Online teaching: the good, the bad, the promise and the peril

Online classes are increasingly popular with students because of the untethering they offer from both classroom and campus and increasingly popular with administrations because $$$. What about the professors teaching these classes? What do they think and feel about this growing medium? I spoke with four Stony Brook professors who’ve all taught online to learn what they’ve noted about their experiences and their students’, and what their hopes and qualms are going forward.

Deborah Heckert has taught in Stony Brook’s music and writing departments as well as several other universities and has taught a music appreciation course online the past few years. For nearly 18 years Cynthia Davidson has taught the gamut: traditional, computer-immersive, and online classes. Becky Goldberg is a veteran of both the theatre department and the writing department and has both taught and taken online classes. In addition to her years teaching traditional writing classes, Carolyn Sofia has taught online the past two summers and will be again this summer.


What were some of the first steps you took when designing your online course?

CS: “The first thing I did was read a lot. I looked online for information about teaching online and what were the differences between that and a regular classroom. And what I did was use Digication as a platform and adapt a regular course to Digication that would make it seem as if the students were with [me]. So for instance – I still have most of it online – I made a series of virtual places you could visit online. You could virtually go to the library, and there’d be artwork there about the library and what to do in the library, and then I had another place where there was a dormitory type of atmosphere. I had pictures of the dormitory with people collected in rooms; that was our virtual meeting space. That was where we did peer reading and things like that, through that mechanism. I tried to give a feeling that we were together. Kind of like us with [Scott Kelly], who was just going around in Apollo who came back to Earth after a year. Even though you’re far away from each other, you can still make some connection.”


DH: “I always use Blackboard a lot anyway, so I had a lot of [the material] developed already. The people over in the Faculty Center were geared to meet with me constantly. So I really had an intensive several sessions with them, and that was enormously helpful in…coming up with some of the issues. And they’ll tell you things. And then you teach it the first time and you say ‘Oh yeah. That’s really true.’ Anything that could possibly be questioned will be questioned. Any possible thing that’s unclear will be questioned. So you really have to be thinking all the possible ways that students could be interacting with the materials, and try to forestall some of the issues. That’s why I think being an experienced teacher is a big plus. It’s traditionally been graduate students who have taught those classes. It takes an experienced teacher to do an online course. It’s tons of work. You’re drawing on your experiences that you’ve had teaching, and suddenly having to cope with a whole bunch of new experiences.”

BG: “In terms of both grading and assigning, I had to be much more directive. In online teaching, especially when assigning work, I had to be very, very, very specific about what I wanted and what I didn’t want, and what the step-by-step process was for doing things, because if I wasn’t there was nothing else to fall back on. I had no chance to remind them in the way that I would in a traditional classroom.”


 Have you transferred any of your approaches to online teaching into your traditional curriculum? 

DH: “One thing that I developed from my online class is what I call ‘guided listening.’ So because they weren’t in my classroom where we could have a discussion…I would say ‘OK, look at this You Tube video.’ And I’d ask them some questions – read this little web article; answer these questions. And that is work that they did more thoroughly, as online students. So I do do that now with my regular classes, these short answer assignments/follow-up questions.
“The other thing that I’ve done is an assessment that I came up with in an online class. You can’t just give a listening identification question, because of course they have all the time in the world and they can just go and check. So I’ll play a piece like one of the ones that was on their list, and they have to transfer the knowledge. And so that has worked very well, and now I do that in the regular class.”

CD: “I think it’s helped me set up the assignments on Blackboard a little more systematically and a little better organized than maybe in the past. The first time I did it the whole course was in Blackboard. Later I started using Digication, and blogs, and other things outside of Blackboard, but I never completely abandoned Blackboard because [it] has such great organization tools like the grade book and stuff – and I use Discussion Board. Whether or not you use Discussion Board in Blackboard, it’s also fabulous for organizing discussions outside of Blackboard. So if you have all of your students keeping a blog in WordPress, it’s still really useful to have them post the link to the blog in Blackboard, as kind of an index. And you can also grade it that way more easily, and make notes. One thing that online teaching helped me do is the grading system – 100 points for the class, and you break down assignments by grade and score. And if I do that before the class even begins, then when I put the grade in it will automatically tally.”

