Sunday, December 22, 2013

Notes from the First Term of Online Teaching

Sandy has written an interesting piece on reading poetry in an age where one can get so much literary scholarship without leaving the house:  "You see, back in the bad old days, we did not have the vast resources of the internet. To research a poet and/or a poem meant a trip to the library across campus (and remember CSB/SJU is in central Minnesota where the biting winds of winter knock a girl down from late Oct. through late March). Once we reached the library, there was a thick reference book to search for articles on the poet/poem, A Readers' Guide to Periodical Literature (all hail, Michelle Holschuh Simmons for the reminder of the name) and then a set of stacks of print periodicals where we hoped to find the article itself. If not, then we had to inter-library loan the article (having it faxed from another library). If not looking for the most current articles, we could, of course, use the library catalog (which had just switched to a digital form) for books on the subject at hand and then go to the book stacks, perhaps stopping after all of this to copy a relevant chapter or article at the copier (10 cents a page) so we could annotate that as well."

Now, of course, everything is different.  I have not been teaching graduate classes online, but this past term I've taught 2 first year classes completely online, an Introduction to Literature class and a Short Story class--these are not the MOOCs you may have heard of.  No, my enrollment began at 15 and 19 students in the classes and ended at 12 and 15.  It's been interesting, in ways that I did expect and ways that I didn't.

At first, I didn't blog about this openly, or even talk about it much.  I wanted to be sure that I could do it before I talked about it.  Even though I haven't signed a non-compete clause, it felt strange to be teaching elsewhere.

Now that I'm done with the first quarter, I want to record some of my reflections, before I lose them.

For the online classes that I taught, I didn't have to do curriculum development.  The complete shell came to me, complete with discussion prompts and quizzes that would be autograded and paper assignments.  The computer coding was done, and because of the Desire2Learn Learning Management System, it was very easy to work within the shell.

Still, there were surprises.  The course shells arrived, and I was impressed by how complete they are.  At first I thought, I have very little to do, but then I started changing all the dates.  There’s a Manage Dates function, but it doesn’t change all the dates throughout the shell.  Even during the first week of the course, I was finding places that I didn’t realize existed where I need to change a date.  And periodically throughout the course, I found spots that I forgot to find.  Often I found them because students alerted me.  Happily, they were very kind and forgiving about it.

I spent hours, several hours a day for several days per class, changing the dates.  It’s exhausting in a way that creating curriculum from scratch is not.

I thought that I wouldn't really get to know my students, but I did feel like I "know" them in the same way that I would know them in a face-to-face classroom.  Some of them were silent throughout, as students in a classroom can be withdrawn.  Still, the online community was a pleasant surprise.

The discussion posts helped create that community.  I was impressed by the quality of the students’ posts on the discussion board.  It occurred to me that if we’re all teaching the same works of literature in the online courses taught by adjuncts, there might be a pool of responses out there.  There could be rampant plagiarism, and how would I know?

One class had student responses to the posts of fellow students as a requirement, and one did not.  I find that I prefer that the students respond to each other, even though the responses can be somewhat shallow.  I like to think that it requires them to read each other’s responses.  And I like to think that it forces the plagiarists, if there are any, to write no matter how they try to avoid it.
I've already written this post about the peer editing and rough draft process in this post, so I won't repeat it here.  I was surprised by how many extensive comments I wrote on rough drafts, comments that were completely ignored in final drafts.  Sigh.  Some parts of teaching will always be thus, I imagine. 

I did keep track of the amount of hours that I worked on this teaching project, and I spent more time with the online classes than I would have if they had been onground.  Will this change as I learn the technology?  We shall see. 

In the end, I liked the online classes for the same reasons that many students do, and most of those reasons boiled down to convenience.  I could take care of my teaching responsibilities from any number of locations, at the time of day that suited me. 

What I didn't like is that it's one more item that makes me feel like I can never completely disconnect.  If time had gone by, I felt like I should check in on my courses/students, even if they had no reason to be expecting me.  I know the panic that comes from sending an e-mail that isn't answered in a timely manner--and I know that the more time goes by, the more the panic grows.   So even if it's only been 4 hours since I sent the e-mail, I feel like more time has gone by. I didn't want my students to have those feelings, so I tried never to be gone for too long, or, in the case of Thanksgiving, to let them know when my Internet access would be spotty. 

Overall, I'm glad I did it.  Even more, I'm glad I liked it, and I'm glad that I can support online classes as a way to deliver education.  I am fairly certain that the education of the future will contain a huge online component, and I'm glad it won't be an abomination for me.

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