Teaching Online: Big Investment, Bigger PayoffIf you want to, you can make your class online even more rewarding than face-to-face.
When Dr. Mary Culver was a child, she met a girl who didn’t know how to tie her shoes—so Mary taught her. Later she played math teacher in the basement. “I still like to play teacher, even if I have to publish,” she says, now that she’s an associate clinical professor of educational leadership at Northern Arizona University.
This is her seventh year of teaching online. She got into it kicking and screaming, after many years of classroom teaching. “My shtick about teaching is interacting, that chemistry with your classroom,” she told WIHE. After her supervisor pointed out that she could reach more students by teaching online, she took the challenge.
It wasn’t easy. Teaching an engaging, interactive online course where students persist and learn takes a huge investment of the instructor’s time and effort. She tracked the contacts from several years of her online courses:
Online Teaching is Labor Intensive
Her students are all over the state and beyond, including remote rural areas like Arizona’s Navajo reservation. Women are a clear majority of online learners, about 63% of two-year college students. “They can work online in the middle of the night, and many of them do. They can make use of every available moment,” she said.
Culver’s course demands a lot from her students too. Course evaluations say she kicks butt and they love it. “I see more and more women who were thrilled with the intensity of the course, knowing they were also supported,” she told WIHE. “If they don’t learn, you’ve wasted their time. You don’t want to waste a working woman’s time. They will scorn you.”
At the 25th annual University of Nebraska’s Women in Educational Leadership Conference in Lincoln in October 2011, Culver discussed “What It Takes to Teach Online” in the style of the popular TV quiz show Jeopardy!.
Unfortunately the room’s computer was unable to facilitate the game, but you can play by quizzing yourself: Read each question and cover the answer until you’ve made your guess.
“If you want to, you can make your class online even more rewarding than face-to-face,” she concluded. “But you have to want to.” Info from her Jeopardy! game can help.
Misconceptions abound about the ease of creating and teaching online courses. Universities rarely acknowledge the long hours when they calculate teaching loads or the pay rates of part-time instructors. She said online teaching isn’t better or worse than teaching face-to-face; it’s all in what the instructor makes of it.
Answer: “Online teaching is simply transferring ‘inclass’ pedagogy directly to an online format.” Try that and you’ll lose your students in no time. Designing an effective, interactive online course is very intensive, and classes need to be tweaked whenever standards or textbooks change.
Answer: “Student-to-teacher and student-to-student interactions are limited.” The skeptics are wrong. Communication and a relationship are vital to keep students involved, especially women. The interaction determines whether students learn.
Answer: “Older faculty.” They learned in classes taught by traditional lecture methods, and many are uncomfortable with technologies that emerged much later.
800 points: “What does research show to actually impact faculty interest in teaching online?”
Answer: “Personal interest in learning and using technology to teach.” Her interest has grown with success and positive student feedback. “Teaching online is very well suited for people who have a kind of OCD for getting a job done,” she said.
1000 points: “Who has exactly the opposite opinion about the effectiveness of teaching and learning online than those instructors who either have not taught online or have had a negative experience teaching online?”
Answer: “Instructors with a positive online teaching experience.” Her initial resistance is long gone.
Communication in an effective online course may exceed that in a physical classroom. Students can suggest an idea or ask a question when it comes to them, not just when the instructor’s agenda permits.
Discussion quality improves. While face-to-face classroom discussion tends to be dominated by students (more often men) who raise their hands before deciding what to say, those who like to think before they speak (more often women) get an equal chance to contribute—and to finish their thought without interruption.
200 points: “What are some of the major kinds of communication an online professor needs to build into their class?”
Answer: “E-mails, threaded discussions, chat, instant messaging and phone calls.” Varied types of interaction increase student interest and learning.
400 points: “What type of communication must a professor increase with online students?” Instructors see classroom students all at once, but emails come in student by student. Each personal interaction gets her full attention: “I can have deeper responses than I would face-to-face.”
600 points: “What do online students expect from their professor?”
Answer: “High responsiveness and fast turn-around.” Unlike conventional office hours, typically while her students are teaching school, she’s there whenever they need her. To avoid burnout she checks email about four times a day. Students can fire off an email at their morning break and read the response at lunchtime.
