Given that we are in the midst of a huge shift in society, one based more on electronic communication than face-to-face, the average teacher will probably be asked to teach an online class at some time.
It may be the teacher’s natural impulse to respond with a resounding “no.” After all, teachers usually go into the field mostly for the interaction with students. When I began teaching online several years ago, I could only see the negative: the distance from students, the not being able to attach names to faces, the lack of clarity, the difficulty or impossibility of establishing any kind of classroom “presence” or individuality of instruction. Indeed, these all are potential problems with teaching online. However, with work and planning each of these problems can be addressed and in so doing discover the unique benefits of online instruction.
Disadvantages of Online Instruction
Lack of clarity
The further something is removed from reality, from “virtuality,” the more potential there is for communication gaps and misunderstanding to occur. It’s well known, for example, that telephone conversations are less clear by nature than face-to-face communication because the parties are not in the same place and cannot see facial expressions and so forth for additional clarification and input. Computer communication is even one step further from reality in that there is not even a voice often involved, just the printed word, and also participants are usually removed from each other in time as well as place. It’s not uncommon for the first two weeks of a course for students to be confused as to objectives and expectations of the course as misunderstandings usually can’t be cleared up on the spot as they would in a traditional class.
Lack of interaction
There is also the real possibility of lack of interaction in an online course. If participants only sign on to the site once or twice a week, the ability of establishing a connection or getting to “know” any of the other faceless names in the course is greatly diminished, as it would be in an onsite class if a student only showed up once a week, coming late and leaving early (or coming at a different time than everyone else), and never interacting with anyone else.
Lack of customization of curriculum
Often online classes come as “standard” packages, with all assignments, readings, and “lectures” (in written form) already determined. What then is there left for the instructor to do? How does she establish any kind of presence in these classrooms? How does she individualize instruction for individual student and specific class need?
There are, fortunately, methods to address these negative aspects of online instruction, and in doing so, actually turn them into positives.
Positives of Online Instruction
Increased clarity. Put it in writing. Again and again. And then give it to them orally. And live.
Spend the first week of class clarifying expectations. Put them in the syllabus, in announcements, email them to students. Set up a live online chat, if possible, and answer questions. Some instructors are even able to videotape themselves in a welcome-to-the-course introduction and post it on the site. All of this can make expectations actually more clear than just being told once, and “on the fly,” in a face-to-face class situation because the objectives and standards of the course have been given to students repeatedly and in multiple modalities.
Build in opportunities for interaction
Make use of multiple means for students to interact with each other and with you, the instructor. Set up topics on discussion threads, requiring students to respond at length to both the topic and each other; set up live chats for students to pose questions on course issues, and take advantage of any other programs available that further enhance discussions with audio and video. By the end of the course, with all the opportunities to get to know each other and interact professionally, students have often formed a community and feel they know each other in a way that wouldn’t have occurred in a more traditional setting. The communication can actually be more intense in an online setting than in a traditional onsite one as it is more focused. Students are generally attending at their own time or at least at a preferred time, in the case of live chats, with their classmates and instructor, so they are less distracted; they are not speaking extemporaneously on a topic they know little about, as is often the case in traditional class discussions, but rather have had some time to think about the question and their responses, and they are not sitting passively listening to lectures but are able to interact with them through blog posts, for example. So in summary, the communication is more intense often in an online situation because outside distractions are blocked and students tend to be more focused on the topic and each other. Students are often trading contact information by course end in a way that they wouldn’t, normally in a traditional class.
Opportunities for customization
The online world remains in some ways the “Wild West,” vast expanses of unexplored and unsupervised frontier, and this, while presenting challenges, also presents unique opportunities: the instructor can customize and create and try out materials and instructional methods that would not necessarily have been possible in a traditional structured onsite environment. I’ve written articles and posted them, for example, on course topics, and set up student reader response groups that I would not have been able to try out in one of my onsite classes, given the limitations of course design as well as limitations on student and teacher schedules.
Removal of barriers
Students in my online writing classes, for example, attend from all parts of the English-speaking world, from California to England to the New Zealand, and are able to attend class together because the internet has in some ways removed time and space limits. Learning people’s perspectives from these different parts of the world would not have been possible in a traditional onsite class in Sacramento, California, where I normally teach—and is made possible through onsite chats and discussions.
The expanse of the World Wide Web remains in some instances unexplored territory: frightening and full of pitfalls.
However, through carefully planned exploration and innovation, the pitfalls can be navigated and transformed into a paradise of original instruction.