If Teaching Online Is Easy--Are We Doing It Wrong?

I have heard many people (including myself) claim that teaching online is easier.  When I inquire further, the person often highlights the fact that he or she can do it in their pajamas and even when he or she is sick.  However, I also hear from people as they talk about how much less work they have to do and this worries me about the nature of online education and the value of it.

When someone teaches a face to face class, they have a level of accountability and investment that has a strong possibility of being lessened in the online environment and I guess my concern is that many are offering a lesser quality product than their face to face counterparts.  There's a disparity here that's not really being acknowledged in online learning.  This isn't true of all faculty for certain, but there are faculty that conduct themselves this way and it worries about the nature of online education.  The following are some observations and concerns about opportunities and problems with online learning.

The online environment allows us to fill the course to the brim with content.  

Much of which is not our own, but just relying on other work out there.  Positive:  This means we can have much richer content and find ways of communicating the material in creative ways in which we may not have the time, skill, or resources.  Negative:  If it's out on the internet, then how is what we're offering as faculty, unique, useful, or somehow specialized knowledge?  If we as individuals aren't offering something unique through discussions, continually tuned and tweaked learning guides, or lots of deep interactions, then what are we in the online environment besides over-inflated assignment graders (and in some cases--even that is automated) or marginal curators?

Rather than reproducing the course notes, assignment explanations, rubrics, etc semester to semester as we do in face to face classes, they can be easily copied from semester in the online platform

 Positive:  This can save faculty an inordinate amount of time and energy in course preparation.  Negative:  It's ease of reproduction leads faculty to change and tweak it less than they might in their face-to-face courses.  Since they don't have to directly engage with the content, they are less likely to tweak it (sometimes even on a superficial level--such as changing/adding dates etc).  If you don't have to present your notes--just hit the copy button, are you more inclined to adapt them appropriately? 

Some assessments can be automatically graded through the learning management system and students learn their grades almost instantly.  

Positive:  This saves time (especially when coupled with the copying of the course) and provides immediate feedback on their work.  Negative:  It can often distance the faculty from the actual work their students are doing and as the course evolves, these questions need to be revised and redressed regularly.  Also, automatically graded tests come with auto-responses for scores which are largely the equivalent (no matter how nicely written) to the "We care about your call" messages we get when we call customer service.  Without direct follow up, it feels shallow. 

So what follows are some considerations about teaching in an online environment to bridge the game between the "easy" introduced by teaching online and the rigor of effort implicit in teaching.

Don't rely on automatic features of your LMS to engage with your students.  Make regular specific announcements about what has gone on in the past week(s), directly reach out to students to find out what's going on.  Make sure your presence is palpably felt through announcements, discussion posts, regularly directing relevant resources, and even holding online office hours or making yourself available through a social media environment (e.g. Twitter).

Reaching out to your students early and regularly.  Make sure they know you are regularly engaged with the course and their specific learning.  In an online class, we miss the opportunities to read body language and facial expressions to garner a sense of what's working and what isn't.  We lose that in the online environment and therefore, as instructors do need to compensate for it--otherwise, we're failing the ways in which we teach our students.

Recognize, just like your students, that you're recognizing that you've been allotted a certain amount of freedom (in the form of time), but you still need to follow through with responsibility (doing more than the bare minimum in your course:  grading papers, acknowledging (but not substantively participating in) discussion posts, corresponding in a reasonable amount of time.  That freedom of when still needs to be tempered by the amount of time you put into engaging with your students; the LMS is not a replacement for your "face time" with your students.  

Do not use the rhetoric of freedom or student choice to disregard your students and recognize that some may not really understand the nature of online education.  

In a face-to-face class, we can often given the student the benefit of doubt that he or she does not know or understand a basic component of our class (e.g. citing).  But we seem to lose that patience or fail to see how that is exacerbated in an online environment.  Students' lack implicit knowledge in online class.  They don't always know how to make sense of how to conduct themselves and instructors often fail to help in that regard because each course they step into is a very different maze than the last (in some schools, the set up and execution of courses drastically differs--leaving students hard to figure out the "right" course of action since it is different from what they saw previously).  I hear too many times, "well, they choose to take an online class and didn't do the work, so clearly it's their fault" (and to be honest, I've fell into this trap as well).  It's just not that easy.  Well, sure it is, if you make it so, but you do so at the point of alienating your students or failing to meet them where they're at and guide them to the endgame.  

The online environment allows us to automate much; we as instructors have to be all the more human and engaging or we're failing to give students the full value of their education.

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  1. This is an invaluable guide to advise professors new to online teaching. I agree with all your tips and caveats.

    Online teaching is far from easy or passive though. There are papers to grade, broken links or web objects to trouble-shoot, discussion boards to monitor and offer feedback, and the emails--oh the many many emails. Teachers absolutely must engage with each student several times throughout the course or they will lose learners. One tip of my own is to build in a Skype or telephone conference somewhere in the course. That face-to-face or voice to voice interaction is an important and humanizing artifact of classroom teaching.

  2. Awww thanks Anonymous! I agree about the face to face or voice to voice interaction, I think that can be very useful and help make students feel more connected!


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