Online Teaching & Learning: It’s harder than it looks

It has been said that no plan survives first contact and that has certainly been my experience teaching online this semester.  I thought I was well prepared to teach this course, as well prepared as anyone can be who has never taught a fully online course before.  I have explored teaching with different digital technologies in my otherwise face-to-face courses since about 1992.  I have used groupware, discussion boards, wikis, blogs, and other tools.  Admittedly, I am writing this during final exam week, so I may not have enough distance yet for an objective look, but looking back it appears that many/most of the components of my course that were intended to differentiate it and make it a genuinely liberal arts & sciences experience were ultimately jettisoned in an effort to save time and cover the content.

Let’s start with my plan to use twitter to create social context for the course.  I figured this would be easier than my earlier experiments with twitter since Millenials have now “discovered” twitter, but that didn’t seem to be the case.  Early on it seemed clear that my students didn’t really want to use twitter.  Some even told me so.

Most students tweeted using the class hashtag no more than five times over the course of the semester.   Only one student really used twitter daily while a few more did weekly.   That doesn’t seem like much of a social presence to me.   After a couple of weeks, I became worried that my students were not getting the basic communications about the course.   This inference could have been unwarranted, since posting tweets is neither necessary nor sufficient to guarantee following twitter.  In any case, I began to follow important tweets (after a couple of hours) with duplicate email messages. Then I stopped the tweets pretty much altogether.

I had great hopes for using an online discussion board to take the place of class sessions.  It didn’t work out well in practice.  I never got the majority of the students to participate in the online discussions we had.  Most students seemed unable to do the type of critical thinking necessary for using the schema to categorize content in each topic—perhaps the approach was too abstract for them.   I never got a majority of students to participate, even when I changed the task to asking them to “summarize” a reading for the course.  They appeared to see the discussion board as something extra, not something central to the course.  This could have been because, though I gave students credit for participating, I gave no explicit grades on the participation.  I made note of the quantity and quality of student posts, but I didn’t provide that to students.  This is something I could improve on in the future.  It’s also possible I needed to spend (more) time training the students in what I wanted them to do with the discussion board.  The students seemed to want me to “give them” what they needed to know, rather than asking them to dig it out for themselves.

Finally, the macromooc was a fail.  I think the concept had legs, but the timing didn’t work out.  By the time we had covered the course content needed to evaluate the presidential candidates’ economic policies, the election was upon us so we had no time to do what I had planned.  I think I will try something more limited next year.

What was left to distinguish the course was the writing assignments which worked fairly well at getting the students to explore the content in more detail than they would in a lecture-course.  Some students, though, seemed to see them as independent of the course content.  Several asked, “Will what we did on the essays be on the midterm?”

The online class ran consistently about a week behind the face-to-face class.  This lag was due to the first week in which we spent team-building and getting used to the online features.  Note that I tried to do this before the “first” day of class but didn’t get enough participation.  It was fortunate that the final exam for the online course was the last day of the exam period.

Students didn’t do a good enough job of “following” the course.  A number missed Essay 5, which was given around the same time as Essay 4.  Essay 5 was announced via an all-class email.  One student emailed me, “How did you notify us that it was due? I was talking to some classmates and none of us had any clue that there was an essay due.”  Eight students had already turned the assignment in at that point.

I knew coming in to this course that there were certain analytical topics that students have traditionally had difficulty learning on their own.  I planned to video my in-class lectures on those topics and edit the videos down to bite-sized chunks for the online course.  The first of these topics, Supply & Demand, occurred early in the term.  I found it difficult to come up with the video equipment by the time the lectures started, so I didn’t video this topic.  The online students did noticeably worse than the f2f students on the first exam questions involving S&D.  They also did very poorly on the second exam, which prompted me to find a friend from whom to borrow the video equipment.  From that point on, I lugged the camera, tripod and power cords to and from class each session.  I had to arrive early to set everything up, and depart later to break everything down.  This was tedious.  I learned that video editing can take *hours and hours*, though I did get better at it by the end of the semester.  I did find it very interesting to see myself lecture.  I also got a good sense of how my interactive lecture style is very different (less efficient, time-wise perhaps) than a direct content delivery lecture would be.  In some cases, the pared down videos were only 10 minutes in length for a 50 minute lecture.  I did make sure that none of the clips were longer than 10 minutes and most were closer to 5 minutes.  They are all up on YouTube if you’d like to look at them.  A number of students told me they used the videos to study for the final and that they were very useful, but I think by that point it may have been too late.  I need to think more about how to build the interactive elements of my face-to-face course (e.g. small group problems to work out and present) into the online version.

