Online Education: Some Considerations

I took my first online course in the summer of 2000 and since then have taken about half a dozen.  I've also taught several dozen over the last 4 years and in my current position, I have helped faculty develop online courses to teach.  The following are the four critiques that I've come to realize that stilt the potential of online education.  Much of this comes from my experience as I've become an online instructor, while other is shaped by conversations and reported expereinces by others.

1.  Direct Entry.

We need to find ways to get access to portals instantly. In most schools, there's a 3-5 step process just to get into the course (going to log in page, logging in, finding specific course, moving pass the entry page and into the most recent/relevant page).  This needs to be streamlined--it's not that it's too much work, but if a person is at the computer, such steps often creates delay.  Besides keeping track of usernames and (every-changing) passwords, it still creates too many obstacles if we want our students to even idly drop by the course.  The way it is set up now, they will only come when they have to.  I would rather have almost instant access which would increase the potential for dropping in.

2.  Beyond the Discussion.

For many online classes, the discussion board is the central space of interaction.  And the discussion can be highly useful, but it also feels after some fifteen years, a bit antiquated.  Variations are coming forward like Blackboard Voice Authoring or even programs like VoiceThreads.  However, there should be something more to create dialogue in a course.  Or if we are going to huddle around the Discussion Board, we need to better tune our questions and types of conversations.  If we've removed the standard barriers that we find in the face to face classroom by giving the student time, resources, and opportunity to finely tune their response, then we should expect or push for better responses, no?

3.  Transparency and Automation

The path to completion should be clear from the onset.  When a student steps into the online class, there should be clear and direct path set out before them about what's expected of them, when it's expected of them, and how it's expected of them.  Rubrics, guidelines, procedures.  If the instructor hasn't laid this out in full detail, they are doing a disservice to the online environment.  A student should never have to ask for details for an assignment--they should be abundantly available from the start of class.  The argument about online learning is that a lot of responsibility to the student, but we do our students an injustice by not clarifying in detail, the nature of that responsibility.  It's not enough to highlight the assignments, readings, and due dates in the syllabus, the instructor needs to actually have the pathway clear.   There should be no mystery about what needs to happen in order for the student to succeed.

Coupled with the transparency is the importance of automation tools.  Most learning management systems (LMS) have some degree of automation that allows for events to automatically occur (emails sense, access to be triggered upon certain events, etc).  There are vastly under-utilized in many systems.  They can be used to facilitate a great amount of busy work (confirmations of assignments submitted, reminders for forthcoming assignments, etc).

4.  Competence with Technology

One shouldn't be teaching online simply because it's easier.  Some instructors approach online teaching that way.  It's a way in which they can balance one more course, one more subject, one more project.  There is effeciency to be found, but it generally shouldn't be at the behest of the center focus of teaching online:  technology.  More specifically, the instructor needs to be technology-compotent or at least willing to develop a more substantive comfort with technology to do things.  No instructor in the world would be hired for a face to face class if he/she said in the interview--"I'm very interested in teaching in a face to face class, I could see how it could make my life easier, but just to note, I have no clue how to use a physical classroom.  Yet there are instructors who take that approach to online learning.  No one expects them to be masters of all technology or even experts with their LMS, but they should--for their own benefit and their students--substantively learn and work to conquer the technology they use.  The failure to invest the time in knowing a good amount about the enviornment (which is technologically based) is not only a bad reflection of the instructor and the school, but of online teaching as a whole.

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