Nine Lessons Learned as an Online Student That Help Being an Online Teacher
Being an online student for ten years, I couldn’t help but notice the good and that bad I encountered. Out of all the classes I took – whether at a local community college, a university in another state with an online program, and at two national online universities -- I discovered nine lessons that guide me in my online teaching.
The first lesson learned: maintaining contact is a necessity. While the teacher doesn't need a 24/7 hotline and immediate access to e-mail, it is nice for students to have a contact in case of emergency. As a student, I went into labor five weeks early, only days before the end of an online class. I had no phone number and no way to reach my teacher from the hospital. As a teacher, I make sure to check my email at least once every twenty-four hours and give out a phone number where I can be reached in case of emergency. Even if I’m not available when students call, they know I will call them back as soon as I can.
The second lesson learned: be clear. Lack of clarity is a problem that compounds quickly when lack of contact is added to it. As a student in a C++ programming class, we were given a grandiose assignment on the scale of writing a program which could calculate the gross national product of every country whose inhabitants, on average, earned more than US$10,000 a year. And it should accept commands in both English and Spanish. I didn’t have any experience in programming C++, so the assignment was overwhelming. Coupled with the fact that I couldn’t just raise my hand and ask a question, it was devastating. After days of research and desperate searching, I finally worked up the nerve to call the teacher, only to hear a reassuring laugh and be told, “Oh, don’t worry -- just make up the figures. I just want to see you write code.” In emailing with my classmates and hearing their complaints, I learned I wasn’t the only one who took the assignment a bit too literally. As a teacher, I try to make sure that my assignments are overachiever proof. Anytime someone asks a question about something I thought was obvious, I make a note and the next time I teach the class, I amend the assignment in the syllabus to explain it more fully.
The third lesson learned: introductions and personality matter. As a student, I always liked to find out something about my teachers. It helped me understand where they were coming from and what type of work they expected from me. In on campus classes, teachers were bound to mention things about their personal lives sooner or later. In online classes, however, teachers gear everything towards assignments, and there isn’t as much of a chance for people to share personal comments or reflections. Classes are normally geared towards assignments and tests, and talking is put off or ignored. This isn’t always bad, but it can make the “classroom” a sterile and unpleasant place to be. On the other hand, having teachers share too much information can make the classroom just as unpleasant. As a student, I found some online teachers shared not enough information: my name is Professor X, I got my degree in economics, and I live in Alaska. Others provide a bit too much: After four years of marriage, my wife and I are still going strong, having sex twice a week, and waiting to find out if we’re pregnant with our third child. As a teacher, I try to strike a happy medium. I’ve found it works well to pretend that my introduction to the class is a slightly more personal cover letter for a job. I list my education, my pertinent experience, and throw in a line or two about my hobbies and family. Being human, and being approachable, is something that everyone appreciates.
The fourth lesson learned: there is no such thing as too much feedback. Feedback is a necessary part of all classes -- online and on campus -- but it’s far more important in an online environment. Lack of feedback can be devastating. In the online environment, it’s too easy for an online student to feel like she’s in a vacuum and her hard work is being ignored. As a student, I had at least two teachers who, over the course of a five-week class, gave feedback twice. Without knowing what I was right or wrong, I felt like I was floundering the whole time. I didn’t even know if the teacher was getting my work! What’s almost worse is when teachers promise feedback by a certain date and don’t deliver. I’ve actually had teachers post and tell the class that they had company over the weekend, so they were “too busy” to grade. I know I wasn’t the only who sat there fuming, thinking about staying up until the wee hours of the morning writing a five page paper that I was "too busy" to write. As a teacher, I set a date and do my best to stick with it. I admit that I’m not perfect. I’ve missed it once or twice. I don’t bother giving a lame excuse; my students don’t want to hear it. As long as it doesn’t happen more than once a class, and as long as it isn’t more than a day, my students don’t seem to mind. And if it can happen to me, I try to be understanding when it happens to them.
The fifth lesson learned: online hours should equal campus hours. Overwork is a very real problem. The first online class I ever took was an English literature class, and the teacher had us write a minimum of five pages of answers to questions on top of the usual quizzes and tests that we took. Doing that work took me about three times longer than attending the class would have taken. If I had been on campus, I never would have answered every question. I would have weighed in on two or three of them and just listened in on the rest. As a teacher, I try to give my students options. When I have a list of ten questions, they need to answer six or eight. I try to estimate how much time they’ll take to do the work, and then assign accordingly. Online classes shouldn't be harder than their on campus counterparts -- just equal to them.
The sixth lesson learned: don't make assignments due on days when teachers and students can't connect. Due dates can make or break a class. It’s true. As an online student, I had a teacher who made every assignment due on a Sunday night. She probably thought she was being nice by giving us the whole weekend to work. The problem was that she wasn’t around on Sunday -- she didn’t check her email over the weekend, and the only phone number she gave was an office number, an office she only went to during the week. Like most other students, I put all my homework off until the last minute, so I wouldn’t discover any questions until Sunday afternoon, and then I was stuck. As a teacher, I pick due dates in the middle of the week. I prefer Tuesdays and Thursdays as due dates. Keeping the dates consistent -- the same days every week, like on campus meeting dates -- helps to keep the students on track.
The seventh lesson learned: group work doesn't work. Group work is miserable. I know that working on a team is supposed to be a valuable experience, but I never found the experience anything but annoying and frustrating. As an online student, my peers were there because they had problems with scheduling. Forcing us to work together when we weren’t able to communicate in any “real-time” way didn’t work. We wound up assigning different parts of the work to different people, then sitting around, crossing our fingers, and hoping that everyone pulled their weight. The teachers who enforced the team work claimed that it would help us prepare for the real world, but most of us were already living in it and had discovered that fear of losing a job was a greater fear than that of getting a B or C in a class. One person choosing to not make an A was all it took to drag the rest of the group down. As a teacher, I avoid team work at all costs. If it is a requirement, keep an eye on the students. If someone doesn’t pull their weight, act on it. Giving different grades for the same paper is another option to keep students involved in teams, but, overall, team work is still less than ideal.
The eighth lesson learned: students need to be forced to read the "boring" stuff. Students don’t want to read everything. It’s true for both online and on campus students, but online students can't get the information any other way. As a student, I tried to be good, but even then I would still skip a line here and a paragraph there. Some teachers I had tried to enforce the reading of syllabi and student information plans by having a quiz over the materials. I hated them, mostly because they made me do the reading. As a teacher, I love them. After spending several semesters having to explain to my students how much their writing assignments and quizzes counted for, what the penalties for plagiarism were, and when their assignments were due, I created a quiz based on my syllabus, student information plan, and the school’s academic dishonesty policy. Since I’ve implemented it, the number of questions I’ve received has plummeted.
The ninth lesson learned: comfort is king. As a student, I had no problem going online for classes. I had been playing with computers since I was five and programming since I was eleven, so having to use a computer to attend class was fine with me, but other students haven’t always been so lucky. Students who were returning to school after a long absence in order to strengthen their skills for a new job might be okay with typing, but knowing how to mark up papers for others to review in MS Word, having to convert files to .pdfs, and having to read newsgroups without accidentally marking everything as read could be beyond their skills level. Some students dropped out rather than deal with everything they had to learn. As a teacher, I created a primer for my students to use. It goes over the basics they need to know to be successful in my online classroom. If problems do arise, be prepared with the phone number for tech support. Sometimes it’s the only way to solve the problem.
Being an online student isn't a prerequisite to being an online teacher, but it is a step in the right direction. Understanding the problems that students face is easier once you've faced them yourself.