In retrospect, the students never seemed to buy in to my vision for the course, but neither did they seem to have the self-discipline and metacognition to do the work, and thus the learning, on their own.  Perhaps undergraduates (first and second years and upper level students with other majors) do not have what it takes to be successful in an online course.  Or perhaps the failure was due to my inexperience as an online teacher.

In sum, I found this online course a tremendous amount of work and more than once asked myself why I was killing myself to do this when teaching face-to-face is so much easier and fun.  Nonetheless, I think I should teach online at least once more, since there clearly is a learning curve.

I have two more tasks to do to complete the evaluation of this course.  I asked students in both my face-to-face and online sections to do a course evaluation that I designed.  I need to review and reflect on those evaluations.   I also plan to do a careful statistical analysis of exam grades in the two sections, controlling for student ability, credit hours completed and a couple of other standard variables.  To get that data I need to talk to the Registrar, so both of these tasks will have to wait until I return to school next week.


Photo Credit: “Harder than it looks”

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2 Responses to Online Teaching & Learning: It’s harder than it looks

  1. Wendy Drexler says:

    What an honest, humble reflection. You are not alone. Even after teaching many online courses and a less than massive MOOC, I empathize with your experience. There’s a lot here. I’ll try to respond to a few key reflections.

    Time: As with many other “firsts” in life, it’s impossible to envision the fully online teaching experience until you do it. I tell the faculty with whom I work, “you may like it, you may not, but it won’t be what you expect, and it will change your teaching practice forever – even in the classroom.” You can let me know if you agree.

    Twitter: A powerful tool in my professional life, I haven’t had much luck with Twitter in my grad courses without specific guidance. The most successful Twitter experience I had was with high school students following #Obama and #McCain hashtags in the 2008 election. They were actually studying the impact of Twitter on the election. They had a very specific, related task to achieve. (Monitor the types of comments, how many, general feelings, fact vs opinion, etc.) Many students see Twitter and other social networking experiences as extra work. Without a specific purpose, Twitter communication needs to grow organically. That’s tough to do in a finite course. I’d love to hear from others who have had better luck with Twitter without giving credit for the Tweeting.

    Discussion participation: I give points (not grades per se) for discussion participation. Students must respond to an initial post by mid week and respond to 2 or 3 (sometimes all) classmates by the end of the week. I give discussion prompts that require students to contribute new information – usually something that requires a little research. Cheerleading (I agree/nice job) is unacceptable. I’m trying to teach them to be consultants in the course rather than passive sponges. If discussions are not required, you will not get full participation. I post clear guidelines, include them in a rubric, and review closely in the first one or two discussions. Once they understand the expectation, they do very well on their own. It takes losing a few points for some of them to get on board. We shouldn’t have to grade discussions, but remember – we’re teaching them a new way to learn. Side note: I’ll bet you don’t get full participation in every class discussion if you don’t give some kind of credit for participation.

    Student attitude, perception, and performance: I’m always curious about the amount of time we spend focused on the implications for TEACHING in online spaces without fully contemplating the implications for LEARNING. First-time online instructors are understandably discombobulated while grappling with this new way to teach. It’s easy to forget that most of our students, even the youngest tech-savvy of the bunch, have learned how to “do” school in a traditional classroom. They are no more equipped to learn in this new space than we are to teach there. Maybe less so.

