This is my 14th year teaching — and, for sure I’ve seen lots of changes.
I started teaching in Nebraska, part-time, for three difference colleges — each with their own unique characteristics (4-year public, 4-year private, and community college.). Each college had a unique student body and I got plenty of experience teaching all kinds of students. The thing is, all of those colleges only had face-to-face courses — and my general teaching strategy was pretty much the same. Go in and talk to a group of people about something I found fascinating — give quizzes/exams, assign papers — and you’re done.
With a face-to-face course, the preparation had two parts — 1) design a syllabus, 2) prepare for each individual class. The syllabus design usually took me no more than an afternoon, even with new textbooks. The class preparation was usually less than an hour in the time before class, less later on when most of the content was in my head already.
The teaching part took whatever amount of time it took to hold the class in the classroom, plus office hours and an occasional e-mail problem to solve. Students asked questions in class, I answered them and everyone else heard the answers. Students would learn from me and one another and it all kind of worked out. When class was over, so was my teaching — until next time. Of course, there was periodical grading, which meant taking a stack of papers home to read and hoping the cat didn’t eat anything important.
Teaching online had a totally different rhythm — For starters, the pre-course preparation just began with the syllabus. After figuring out what the course was going to look like, I had a whole bunch of work to do in D2L (our current course management system). D2L doesn’t always work like you’d think it does. They have odd defaults for things, they update the program (often not fixing previous problems, but adding new “features” just when I got used to the old “features), some things can be copied between courses but others can’t etc.
Teaching online is like teaching in short intervals — because the students are accessing the course material at different times of day, different days of the week and generally taking advantage of the online course format to fit learning into their busy lives. That’s one of the wonderful things about online teaching — the learning never really stops — that also means that the teaching never really ends.
In face-to-face courses the teaching routine was clear — not entirely under my control, but pretty close — you go in, teach, be done… An online teaching ‘routine’ is quite different and it needs to be two things — 1) it needs to provide answers to students in a reasonable time-frame, and 2) it needs to fit into MY otherwise pretty busy life. Establishing that routine can (and continues to be) a challenge.
Perhaps the bigger challenge is that students’ questions don’t come all at the same time — and most of them are about the mechanics of the course, not the course content. So I find myself instructing students to scroll down and find a set of discussions. I help them trouble-shoot browser complications, I help them figure out where to post something etc… none of this is based on anything but my own experiences with the CMS — and it’s not my specialty, or anything close.
I also have to design a course knowing that I won’t be around to answer content questions in person. That means I need to look for a different kind of textbook. I need to write quizzes that are more like reading guides than tests of knowledge about the content. I write discussion questions and debate topics with the hope of getting students to engage with the material. I write paper topics that I hope will get them to apply higher-level thinking to the material — and I write this blog. All of those things are designed to help the student help themselves to information I had taught to me in-person. Weird, huh…
One of the challenges is blending my in-person responsibilities and my online responsibilities. I still usually teach at least one in-person course, if not a couple. I sit on a committee that meets every Wednesday afternoon and deals with issues central to the function of the college — I’m also the department chair this year, so there are other duties and meetings for that… plus, you know — I have a life. I’m a newly wed, a new step-parent, a daughter, a friend and a person who needs to get some things done. I also want to have a creative and intellectual life outside of my job — so I take photos (processing and printing them myself in the darkroom… cool, huh?), I read books, watch stuff on TV and sit on the porch with my husband discussing everything from our shared experiences from middle school to the crisis in the Mid-east.
The question becomes, how do I fit the online teaching into all of that? The answer isn’t easy… I try to set up a schedule that gives me some blocks of time to do grading, to fix the mistakes I made when I set up the course, to think about new ways to teach the course, and to develop the materials for the next time around. For the most part, those times are Mondays and Fridays — and it’s a challenge to keep those times free from meetings and other stuff.
Then there are the ‘few minutes’ here and there over the rest of the week. That’s where the time really gets away from me. I’ll regularly (like, maybe several times per day) check e-mail, trying to answer the questions /resolve problems as I go — I also check into the course’s “ask the class / ask the professor” discussion area. That’s where other issues tend to pop up.
It’s quite common for me to check my e-mail and course message boards from my ipad, after I’ve started the coffee brewing but before I’m really ready to get out of my warm comfy bed — so I’ll start the coffee and snuggle in for some e-mail and student problems from the night before.
I try to save complicated things for after I’ve had some coffee — and after I’ve put on my glasses and fired up the computer. This is why it takes me a while to get out the door in the morning — those ‘few minutes’ are often more like 30 or 45 minutes, depending on the time of the semester. Sometimes with my morning coffee I’ll even write a blog post about something in my news feed, send an article or e-mail to my students etc..
When I get to campus, there’s another quick check for messages (and especially replies from students) and then I’m off for in-person duties. After class, a third round of checking — and usually at least one more round of checking when I get home.
One thing I’m getting better at is not checking in the evenings. I’ve found that even though my students’ most often do coursework in the evenings, I need that time to relax, unwind, read — mess around on facebook or play a mindless game on my ipad. I need that for my own sanity, and I’ve noticed that if I’m going to make a mistake, or send an e-mail with too much snark in it, it happens in the evenings — so, better to step away from the keyboard at some point.
To that end, I try to be clear with students that they won’t necessarily receive an instant response to an e-mail, even when they have stuff due on Sunday night. I spent MANY years doing college (think, freshman year was the Fall semester of 1987, my Ph.D. defense was June 2010) — A LONG TIME. I did take about 3 years off between 1990 and 1993, but otherwise, I was a college student from 1987 to 2010 — and ALL of that time I was a working college student — my work changed from managing at McDonalds to teaching my own classes part-time, to teaching my own classes and other full-time duties. I know exactly what it’s like to try to fit college in and around the rest of a life… and, after all that time, I think I’m ready to have more or less ‘normal’ evening and weekend activity — most of the time.
Weekends, for the most part, I try to limit my work to the ‘quick check’ variety — but sometimes a working weekend is inevitable — like last weekend. There were a bunch of small and large things on my to-do list, and I managed to get them done… This weekend, I suspect, will be different.
In the end, I think that online teaching is MUCH more time-consuming, invasive into the other parts of my life, and perhaps less initially rewarding — but, I like the flexibility it gives me. I like seeing students progress in their abilities to write about material I really love, and I like that online classes require participation by everyone, so instead of a classroom conversation in which a few smarty-pants dominate a set amount of time — folks who are a bit more shy can say what they think and others will listen…
Now — off for a weekend — well, maybe one more check of messages and THEN weekend!