Teaching Online

Want to earn four college credits?   Take POS 266, German and Italian Politics, this winter term (three weeks from just after Christmas to mid-January).   I’m delving in the world of online teaching.  If this works, I’ll try a course on German and Italian politics (or maybe French and British politics) next summer.   I never thought I’d teach on line, but given changes taking place in higher education, it’s important to know how to do so.

Higher education, like all fields, is undergoing extreme pressures due to the financial crisis.   The University of Maine system is looking at a potential $40 million shortfall by 2012, especially as the stimulus money helping now runs out.  That leaves institutions within the system facing severe cuts and questions about how to assure long term viability.   It forces people to think about changing their way of doing things, something most people resist.

Until recently, I also was in resistance mode.  After all, Political Science is a healthy program, with courses well enrolled, and offering this year a brand new full BA in Political Science (in the past it was a concentration in an interdisciplinary major).   This bucks the trend in the system for cutting programs and faculty positions.   We also have a new Pre-Law program with funding, and are part of an International Studies major which also recently went from being an interdisciplinary concentration to a full BA.   What we’re doing is working, so why change?

Talking with colleagues, however, I realized that it would be a mistake to see only those programs facing enrollment problems or potential elimination as the ones which have to change.   The human tendency to alter path only when one faces an existential threat is one of human nature’s greatest weaknesses.    The time to change path is not when disaster is looming, but when things are going relatively well and you want to put yourself in a position to assure that despite changes in the environment, things can keep getting better.

Not having taught on line before, I’m going to try to do a university ‘faculty professional development course’ and listen to those who have taken web based courses.  My wife, a CPA who is earning her MBA on line, is a good source of information as she curses or praises the techniques and actions she sees from on line instructors.  Our Administrative Assistant is taking an on line course.

As I listen to colleagues react to the new environment, it’s clear there are a few different ways of thinking.   A few — an increasingly small few — are in denial phase.   Despite faculty cuts last year, they believe it’s more spectacle than reality, and the fear of economic crisis is being used as an excuse for the administration to follow some nefarious agenda.   There are also the ‘academic idealists,’ who really want to make all decisions based on what is pedagogically best for programs and courses.   This may include keeping smaller classes or a variety of low enrollment classes that nonetheless serve a valuable function.   The idealists are not like the deniers since they know there is a problem, they just believe that the problem should be solved by other means — such as cutting administrative positions or sometimes eliminating lower quality programs.

Then there are the competitors, people who see this as a zero-sum game and want to fight to protect their program, and lure students and majors to their courses.   There are also the pessimistic fatalists, convinced that nothing they do can stop negative tendencies in how the university operates, and the oblivious specialists, who figure that they are probably safe so they can tune out the discussions.   Academics are not used to bearing the brunt of economic hardship.   Our jobs usually are the last to go, we have strong protections and excellent severance packages.  It’s expensive to fire professors or cut academic programs.  But with state budgets squeezed and the situation likely to get worse when the stimulus money stops flowing in 2012, reality bites.

Three areas generate controversy: program change designed to entice students (the idealists see marketing as something that should not be taken into account in creating academic programs), assessment, and on line teaching.

Assessment involves analyzing whether courses and programs actually achieve their goals: are students learning?   The easiest form of assessment is through standardized tests, but that’s also the least useful in terms of figuring out how to improve programs and help students.   Traditionally assessment was resisted by faculty who thought that we’re the experts, we know that what we’re doing works.   Who are those administrators or outsiders to question our classroom expertise?   However, those outsiders control the purse strings, and those administrators have to prove to accreditors that we are a quality institution.   When you think about it, given how much the public, families and individuals pay for education, don’t we owe it to everyone to try to measure whether or not we’re achieving our goals?

So slowly, painfully, faculty embrace assessment programs.  They set goals, and start to figure out measures.  At some point, we start to recognize that gee, this does generate useful information, and if you institutionalize it, it’s not so arduous.  We’re not there yet, but we’re working on it.

On line teaching is strongly resisted, especially by liberal arts colleges like mine.   Education is best with personal contact, and hands on work with students.   The internet is cold, communication impersonal, and interaction limited.  We are a public liberal arts college, however, meaning we face financial difficulties the big private schools do not.  We also benefit from our niche in economic tough times, as the lower tier privates — expensive, but without the big recognizable name — start looking like a poor value.   We’ve already been called one of the country’s top educational values by Kipplingers, after all!   Moreover, faculty members like me tend to think we don’t need to do on line courses.   Lecturing is one of my strong suits, and I enjoy class time.  Our major isn’t in trouble.

Yet, in times like this it’s important to try every option to improve, and to recognize that generating income for the university is important.  On line courses draw from outside the normal student pool, and are marketed by the system.   It’s a skill that is increasingly in demand by both students and universities.   Learning how to do it well now might come in handy, especially if the economic tumult does not go away (or if swine flu shuts down the university!)