BG: “Because I like the idea of students doing substantial and important work in class, I think the online class forced me to be really creative in terms of how I delivered information to them. So if it did influence me in any way, it’s that I have more ways to not just do straight lectures in my regular writing classes.”


Is online teaching a threat toward traditional brick-and-mortar education? If so, is that a bad thing?

BG: “I don’t consider it a threat to traditional education, because it’s a totally different beast. I tend, in past writing classes, to teach a research paper [where] my students have to research a technology, so I’ve actually had several students in the past couple years research online classroom learning. Students that I’ve seen, despite the fact that they’re of the internet-savvy generation, prefer to be in a classroom. I think part of it is because they can see the standard…is a lot more tangible. I took online classes as an undergrad because I had a science credit that I didn’t want to take during a regular semester, or because I had to take 20th Century Literary Criticism and it was a super-heavy reading load so I took it over the summer when that was all I had to do. I think it’s a great supplement, but I certainly don’t think that there’s ever going to be an advantage to online education that you can’t get in a classroom.”

CS: “No. I’d really love to do a hybrid course, where we meet once a week and the rest of it is online. There’s a certain portion of the class that doesn’t need to be in class all the time. They could handle just occasionally tapping in and do their work. There’s another part that desperately needs even more class time, and you never have time for [them] because you’re working with too many people. If only that second group, that disadvantaged group, were able to show up a second time, I think it would be beneficial to them. A hybrid course would let you differentiate more.
“I knew a teacher who was in favor of online teaching. His classes…would do one-page papers. He would arrange it almost like a Ponzi scheme, that the students would work with each other and it would just kind of filter up to them. It’s economies of scale in business: as the rich gets bigger and bigger, you’re only one person and you only have so many hours in a day. I think it would be really bad if the people running an online writing section of the program or a whole program thought that we could actually double the class because after all, we don’t have to meet. It’s insane. It’s actually more work to do online teaching because it’s like 20 individual classes instead of one class for 20 people.”


DH: “I think it’s a necessary evil, and I think it has its place. I understand it’s a financial hardship for students to pay extra for a January class or a summer class – that’s a significant financial hardship. I also think in terms of students with special needs or with disabilities that make attending class difficult, there are many many students who would never be able to show up to my 101 class in the cellar of the Fine Arts building. I’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback from my classes. So I think there’s a place.
“That being said, I feel very strongly about the fact that a university education does involve meetings as a group with a professor and listening to each other and talking with each other and that sense of ‘I am passing something on to you.’ I think that’s an important component. I’d never like to see only online classes. I think that during the semester, students should be in classes. I think that’s how I’ve come to compromise. A couple years ago, I was very very against it. Now that I’ve taught a few, I say ‘OK. This could be valuable.’ But I would be very very nervous if that was all a student got from a university education.
“I do worry a little bit that it’s a threat. I could easily see how online learning can be manipulated for all kinds of political and social concerns that don’t have anything to do with real education, the idea that a college education is just about preparing a worker for certain kinds of work situations, that in some ways it just becomes technical training. Those, I think, are serious concerns. I would love the opportunity to try a blended course. Maybe we meet every two weeks for three hours as a group, and then there’s some online component as well. That would be something I’d like to experiment with, because that might be able to wed the best of both worlds. Particularly during the winter session and the summer sessions, it’s difficult for students to be here, and the online courses are so much better subscribed to than the classroom classes. So the music department is transitioning to doing more online classes for those short session semesters.”

CD: “I usually do not think of it as being threatening to education. I usually think of it as being something an additional path for people to take that can be a very good thing. I’m all for people educating themselves through the internet if they can. I think we call do that. There’s no reason why a person can’t make a class for themself going through You Tube and all these different places online. And when I do my online courses I make it all publicly available. My feeling about my curriculum material [is] I don’t worry about people stealing my stuff. I want people to see them. I want people to use them if they’re useful. I like the democratizing of it. But I don’t think it’s going to replace face-to-face teaching.
“The problem with the university system in this country and the world is a problem and the way they keep people out who don’t have money or who don’t have this or that…it’s a deeper problem. I think that in a way, when people say they want online education to break down the system, it’s because there are problems with the university system and with education in general that run very deep. But I think there will always be that need for people to meet face-to-face. I don’t think that’s going anywhere.”