800 points: “What is the exception to the ‘don’t reply to EVERY discussion post’ rule?”
Answer: “First day ‘introduction’ posts.” Since students can’t meet the instructor’s eye, they need to be personally acknowledged from day one.
1000 points: “What don’t online ‘dropouts’ do that successful online students do?”
Answer: “Post ‘introduction’ to class discussion on first day of class and email the professor multiple times during first two weeks of class.”
Just because certain technology is cool doesn’t mean it’s best for your class. Only use what has a purpose. For example, it’s easy to get excited about Skype, which would let you hold class discussions in real time. But that would hurt students whose schedules don’t match yours or who don’t have that technology. She chooses applications that will work for students on the reservation who depend on dial-up connections.
200 points: “What online teaching methods, combined with content knowledge of instructor, make for an effective online course design?”
Answer: “A skillful combination of email and other communication with the professor, student-student discussion, direct instruction, collaborative projects and quality feedback to students.”
400 points: “Why do pre-tenured professors tend to avoid teaching online?”
Answer: “The time necessary for designing online instruction cuts into research time.” This is all too true. She tries to link her research to her teaching so her courses improve as a result.
600 points: “What are different online course designs?”
Answer: “Synchronous, asynchronous, blended (part synchronous/part asynchronous) and hybrid (part online/ part in-person).” She makes her courses asynchronous so working mothers can fit college into their complicated lives, but that isn’t the only option.
800 points: “Why should technology NOT drive the course?”
Answer: “Because learning outcomes demand certain media; because certain media is available to all students; because certain media motivates students; because students have the skills to use the media; because media costs are affordable and worthwhile.”
1000 points: “What design element increases online student retention?”
Answer: “Collaborative learning activities.” Students interact with other students as well as the instructor. The less isolated they feel, the more likely they are to keep going.
Online courses in general have a higher attrition rate than those in a classroom. Students log on, surf the entire course the first day and feel overwhelmed. One told her, “When I first looked at the course I thought, there goes my summer.”
Almost all her students complete the course. She works hard to retain them by direct personal attention. Assignments due every Sunday evening so students don’t fall behind; if she doesn’t hear from them, she checks in by email.
200 points: “What students are most successful in online courses?”
Answer: “Well-prepared, motivated students (traditionally underserved as well as traditional students).” Culver’s reputation precedes her. Students who want an easy A are advised to look elsewhere; hers sign up expecting to work, another reason so few drop out.
400 points: “What is the #1 thing online professors can do to increase the (otherwise lower than face-to-face) retention rate of their online students?”
Answer: “Build rapport with students.” She doesn’t know what they all look like but she certainly knows who they are.
600 points: “What is one possible reason for higher student attrition in online courses than in face-to-face classes?”
Answer: “The demand for increased student access (especially traditionally underserved populations).” Online classes open the possibility of college for rural, low-income students who may depend on their workplace for Internet access. But when life intrudes, they have fewer resources to deal with it, so they’re more likely to drop out of school.
800 points: “What has research shown about the effectiveness of online learning?”
Answer: “Online education is AT LEAST as effective as face-to-face instruction.” Students benefit from setting their own pace and getting personal attention from the instructor.
1000 points: “What do online teachers need to help deal with the approximately 3x as much delivery time needed for teaching online (based on course organization and # of students) than for face-to-face delivery?”
Answer: “Effective training to teach and design online courses.”
Category: Basic Tips for Success
200 points: “What’s the first thing you need when teaching online?”
Answer: “Plenty of prep time.”
400 points: “What do you need to remember when selecting from all the technologies available in designing your online course?”
Answer: “Keep it simple.”
600 points: “What do you need to do when transferring your face-to-face class to an online format?”
Answer: “Start from scratch.”
800 points: “What can you do to increase the chances of online students reaching out to you?”
Answer: “Provide a definite contact time/method.”
1000 points: “What must you absolutely do to prevent online burnout?”
Answer: “Maintain your sense of humor!”
Contact her at Mary.Culver@nau.edu
Cook, Sarah Gibbard. (2011, December). Teaching Online: Big Investment, Bigger Payoff. Women in Higher Education, 20(12), p. 24-25.