Connecting to Students: Improving Retention in Online Classes (Part II: The Professors)

By Rich Russell

Now that I have time to catch up on a few articles that have been languishing in my inbox since spring break, I realize that I failed to recognize (having just had a chance to read) Steve Kolowich’s article “Built for Distance” posted on Inside Higher Ed (May 16, 2011). His article ties in nicely with my coda from last time: “that not all professors are cut out to provide meaningful online instruction.” Kolowich himself writes: “Some professors might be charismatic at the lectern and dull and unpunctual at the keyboard.” I’m not sure how a professor can train to be more emotive online; certainly one can make an effort to be more attentive to students (check in every day), but some people just don’t come across well online. Is there a sort of “finishing school” that professors can enroll in to enhance their e-tiquette (or netiquette), to polish their online persona?

I think one solution, which Kolowich notes, is audio/video technology, whether video chat (I’m not sure I’m comfortable with video chat yet: that seems too much an imposition into the private lives of my students, to be chatting with them in their homes) or simply recording audio and/or video lectures to post online. My resolution for my own online classes, beginning with my summer courses that start in July, is to create a video introduction: so that students have a better sense of who I am or at least what I look like. Instead of writing out my introduction the first week, I am going to record it. (I’ll post a link to it here once it’s completed: Coming July 2011 to a computer near you!)

In his piece, Kolowich also addresses the question of online faculty burnout, citing inconclusive statistics on this issue. (The question thus becomes, “How do we retain not only online students but also online faculty?”) At first, online classes can seem like a lot more work than traditional sections: more writing (every instruction for every assignment must be clearly written) and more reading (all responses to most if not all assignments). But, at least for me, I prepare a lesson plan regardless of the format of my class, so posting it online to have the students work through independently or in groups (I call it our “weekly agenda”) is not much different from projecting it on-screen in a face-to-face class, though one is “in real time” and the online class is usually asynchronous. Also, as a creative writer, I’d like to think that my personality comes across well — my tone clear and amenable — in what I write. (Rob Jenkins, whose article on online retention I discussed last time, had another interesting article in The Chronicle back in April on the lack of effective, affective tone in the e-mail of some administrators.)

In terms of feedback, as an English professor I’ve been groomed to provide copious written remarks on student work; even the most tenured English professor will bemoan the time it takes to comment on student writing. But, as noted in previous entries, I do “put the burden on the students” to respond to each other’s work as much as possible; some weeks I will not comment on discussions until most if not all of the other students have had a chance to contribute first.

Ultimately, while it may sound a bit ageist, I do think there is something to be said for another article Rob Jenkins posted back in March (“You Probably Shouldn’t Teach Online If…”). At first, I disagreed with Jenkins; I thought that someone like my own Luddite mom, who has taught online before (though not in some years due to her own personal preference for the IRL classroom), would be better suited to online instruction because she wouldn’t let the technology do the work for her: she would realize how important the human connection still is in online ed. I often fear that some of my students, especially the online ilk, are too dependent and blindly trusting when it comes to technology. But now, I must concede, while I am often skeptical of the need for so many new “toys” (I don’t even have an e-reader), I am on Facebook, and while I don’t think all professors need to be on Facebook, perhaps online professors do: not so that they will “friend” their students (as I’ve said: proceed with extreme caution there), but because professors online, on Facebook, will understand some of the more ineffable elements that go into creating a social, online community, and that understanding will invariably inform and enhance the online class.

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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