    Workload: It is a lot of work, especially the first time. Two responses – 1) It definitely gets easier with experience. 2) Wouldn’t it be something if all teachers spent this much time preparing for courses whether in the classroom or online? My guess is you spent at least this much time preparing for your first Econ classroom teaching experience and likely made great adjustments over the years.

    My passion for getting this right (and I’m not there yet) is based on my experience as an online student. The first two courses in my graduate program were online. They were well designed, and I was highly motivated. I thrived when I could take control of the learning experience and gauge it to my personal professional needs and interests. When I later attended the first F2F course in the program, I couldn’t get over how slowly it moved (even with a great professor). I just couldn’t reprogram my brain to shift gears. Of course, I re-adjusted. I also discovered a new way to learn. Some students will embrace this experience. Many won’t. We have to scaffold this process for most of our students. We have to teach them how to learn in a new way. It takes time away from content, but it’s worth it.

    I’m interested in the data you are collecting. It would be even more interesting to make some adjustments and re-collect the data in a second or third course. Let me know if you want to chat via phone or Skype. I’d be happy to help with revisions.
    Thank you for sharing your experience.

  2. Steve: Many thanks for sharing your experience, shortcomings and all; thanks also to Wendy for some very useful pointers.

    Your reflections give the impression that you are very disillusioned with online teaching (even though you say that you will try it again.) If this is the case, do you think your experience applies to the medium in general, or that you simply don’t like or feel suited to it?

    Last summer taught two fully online courses with weekly live meetings (using Adobe Connect,) and I have just begun three mostly online section of an introductory geography course (we meet for the first two weeks in a classroom setting, then online.)

    Your experience mirrors a lot of the problems I had with my summer classes, and I can certainly identify with the sentiments you express. I wrote some reflections midway through the course (, and I would have written much of the same at the end. My most important additional realization came at the end of the course, and has already been reinforced this semester. Most of the problems I had stemmed from three issues, the first two of which have nothing to do that have nothing to do with the online medium per se.

    1. Students just don’t read stuff. I’m not talking just about required readings; most (yes, most) also don’t read announcements, e-mails and other administrative communications. This matters a whole lot more in an online class, where unless they read, students will have no idea about assignments, deadlines, or anything else.

    I don’t know what to do about this, but I am addressing it at the beginning of this course by stressing in the classroom the importance of checking Canvas regularly. I have also decided not to send reminders at all, especially at the start of the semester; I will also make sure that all announcements are in the same place (Canvas only, not e-mail or Twitter.) Among my first announcement will be one about an online assignment; students who don’t read it will get zero for the assignment. Maybe this will help.

    2. Many students aren’t as tech savvy as we think they are, and some are frightened by it. I found that this improved with time, but a significant side-effect is that many students showed no initiative whatsoever in troubleshooting technical problems, often e-mailing me with the most trivial questions. It seems that many students find it easier to e-mail the professor rather than making an effort to figure out answers themselves, and that if we answer them promptly this simply reinforces the problem.

    A remedy I’m trying this semester is to insist that students post questions first on a class Canvas forum 24 hours before e-mailing me; my hope is that they will help one another, and that they will be forced to use some initiative (and that I will only have to answer questions once.) I will also not answer e-mail that pose questions already answered on Canvas.

    3. Online teaching is vastly different from classroom teaching. I am having to relearn my craft from the beginning, and in the most fundamental ways. I need to figure out how teach using methods and content tailored to an online environment. Classroom classes don’t translate well into online classes.

    When I got back to an old-fashioned classroom this week, I was reminded of how exhilarating face-to-face teaching can be. I didn’t realize how much I missed it. I am also very nervous at teaching three classes – a total of over a hundred students – online this semester. But I remain optimistic; I am convinced that if (and it’s a big if) I can learn how to adapt my teaching methods, teaching online could well be as satisfying, and in some ways even more effective, than its face-to-face counterpart. If students read stuff.

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