ANONYMOUS QUOTE: “In terms of my own personal teaching, online teaching maximizes all the parts that I hate about teaching and takes away all the parts that I really love. It’s all about being on top of all those technological glitches…grading grading grading grading grading…trying to [survive] student emails…with none of that ‘Wow, we are thinking about this together. I’m learning from you and you’re learning from me.’”


Carolyn and Deborah mentioned the appeal of a blended or hybrid approach. Could that be the wave of the future?

CD: “I think that could be super popular. People want to free up some time for work and for family, but they still want contact with people, and I think [hybrid courses] are a great solution. Warren Wilson University…is a creative writing low-residency program. You do most of the work online, and then in the summer you go for two to four weeks on the campus to meet everybody and talk to the teachers and do things as a group. It’s real popular with people.
“We have people we don’t reach for various reasons, who are agoraphobic, for example. Or they can’t leave their home, or they’re disabled, or paraplegic…The world is gonna keep changing. There’s gonna be new, interesting, things. Wonderful things, every day.
“Shreeya Tuladhar is somebody who really thrives with the opportunity the internet is giving her. She’s a casebook study of someone who is picking up all these alternative technologies and doing different things that you couldn’t do with just writing a paper.”


Deborah, how different, if at all, was the experience of teaching online a second time versus the first?

DH: “I went from doing it as a summer session class to a winter session class, so then it’s a full-time job. While you might say [in summer session] ‘It’s okay for me not to check that till tomorrow,’ when it’s as concentrated [as winter session] it’s literally ‘You need to check it several times a day.’
“I had everything much more streamlined, broken into topics so it was very very clear the way the units were laid out. It was a day per unit. I would do checklists – ‘This is the work that needs to be done for this topic.’ I was more organized the second time around. Not that I wasn’t the first time, but [it was a] new level of organization.”


Did your experience with computer-immersive courses aid in your comfort level with a fully online course, Cynthia?

CD: “I felt prepared because I had set up my courses in Blackboard with a kind of system already. What I usually do is we meet one day a week and there’s a discussion in class – assignments; group work; if I have to do lecture, I do – and then usually the other day, if the class meets twice a week, we’ll go to the computer lab and they have prepared either a short response writing, a mini-essay, and they post them in Blackboard, discuss each others’ papers in Google docs, they have the conversation on the paper, and then they get credit for turning it in. I also do that with their drafts of their major essays. They start it in class. If they can finish it in class, they finish it in class, but they can also finish it at home if they need to. I thought that worked well in the face-to-face class and it’s worked pretty well in the online class.”


Becky, what were your feelings coming into online teaching?

BG: “I was very excited to do it because gradually over the years I’ve become almost paperless in my regular courses, so a lot of the work I’m doing in my typical classroom is where we workshop more in class and do more of the educational stuff like lectures outside of the classroom. It was a chance to implement teaching tools and presentations that I had already been using in my regular classroom, but to see how they would work when students were expected to do all the other learning on their own.
“I used a lot of PowerPoint presentations, You Tube videos of other teachers teaching analysis or videos that I put together myself to teach them how to use Stony Brook’s databases for research and that sort of thing. Mostly PowerPoint was the replacement for lectures. And also I had to be more directive in my feedback on their papers. Typically in a regular classroom, when I conference with students I will ask them questions that will lead them to answers, whereas [in online teaching] I was more inclined to skip that step and sort of say ‘Hey, explore this instead of this.’”


As an online student, Becky, did your experience seem any lesser than in traditional classrooms?

BG: “It’s totally different, because it’s so self-guided. I like teaching online; I don’t like taking classes online because I like the classroom environment. I like having the ability to discuss. I learn through connecting examples, especially when it comes to something heavy like literary criticism, where if I don’t understand the topic I need to add a narrative to it. I have to literalize things to understand them contextually, and I don’t feel like I have the chance to do that when I take an online class rather than when I’m in a classroom and can discuss.”


Have you identified any specific challenges facing students taking online class?  Things you think they should be made aware of beforehand? 

