An Online Class Is Only As Strong As Its Weakest Hyperlink (Sharing the Burden)

RussellBy Rich Russell

(This post for for my fellow AN blogger Kat. Kat, I hope at least some of this is helpful.)

The best advice I received when I first started teaching was, of course, from my mom, who taught high school herself for ten years before taking a few years “off” to have me and my sister, and who has since spent the last twenty-five years at the community college—where we both now find ourselves, albeit on opposite sides of the tenure-track.

Her advice: “Put the burden on the students.”

It was brilliant in its simplicity — something to be crocheted onto pillows and festooned in buntings! New teachers often fret endlessly about what we are going to be doing during those panic-inducing hour-long sessions. The lesson plans for the coming week are sweated over all weekend: the chef-educator spending hours upon hours “in the kitchen” on an exquisite feast for the student’s mind. And then — how many of us have had the experience where we’ve served up this sumptuous repast only to have the students roll their eyes and huff, “Oh, I can’t possibly eat this. Can’t we have pizza instead?” It is enough to send the wary chef into tears (and off to get a license to sell real estate).

But online, as in real life, I’ve shifted my entire mindset. I still spend a lot of time planning (and always there is the grading of papers) on the weekends, but rather than think, “How will I make this class engaging? What will I be doing/saying?”, I consider, “What will the students be doing? How will they be responsible for making the class successful?” This often involves projects/presentations and group work. I consider this approach more democratic. Yes, I lecture some; yes, I often lead discussions still. But I find it’s more worthwhile and authentic when students are “encouraged” (read: required) to generate pivotal questions and elicit responses from each other themselves. And, it’s true, the added bonus in placing the burden upon the students is that they often realize, “Wow, this teaching stuff is hard!”

When teaching online, in order to require the students to help each other, I set up a special discussion board titled “General Comments/Questions,” which I’ve mentioned in a previous post. Here, students get into the habit of posting public questions so that I can either answer them once for everyone or even have the students police their own queries. I know that I’ve become a successful online teacher because most days I don’t receive a single, direct (i.e., student-to-teacher) e-mail in my Blackboard inbox. No news, it’s true, is truly good news. (It also allows me more time on Facebook.)

Online, it really does take an entire e-village to support a classroom. When I need tech help, I turn to my amazing technologist Pat. If there were an Academy Awards-type ceremony for online classes, and were I to win an Oscar for Best Online Class, after thanking my parents and my students, I would be praising the virtues of St. Pat; I imagine myself saying, “Pat, without you, none of this would have been possible.” (Ok, so the speech needs work.) If you don’t have a technologist at your school, you will need to avail yourself of some mentor-figure; feel free to avail me — ask questions here.

Who will the students turn to, then, when their computer refuses to open a document? (Note to Kat: I save all of my Word documents as Web Page files (.htm) before uploading to Blackboard, so that they open directly in the web browser and don’t have to be downloaded/opened in New Word/Old Word; it helps keep my own world ordered. Just be careful of formatting in html, especially the not-so-smart quotes.) Our students do have Online Help, and I tell them to make use of it, cautioning, “I am not the IT Help Desk.” If your own school doesn’t offer online help for students, then I’m not sure your school has any right hosting online classes (no offense to your school or anything). If the Online Help for students is, shall we say, less than stellar, you’ll need to tell students to go to school, in person, to speak to someone in the computer lab: and say, too, that tears often work wonders. (The weepy wheel gets the service.) But if, as online educators, we are expected to be content experts and IT experts — if we take that added burden on ourselves — then we will be responsible for everything, good or bad. And if I wanted to be an IT expert, I would’ve been an IT expert. That’s also what I sometimes need to tell my baby boomer parents: when my dad calls because his new Internet t.v. isn’t working, or my mom asks, “Do you know why my printer suddenly won’t print?”

No, mom, but — have you checked the manual? Have you called the help line for the printer?

This is what we call burden on the students.

About the Teacher in Pajamas: Rich Russell received a B.A. in English from New York University, an M.S. in Teaching from The New School, and an M.A. in English from University College London. He currently teaches composition, literature, and creative writing classes (both online and in person) at Atlantic Cape Community College and The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey. He received the Adjunct Faculty Award for Teaching Excellence from Atlantic Cape in 2010.

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3 Comments
  1. Regine Van Epps says

    Rich,
    I agree with absolutely everything you said! Once, when I was office mates with your Mom, I was bushed having created clever PowerPoints with video and fancy fly ins and engaging (I thought) activities with clever, discussion producing questions (that may or may not have flopped) as well as grading papers etc etc. my mentor gave me some advice.

    Your Mother said, “If you are doing more work than your students, something is out of balance.” An epiphany!! Thereafter, I always made sure the students were in charge of many many things in that classroom. It may be helpful to list the active learning, student-centered activities we do for an active learning classroom.

    Maybe many people could share.

    Here’s what I do for my English 101s. They choose the readings in groups of two and each group presents a rhetorical analysis of their selections in a PowerPoint with appropriate graphical content.

    They decide what we discuss from those readings, after a lecture on creating critical thinking questions with prompts based on Bloom’s taxonomy. They lead the discussion and form the groups and facilitate the group responses.

    Sure there is lecture: on public speaking, on how to create an effective Powerpoint (or webpage), on how to make effective presentations and cite all source material, on how to read critically, on how to create discussion questions and so on. But the students in effect create their own reading curriculum.

    Today we had a deep, moral, philosophical discussion based on the “Ways of Meeting Oppression.” I sat and watched and marveled. My students, once given the chance, can rise to the challenge. But we have to give them that chance to shine, and that can take some letting go and some trusting in the process–a worthy pursuit for sure.

  2. Rich Russell says

    Thanks, Kat! We Blackboard adjuncts/part-time bloggers need to stick together, after all. Have a good rest of your semester! 🙂

  3. Kat Kiefer-Newman says

    Thanks for the tag, Rich! I love-love-love your tip! You don’t even know that I am planning a complete overhaul this summer (gotta feel like I’m earning the unemployment I’ll be drawing) on my class docs. I’ve been putting off making them all pdf files because students don’t seem to always know about Adobe Readers. Using html is perfect, though!

    And I take your note (or your mother’s, anyway) to heart to put the burden on the students. You are right, I do take on too much of the IT stuff myself and I should clearly delegate more.

    Excellent post this week! (and I would say that even if you hadn’t tagged me in it! lol)

    – Kat

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