First, let's think about what makes me a good teacher in a traditional setting. I think I'm good at (based on student feedback, self-assessment, etc.):
- Improvisation day-to-day within the constraints of the syllabus. I think that I excel at scrapping my plan for the day when it's clear that another approach would be more advantageous for my students (so just doing discussion instead of an activity or whatever, or vice versa).
- Writing a do-able syllabus and sticking to it. I am a professor who does not like to change deadlines, to speed ahead on the syllabus, to fall behind, to cut material, etc. I feel like if the syllabus is a contract, then I'm bound by it, too. Students need to know what the heck is coming next, and they can't plan if they don't have a document they can trust. I think this also helps with making the class a community that works together rather than centering the class on my needs.
- Appearing enthusiastic. This is a lame one, but students always seem to comment favorably on this. Are there other profs zombies who don't like the material? I will never know.
- Making hard stuff accessible, if not easy. So relating seemingly disconnected material to students' lives, giving them strategies for approaching something that seems very difficult on their own, etc.
- Designing assignments that build off of one another, from reading to in-class activities to papers to exams.
- Responding to student work in ways that are substantive and that connect their ideas to what I'm trying to get them to learn.
Now, obviously all of that isn't lost in moving to a web-based method of delivery. I'm not a different teacher in an online environment. I'm still all of the above things. And in working on the web course, I worked really hard to build the assignments and the methods of interaction in such a way that we would constitute a community of learners throughout the semester, and I've set the course up to emphasize that students are at the center of the whole enterprise. For the students in the course who are committed, this seems to be working ok. The problem as I see it is that those students are in the minority of students enrolled in the course.
- The ability to improvise on a day-to-day basis depends on everybody being on the same page, or basically in the same place at the same time. I can't change something up on a Tuesday if most of the class doesn't get the memo until Saturday night. So one thing I'll change about the course next semester is that I will put strong language into the syllabus that students are expected to check the course site, the blog, and their email at least once per day. I indicate this in a not-so-strong way now, but I want that to be emphasized more strongly, as it's clear to me that students are not keeping plugged in to the course in a consistent way.
- It is difficult to stick to the syllabus when the students just aren't doing the work. And it's difficult to force them to do the work (whether through positive or negative reinforcement) when they're not in front of you. And so even the students who are keeping up flounder because their classmates are floundering. I feel like I can't make any major changes because that screws the students who have bought into the course, but I also can't correct for the students who just aren't showing up, so to speak. Gah.
- How does one appear enthusiastic in an environment where you're not actually present?
- How does one make material accessible to students when they're not telling you what they're getting out of the material, and when they're not (as far as you can tell for some of them) actually keeping up with the reading/viewing, let alone their assignments?
- How can assignments build off of one another when students aren't doing the assignments?
- How can one respond substantively to students who aren't actually giving you anything to which to respond?
Now, I actually do have some insight into what these students came into the course expecting because I made them fill out a form in which they told me a bit about themselves and their expectations. So what are the majority of them expecting?
- A course that fits into their schedule that will allow them to graduate sooner. Most of these students are not 100% online. They're taking traditional classes at the same time that they're taking this web course. The idea is that adding a web course to their schedules will allow them to graduate more quickly. (This course is for a degree that is typically a "completer degree" for many students.)
- A course that allows them more ease with balancing family and work obligations, which are more central to them than their work as students. Note: I'm not judging that these things are more central to them. We all have to have priorities. BUT I think that there is a difference between "more central" and "the only central thing and I won't meet my obligations with the other things I take on."
- A course that fits their vague interest in the theme I've chosen.
Now, I've sent stern emails. I've informed students about the fact that they're receiving zeros for assignments not completed. I've picked up the slack on the course blog for students who aren't meeting their posting obligations so that the rest of the class can meet their commenting obligations. I'm honestly not sure what else I can do other than what I've done.
And this is disheartening because typically I know how to get a course back on the rails in a F2F setting.
So as I write all of this out, I do think that part of the problem is just with the method of delivery. I think that many of these students think "online" equals "checked out." I'm not sure what I can do, or what I even should do, to combat this. To some extent, I feel like this is their party. If they choose not to show up, well, I can't really force them to get down and boogie. As a teacher, though, this upsets me, because I really do want them to learn and to get something out of the course.
Perhaps, though, all of this is a reminder for me of just how much teaching and what happens in the classroom isn't really about me. And that's got to be a good reminder.
It will be interesting to see, though, how things progress from this point, and how things go next semester, with a different crop of students. Maybe I've just got a bad batch? One can only hope.