CS: “The peer reading is a lot more difficult when people are spread out all over the globe because they’re running on different times and, related to that, some students think some students think online means you can go on vacation and just do your course as an afterthought, and they don’t realize how much time this is going to take if they want to do good work. So that part of it is a kind of weakness that’s built in to the program. I think we need to be more forward speaking to students about how much effort this is going to take.
“[For] the Chinese students, [internet access] depended on how much money the family had. Some families could buy access to better networks. Some students didn’t have any trouble; some students, for the first week and a half of a six-week course, it was touch and go, and some dropped out. They should be told about that as well.”

BG: “You have to be type-A and self-motivated, yes. You have to be. Because no one’s up your ass. I’m not in the classroom reminding students that ‘Okay, guys, your homework for tomorrow is to do A, B, and C.’ You really do have to be self-motivated. The other thing is that in my online class, you had to be particularly self-motivated. I broke my online class into weeks rather than days, so the students had a folder for every week of the semester, and they had to complete checklists of things for that week before the ned of the week. So it was very easy if you did one thing a day; you’d be great. You wouldn’t have to spend more than a half-hour or hour a day. If you left all that till Saturday, you were screwed. At the end of every week, all of those assignments closed. They were done. And you moved on to the next week, and if you didn’t get to those, it didn’t happen.”


How would you describe your level of enjoyment teaching online versus a live classroom?

CD: “I would say they’re different. Equally enjoyable. It depends on the students. And it might be different – an ideal class face-to-face may be different than an ideal class on-line. An ideal class online, you have people who are self-starters, who can keep a schedule themselves; they have to be communicative through texts or email, or be able to contact you. If you have a student who really needs to talk with the teacher in-person to really get helped out, if they’re on-campus of course they can come see you, but if not they can’t. So if you have somebody who’s hard to reach for any reason, or they’re unable or unwilling to contact you in an online class, it can be very rough because you don’t know what they’re thinking, you don’t see their face and you have no other way of reaching them. So even though they’re not present physically, they have to be present other ways.
“But that didn’t happen to me with the undergraduate course I taught. Our online writing classes have been very popular, very easy to fill, and the students have been really motivated to finish. It was much easier to have a relationship with them online.”

DH: “There’s no comparison. I am a teacher. I enjoy interacting with my students. I think that what they get from my classroom is far and above what they get from the online experience. And maybe that’s my subject matter. They’re listening to classical music; most of them never have. I want them to think critically. I can drill them on vocabulary or make them learn the facts. The idea that I lead them through something, that I tell the story of, which I think is so important for a history class – that does not get passed in an online class. I can lead them through some material; I can make them read; I can make them listen, though of course quizzes are much trickier online – you have to really think through your assessment. But in terms of what I think my strengths are as a teacher and where I think that students actually learn how to think about music, that happens in my classroom in a way that I don’t think it is as efficient online.”


BG: “I did incorporate Google chat conferences into my online courses. Face-to-face time is, personally, some of my favorite educating that I do. So the one thing I love the most about teaching I didn’t get to have as much. I think not having the internet and the ability to chat is an issue with some of the students who are taking the course from China or another country where they can’t get onto Skype or Face Time or Google hangouts; there were issues there. That’s the big thing I think I’m missing out on – the one-on-one connection that I really, really passionately love in my traditional classroom. So I tried to supplement that: I did a lot more free writing that was focused on who the students are, what they want me to know about them. But it wasn’t the same.”

CS: “For me, it was just different. I’m a perfectionist. I would – especially over the summer months, I’m not doing any other courses – [find] myself coming back to the computer multiple times during the day; I even got up in the middle of the night to answer queries from people who were overseas, and it took on this kind of 24/7 aspect. I wouldn’t have wanted to teach more than one online course at a time because I think it would just be so taxing that it would not be enjoyable.
“I personally like to meet people through their writing. I’m the kind of person who reads a lot of tone into writing. I just saw somebody on-campus and I couldn’t remember who he was, but then he told me his name and what he had written about and everything came back. I learn people through the writing, so in that respect it’s very nice. It’s like writing long letters to one another, and I’m still a person who enjoys writing letters. I may be the last one left on the planet.”


Have you been in an online class, either as a professor or student? How did you find the experience? What do you think are the promises and perils they present? Leave a comment and join the discussion!




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