So the changes in our culture, economy and politics hit the workplace as well.   Luckily for me it’s not that my job is in danger, but that the old ways of doing things are no longer enough.   We have to be academic pragmatists, embrace change, and try new things.   And you know, I’m starting to look forward to it!   Not as much as the May term trip to Vienna and Berlin (and no, that will not be taught on line — no virtual traveling!), but I’ll be learning something new — and the pursuit of constant life long learning is one reason I chose this profession!

  1. #1 by John H. on September 17, 2009 - 04:45

    Including the three I’m teaching online this semester, I’ve taught seven online courses. There are ways it can be fun and engaging. If lecturing is your strong suit, keep doing it. You can upload audio files (I’ve mostly used Blackboard, not sure what UMF has).
    Discussion boards allow students who might normally be silent to “speak up” without a bunch of classmates staring at them. It is a different experience, no doubt; but it can be rewarding. I think you’ll have an easy transition!

  2. #2 by Diane on September 17, 2009 - 12:26

    Hi Scott

    I agree with John H. that online classes can be very rewarding, and exciting. In a live class, some people participate much more than others, even with great teachers working to hear from those quiet ones. In an online class you are free through your anonymity to express yourself without feeling self conscious. Also, at least in the classes I have taken, everyone’s papers and essays are posted for all to read, which at first is very intimidating but then wonderful because you get to realy see how people are reacting to readings and assignments, and this is a terrific way to learn from their observations, which you may not be able to do in a live setting. I think that you will be a fabulous online teacher and your passion for your subject and students will show even through the internet.

  3. #3 by Scott Erb on September 17, 2009 - 15:49

    Thanks John and Diane (gee, John, if you went by “Jack” I could have made it sound like a John Mellencamp song). We use blackboard. Yeah, it’s sort of exciting to try something new!

  4. #4 by henitsirk on September 18, 2009 - 01:57

    I may vent a little here, so please excuse me….

    I’m taking an online course this semester, Western Civ through 1700. The readings are good, the study guides are good, the assignments are reasonable and engaging.

    However…the professor is not tech savvy. Someone asked him to create audio files; he couldn’t get it to work. He set up weekly online chats; they’ve been fairly unproductive as he feels bombarded by getting so many questions and comments (unthreaded) all at once.

    And, so many of these students seem to 1) not be able to engage in critical thinking, so they are unable to self-guide through the material and 2) think that this class should be more question/answer or fact/date oriented. The professor took what is essentially a conventional course and adapted it to be online (he acknowledged that’s not ideal), but it’s not working for those who need more direction and interaction.

    He’s also put us into study groups that should meet once a week, because in his experience these can be very helpful if everyone does the reading and engages. So far, that’s not been what’s happened!

    I think part of the problem is that this university doesn’t make it painfully obvious when classes are part or all online in the registration process. So a lot of people in this class were unhappy about that because it wasn’t what they expected.

    So, I guess it depends on how it’s set up and advertised. If you have decent software, then online discussions can be fruitful (we’re using Moodle, which is OK but not fabulous). If you can provide audio or video “lectures” then you can accommodate those who need multisensory learning inputs.

    I’m doing well because I can think critically about primary sources and self-direct. But I can clearly see that it’s not for every student (or professor). I can imagine you’ll do quite well with it!

    That said, I think it’s great to try new things, whether you’re trying to attract students or keep afloat, or simply trying a new learning/teaching experience. This university has a lot of “nontraditional” students (older students, students with families, etc.) so these alternatives are popular.

  5. #5 by Scott Erb on September 18, 2009 - 02:07

    I’m not going to do American Foreign Policy, but rather POS 266, “German and Italian Politics” (I edited the post to reflect that).

    Henitsirk: yes, I hear you! I am going to do a mini-course to get acquainted with Blackboard, and want to be very organized and focused. I’m not going to do chat sessions simply because I don’t think they are likely to be productive. But threaded discussions, audio files (mini-lectures) and things like that I’m going to figure out ahead of time (and not try to suddenly implement new things in the middle). So please, vent about what goes wrong — if I can learn from that venting, my students hopefully will not be wanting to vent!

  6. #6 by John on September 18, 2009 - 14:27

    I’ll agree with Henitsirk, particularly about the “chat sessions”. You’re wise to avoid them Scott. Threaded discussion boards are the way to go; I’d also recommend stating up front that posts like, “I agree with Bob” are not worth anyone’s time unless they explain why the agree, or add something to the discussion.

    I also think you’re wise to go with “mini-lectures.” Ultimately, online classes require a good degree of self-motivation on the part of the students, and you can’t really be sure they even listen to the lectures you do post, unless you also post a discussion thread about that.

    The great thing about Blackboard is it tracks when students log in and for how long. So when a student says they listened to your 20 minute lecture and spent an hour on a quiz, and you see they were only logged in for 10 minutes that week, you’ve got some support when you tell them they are not spending enough time on the class.

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