Thursday, December 23, 2010

To Online or Not to Online #3: Getting Started

Before you teach online,here is some advice from an old pro:

1. Understand fully how the system works. What system? First, the pay system, the release time system, the rewards system, etc. at your institution. Second, the learning management system, which leads to . . .

2. Get good tech training. Take advantage of whatever your institution provides. Now, to be honest, I taught myself a lot of what I learned, but I wasted a lot of time doing so.

3. Have a mentor/coach/helper/somebody who can and will patiently answer your questions because you will forget a lot of the tech training from the sessions you attend. We have an awesome instructional technologist at our college. No one else can have her!

4. Look at your class from the end backward, not as a day-to-day experience as you design the online section. And don't even think about teaching a class you haven't taught traditionally. It's possible, and I've done it, but it isn't wise because you have to create even more materials from scratch.

As to this point, Dee Fink's Creating Significant Learning Experiences is a must-read, because it is about backward design, or teaching for outcomes. And that is what you must ask as you design an online course: not, "how can I put what I do in the traditional class on a screen?" but "What is necessary to meet the learning outcomes of the course and how can I best create a learning environment and experiences for it (since you will not be physically present)?" You may find that what you do in the traditional class isn't really meeting learning outcomes either! We do a lot of things in class because we are comfortable with them and have held on to them, way past their usefulness.

This is in no way saying to dumb-down the online version. It is saying that some of your course and teaching will need to be rethought. The online environment is heavily text-oriented, while the traditional class can reach all modalities. Any way you can find to breach the text-only divide will help.

For example, I teach my traditional class in public speaking with a heavy emphasis on group and collaborative learning. I can't do that in the hybrid version. It is not, however, one of the learning outcomes of the class (as decided upon by our departmental faculty).

The next post will continue in this vein.

Monday, December 20, 2010

To Online or Not to Online #2

So, why should you teach online, if you have a choice?

1. There are some neat tools out there to learn about.
2. It will open you up to some possibilities and revitalize your thinking about higher ed, if you let it.
3. You can teach from home, on the road, etc. Some institutions allow much more flexibility about scheduling.
4. You can structure assignments in ways that simplify grading.
5. After the first two semesters, it gets easier.
6. The best news is that the half online option--hybrid--is really best. You still see the students but they are responsible for lecture material and the class time can be spent more usefully.
7. Your colleagues will think you are "on the cutting edge." (well, maybe) Your administrators will probably like you better.
8. For the altruistic, it really does help nontraditional students.

Not convinced? Then you probably won't be.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Online or Not to Online

As hard as it is to believe, there are many, many college professors who have had no experience with online courses, and who plan never to have any. I find this stunning, having taught online since 1998. Although I read some of the research on higher ed and online pedagogy, have been to many workshops and conferences, and have even presented at teaching conferences and at League for Innovation on the subject, I find that my own experience is usually corroborated by what others tell me, rather than challenged. So I am going to post on that subject for a while.

First, to teach online or not to. I think the first question to be considered is how supportive one's institution is (or forceful in demanding online course development and teaching). If it's an option and no more "brownie points" are given in regard to tenure or promotion for online teaching as opposed to traditional teaching, I wouldn't do it unless you just have a craving to do so. But it's not going to go away, so don't bet on it being a fad. In this day of cost-cutting, online teaching is one of the best ways to cut costs. At a recent meeting with George Mehaffey of the AACSU, I was told that "experts" now consider online as good or better than traditional for instructional purposes. I have to find out where that information came from, since it might be based on student perceptions of their learning and we all know how questionable that can be. My point is that the forces behind higher ed funding consider online instruction a more than viable option and it's only going to get bigger.

A second consideration is whether your institution rewards you more for research and/or service or for teaching and student contact. If the former two, stay clear of online teaching. If the latter, it might be for you.

A third consideration is how much time you like to spend on a computer and learning new technologies, such as Wimba or learning management systems (Angel, Blackboard) because you are going to be expected to be online a lot and your students will expect you to be much smarter than they about the software, etc.

Fourth, if you think online teaching will be easier and a way to avoid students, don't even consider online teaching. It's very time-consuming, at least the first two semesters. I taught a new hybrid course this semester and had to record myself giving the lectures to PowerPoint for the auditory learners. It took up much more time than I expected because of false starts, phones ringing, and knocks at the door along with creating a verbatim script of my lectures (for the print learners).

Fifth, it's really necessary to think in terms of whole course design. The course should be in place on day one, not as you go. So it should be a course you have already taught many times traditionally, one where all the lectures and assignments and rubrics are ready.

Sixth, your institution should give you training and some kind of compensation. I can say that my college did--I have this great laptop, for example.

Seventh, the old "plug in something from the textbook" is an option nowadays, but it doesn't make everything easy. The textbook package may be very different from what you want to emphasize in the course, the institution's learning outcomes, and the needs of your students.

All these may sound negative, so next time I'll blog on the good stuff of teaching online. There are some.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Teaching Tip #23

What is collaborative learning? It is not putting students into groups to ding some ideas around, a la buzz groups. Not that that's a bad idea. Some students are just so plain shy, they can't speak out in a group of 25 or 35 or 55 peers. They just can't do it. I teach public speaking, a class in which the most introverted of students must get up and talk. It has taken me years to be willing to give the introverts a break. So small groups can help these people (so can online, but that's too easy.)

But that's not collaborative learning. For collaborative learning to take place, I believe there has to be a true outcome that is assessable. There has to be a common responsibility; however, there also has to be a clear way for those who perform well to be rewarded accordingly and for those who are dead weight to be punished accordingly. I use a rubric that the students must use to grade each other's performance as a group member (but not on the outcome of the project).

I have used this assignment for over twenty years and the students learn more about just plain working together than giving a speech. More on this later.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Teaching Tip #22

Years ago I heard an "award-winning" teacher say he had one rule, "Whatever is easiest for me."

Now, you can take that for what it's worth, but there is more than a seed of wisdom there. Some of us more "motivated" (or obsessed) instructors sometimes seem to like to do it the hardest--and most time-consuming, emotion-inducing--way. I know I have been that way.

On top of that, some of us dedicated teachers spend more time and psychic energy worrying about our students' success than they do.

It's like online classes. Students don't really care about the bells and whistles. They care that the technology is accessible and that the class is laid out well.

Teaching Tip #21

Most colleges are in finals or in the last week of classes. And I see a lot of frantic instructors at my college with foot-high stacks of papers/essays to grade. Why? Final exams should be easy to grade, easy to post, and a short step before adding them up to turn them in.

Make sure your major presentations/research papers are due two weeks before finals. The students will prefer it and you won't be stressed during the finals. Also, if your institution is like mine, there are all sorts of reports to get finished at the end of the semester. And it's Christmas!