Nuts, Bolts and Other Tools of the Online Teaching Trade

A new academic year and a new direction for the “Teaching in Pajamas,” with new bloggers of whom I am one. I am going to be focusing on some of the nuts and bolts of teaching online, including topics like:

  • the pros and cons of different platforms
  • student learning styles
  • creating a fun experience online
  • pacing your workload
  • creating learning communities

and much more! If you have topics you would like to see covered, please send them in via the comments section.  I have taught online since 2004, on three or four different platforms, including First Class, Blackboard, WebCT, and now I am part of a campus group previewing Blackboard 9.  I primarily teach two classes online every semester, Introduction to Physical Anthropology and Tribal and Ethnic Art, but I have also created companion shells for classroom courses. This summer I taught my first hybrid class, and it was a good experience, very different from teaching solely online or in the classroom, so I will be talking about that at some point as well.

One of the questions I get asked a lot by both outsiders and veteran educators is, “which do you like better, teaching online or in the classroom?” The answer is, they are apples and oranges. They are so very different from one another in terms of prep time, performing one’s teaching persona, and managing student expectations  that picking one over the other is impossible for me (just as ‘Nobody on the Internet knows you are a dog’ so too on the internet no one thinks twice about emailing you at 3:00 am, and then expecting a reply!)

At this point in my career, I feel that I have achieved a comfortable mix of the two, (about 50%-50%) and I would not like a steady diet of just one or the other. I spend a lot of upfront time between semesters developing and implementing my online courses; but then during the semester they are a lot less work, mostly moderating and facilitating discussions and grading and entering work. Conversely, the classroom versions I have been delivering for a decade or so, thus I can walk into a room with a whiteboard marker and nothing else and go to town. Classrooms tend to need higher levels of emotional investment, while online requires that you think through every step the student will be taking. Students sitting in front of you may become more ‘real’ than those online, but the online students often spend a great deal of time and care crafting their responses, truly thinking through the materials in a way that is harder to coax from them in the 52 minute hour.

Many skeptics contend that online delivery is not as good as the old fashioned way, but I absolutely disagree with this. In both settings, the success factor is primarily due to student effort and engagement (I’d say 70%) with the remainder based upon the teacher and the setting. Some students are better suited to online than others, just as some students really need the physical presence of a professor to help guide their learning.  Online has the capacity to enhance the learning experience through the addition of a plethora of multi-media, hyperlinks, mp3s, podcasts, powerpoints, video, on and on and on, which a student may consume in their entirety on their own time. Could this be assigned in a traditional class? Yes, but I think the formal structure of an online class takes control of the student imagination and dayplanning in a way that the mere understanding of homework fails to do.  Over the next several posts, we will talk about how to make the most of the online environment to give your students the educational resources you think they need.

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