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Teaching Thursday: Some Practical Thoughts about Online Teaching

Cross-posted to Teaching Thursday.

Yesterday at noon, the Department of History here at the University of North Dakota, held a roundtable discussion on online teaching. We invited a group of experienced online teachers to join the round table from different fields. Mick Beltz (a regular Teaching Thursday contributor) from Philosophy and Religion, Bill Caraher, from History, Tim Prescott, from Math, and Bret Weber (another Teaching Thursday regular), from the Department of Social Work. The group focused on the differences between online teaching and classroom teaching. Moreover, the discussion was intensely practical. The Department of History, like many departments across campus, is exploring the potential and pitfalls of online teaching. The audience of graduate students and faculty enthusiastically engaged the panelists and the conversation spilled into the hall after the workshop was over.

I offer the following brief summary of the teaching roundtable and I encourage the conversation to continue in the comments section over on Teaching Thursday.

Bret Weber, of the Department of Social Work, offered a number of points which emphasized that teaching and learning need to be at the core of online classes. It’s not just about the technology! And it’s not an online class, it’s a class online. To go along with this observation he stressed that teaching online must be interactive both between students and between teacher and student. The more the students interact with each other and the instructor the more likely they are to achieve the course’s objectives. In fact, recent students have shown that the quantity of discussion posts, for example, correlates more strongly with learning than the quality of the posts. Finally, Bret emphasized that teaching online can be enormously time consuming in the course planning, set up, and the maintenance of an online class, but most importantly in terms of the amount of time that needs to be afforded all students especially during the early weeks of the semester.

Tim Prescott of the Department of Math emphasized the need for more steps in weekly assignments to make up for the lack of regular interaction. He said that this extended from actual content based assignments to the logistics of making sure the students set up proctored tests, completed assignments on time, and understood the basic mechanics of a class. Finally, Tim reinforced the difficulty of ascertaining whether a student understood complex material. Teaching online requires that we develop ways to ascertain how well our students are moving through material in the class so that our first indication of a problem is not a high-value assignment.

Mick Beltz, who teaches in the Department of Philosophy and Religion, talked about how online classes followed a different rhythm from classroom courses. There was more weekly attention necessary to ensure that an online class functioned properly. The work also tends to be greater at the very beginning of the semester because the majority of assignments and activities need to be available to students at the first day of the semester.This different work rhythm sometimes made the workload feel more substantial than a classroom based course, which might experience hectic moments, like grading midterm exams, while requiring less daily attention. Mick also pointed our that online courses need to communicate the instructor’s expectations to students clearly and regularly. Unlike classroom taught courses, most students will be unfamiliar with the online learning environment. The irregular schedule of online courses, the different forms of peer interaction, and a perceived distance between instructor and student would sometimes lead students to neglect online courses more than they would classroom taught ones. The result of this was more MIA students who drift away from the class and do not succeed.

I added that teaching online retained elements of very tradition instruction with its emphasis on lectures (as a formal means of instruction, information dissemination, and modeling of good practice). I also noted that the online environment is particularly suited to intensive writing because writing becomes the key means for interacting between the student and faculty member. Finally, I urged the group to embrace the panopticon of online teaching (with thanks to Mick Beltz for introducing me to the link between Foucault’s idea of the panopticon and the online teaching environment). The online environment presents to the faculty member these decisively partitioned reports on student achievement on the computer screen. The students, on the other hand, can see far less of their fellow students achievements and, as Mick pointed out, tend to focus their interaction with the instructor far more than in a regular classroom where the physical presence of other students demands some, often non-verbal, form of engagement.

Categories: Teaching
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