From the Other Side of the Desk: the online edition

August 21, 2012 § 1 Comment

For the past three semesters, I have been fortunate enough to teach Composition II online. If you are wondering how that works, join the club–I’m the president and founder. Over a year ago, I shook my head at the idea–how in the world can anyone teach someone to write college-level essays online?

Well, I have learned and adapted, and I am proud to say that some of my students have actually learned something.

And some of them haven’t.

Teaching online presents itself with some unique issues…but really, they aren’t that unusual.

Issue #1: student expectations versus reality
Many, but not all, of my online students seem to expect that if they take a composition course online, then the class will be easier than if it were in the classroom. I guess they reason, “well, how exactly are you supposed to learn how to write an essay over the computer?” In one of my final assignments of the semester, I ask students to write a self-evaluation of their experience in the course. And inevitably I read astonishment in those assignments: “I had no idea it would be this hard,” “I’m from another major university and thought I would take this class at this college online because it would be easier…and I was wrong,” “I really had to change my priorities and focus on this class.”

Issue #2: methods of communication
As with most major colleges and universities these days, e-mail is the official form of communication. This is particularly true for online classes. How else are we expected to reach one another? This past summer, I had a student who, for several weeks, claimed he had never received a response to his e-mails…it turned out that he had forgotten how to log in to the e-mail system. I am not sure how he managed to send the e-mails (perhaps through a different system?), but at any rate, he never did read my responses. Until he e-mailed me two weeks before the drop deadline from a different e-mail address. To his shock, he was failing the class. He was shocked because he had not received any of his graded papers from me. He was failing because he never incorporated my comments or took my advice to improve upon his argument…and he never did those things because he never saw them. I now have a handout on my course website that explains what to do in the event that a student can’t access his or her school e-mail account.

Issue #3: methods of educating
Handouts. And PowerPoint presentations. But mostly handouts. I write handouts for everything. And when I figure some images will be useful, I play with Photoshop and insert images into my handouts. (For instance, I am trying a new-to-me method of uploading essays through a plagiarism-scanning software. I took screen shots of the process for my students so that they cannot tell me that they do not know how to do it.) In addition to handouts and PowerPoint presentations, I e-mail my students once a week with lengthy announcements. They have writing assignments due every single week (either so-called Checkpoint activities or research essays); this is my way of taking attendance as well as keeping track of their development as a writer. The weekly assignments are not random–they are specifically designed either to help them reflect on their reading homework for the week, or to prepare them for the next research paper that is due. In many cases, the Checkpoint actually serves as either a brainstorming exercise or even as a drafting exercise. Finally, when I read their research papers, I write comments throughout. This is the only way I can reach out to a specific student and address his or her specific issues–unless that student seeks me out and e-mails me, of course. I can only hope that my students read my comments and apply them to the next assignment.

Issue #4: teacher expectations versus reality
The ideal online student would log-in to the course webpage on the first day of class and print off every document that is loaded there. That student would read every word, e-mail me frequently, and pay special attention to my comments. The ideal student would be so motivated that s/he would be able to complete assignments without any trouble at all, realizing that my course is not going to be “easy” simply by virtue of it taking place in an online format. The reality often demonstrates the dichotomous pair to my idealized student. In reality, I have students who don’t even see the link to my handouts that I have worked so diligently to create, in spite of my instructions for them to refer to those handouts. In reality, I have students who don’t really care that this class has the exact same standards as the on-campus class (by state requirement). In reality, I have students who couldn’t be bothered even to write a full e-mail to me when they need to reach me (it is shockingly common for students to compose e-mails without subject lines, without a greeting, and without a signature–like a text message).

But I press on anyway because teaching is teaching is teaching. And my responsibility is to provide the information in order for them to attempt to learn it, just like in the classroom.

When I first started my online teaching experience, I was grateful for the opportunity to teach for my college while also staying at home with my newborn. Now, I am grateful for the experience because it has led me to understand one truism: no teacher can control how much or how little a student learns. It is a waste of my time worrying day and night over a student who doesn’t seem to pay attention in class, or who willfully ignores my lessons. I didn’t use to believe this–I used to think I could educate anyone. I have learned through my online courses that the only thing I can really control is the material I present to them. It is up to my students to read it and to ask questions when they are confused.

This realization is both liberating and terrifying. Who wants to admit that she has no control over the outcome of her career’s goals?

But I suppose that’s the beauty in goals. They are just the elements we aim for. Goals are not promises.

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§ One Response to From the Other Side of the Desk: the online edition

  • Tawnysha Greene says:

    So glad you are on the blog again! Love seeing the updates about you and your family. Good luck with finishing up the dissertation!

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