Spring 2014. You can check out my syllabus and assignments for the course here. The course was called “Introduction to Digital Writing,” and I used the “interteaching” method to structure the course. Interteaching is a set of methods to increase student responsibility for their own learning based in B.F. Skinner’s work in psychology.

The course was structured somewhat syncronously in order to implement these methods. Students were asked to complete answers to a set of analytical questions on the assigned text by 8am every Monday, and to add substantial feedback on their groupmmates’ responses by 8am every Wednesday. They would then use their groupmmates’ comments and any comments from their instructor to revise their original answers, which were then due every Friday at 8am. Monday’s responses were graded on completion, Wednesday’s feedback was graded according to a rubric on how helpful their responses were to their classmates’, Friday’s responses (with the changes highlighted) were graded on content and if revision had taken into account suggested changes from previous work. The second half of the class was a Wikipedia editing assignment (see module 7 onwards on the course page), with the aim of getting students to reflect on the nature of participating in an online community with particular cultural norms and to think about the production of digital knowledge.

What I learned from teaching this class:

  1. Some form of synchronicity is integral to creating a sense of community. While the class was not strictly synchronous as we did not meet at prescribed hours every week, the fact that all students had assignments due at the same time meant that they were reading and thinking about the same issues concurrently. Students reported that having these fixed scheduled times for the class made them feel that they were part of a classroom, rather than doing their work in isolation. Additionally, having regular deadlines helped them not to procrastinate and to leave all their work towards the end of the semester.
  2. Grading student feedback on other students’ work and providing a rubric for giving this feedback is essential. Many students do not know how to provide constructive feedback to others, and worry that criticism might alienate their classmates. I provided some examples of guidelines and rubrics I developed in Discussion Board Expectations,Critical Questions Homework and Discussion Responses, and a Peer Review Rubric for the Wikipedia assignment.* Note that the rubrics and expectations alone are not enough, students need to be given feedback that directs them back to the rubric and shown how the rubric can be used to improve their responses. A number of my students responded at the end of the semester that this was one of the most helpful aspects of the class. Being able to give others helpful commentary in turn helped them to make their own work better.
  3. Instructor responsiveness is important (and exhausting). Because there are no in-person meetings, instructors should expect to get emails from students demanding quick responses the night before or morning of the assignments. Even if you set out on your syllabus the specific hours you will be answering email, expect most of the traffic to come in at off-hours because these are often the times students are working on material for the course. I felt much more pressure to be constantly available for my students in my online course rather than my in-person classes, and this was often exhausting.
  4. I have not found a replacement for the instructor’s in-person energy and charisma in the online environment. When teaching in person, instructors can often get students to pay attention through physical energy and charisma, which often helps them to focus and understand in ways that they would not on their own. I have not found a substitute for this dynamic in the online environment. There were a number of students in my course who I kept requesting to meet with, because a simple in-person discussion would have helped me to clarify to them what they were having difficulty with. Many of them, however, did not take me up on this and instead dropped the class. This also makes me think that the student profile needed to take online classes successfully includes being able to be self-motivated and disciplined enough to read and complete the assignments—something which at-risk students find very difficult to accomplish. Until I find a way to resolve this issue, it will be very hard for me to reach students who are not motivated to complete the course successfully in an online format.

These are some of the lessons that stick out in my mind the most from teaching a completely online class. Are they in line with your own experiences? What can you add to the list?

*I have started a Medium collection, Who’s Afraid of Online Educationto collate thought-pieces written on Medium about teaching online. If you’d like to join in, please send me a note with your Medium name either on Medium, or through email adelinekoh[at]gmail[dot]com.

**Thanks to Roopika Risam for introducing me to interteaching and for sharing some of her materials, and to Adalaine Holton for allowing me to model off her discussion grading rubric.

Image Credit: Jenni Waterloo on Flickr

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