Thursday, September 18, 2008

More about Teaching Environments

So, yesterday I posted about my web course, and I tried to articulate something about how it's working or not working, but I feel like I was sort of incoherent. So here's a follow-up post that may end up being as incoherent as the last one, but as I'm still trying to think these issues through, you'll just have to bear with me.

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.
As I look at the above list, a lot of what I'm good at really depends on what students give me. If students aren't invested, then most of the above doesn't mean a hill of beans. Which I suppose is why the "enthusiasm" thing is a positive attribute, for enthusiasm and investment are contagious. Also, I think that most of the above depends on everybody in the class being on the same page, so to speak. I don't carry the class: everybody has to carry their part of the weight.

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.

Challenges:
  • 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'm not a new teacher. I'm a very experienced teacher. I know that there isn't some deep flaw in the way that the course is constructed or in the way that the assignments are constructed. The students (maybe 1/4 of the class) who are doing the work are doing just fine. The problem is with that other 3/4 of the class. And I think that part of what is causing the problem with that 3/4 of the class is one of expectations (theirs for the course) and belief (I don't think that they actually believe the course policies, the deadlines, etc.).

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?
  1. 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.)
  2. 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."
  3. A course that fits their vague interest in the theme I've chosen.
Many of these students came into this course having never taken an online course; many of these students are totally unfamiliar with the basic technology required to participate in such a course; many of these students, if they have taken courses online, have had the experience that the course works like a correspondence course in which they just do some work and turn it in at the end with very little interaction between themselves and classmates and themselves and the instructor. I also suspect that since many of them are also taking F2F classes that those classes are taking precedence in their list of priorities because they have the constant reminder that they've got to do the work of those courses.

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.

17 comments:

Belle said...

I'm there. I found, with my two online courses, that many of my students weren't ready to actually do the work or do it on time, so the required discussions turned into something totally different that what I'd expected. The lack of interaction between me and them was really the killer. I realized that I rely heavily on classroom interaction to keep my energy/enthusiasm going, so having them plug in three days late and then go lump-on-mold on the class so changed the dynamics that I lost all energy.

For me, teaching online turned into an enormous energy/interest drain. I agree that it's the delivery system. For students who want credit vs content/knowledge/skills, online may the the right thing to do. Flaming Bird seems to get students. But you know? I'm ever more inclined to regard those degrees as ever less meaningful.

So imagine my horror when RNU Health care says they want to offer an online PhD 'so that they can produce qualified faculty to teach health care.'

~VP~ said...

Online is different and comparing it to traditional doesn't work. Students and profs have different expectations online. Students think it's easy and it's not. Professors think students will "be there" every day and they won't.

I had to address the question about how to show enthusiasm when you're not "present" in the online classroom. It's all in the tone and how you write lessons, assignments, announcements, responses in discussions, etc.

To get students to participate more, make sure you're tying significant points to the discussion interaction and be sure you're requiring a minimum number of days and due dates for first postings. You have to structure it for them -- you can't leave it up to the students to participate.

Check out my blog for some more info about online teaching. I've been MIA there for about a month but what's there is relevant to all online profs :-) Enjoy!
vp

Dr. Bad Ass said...

Your style of teaching F2F sounds much like mine, and I've had similar problems with transitioning to an online course.
Some things I've tried, with varying degrees of success:
* I post a video of myself introducing the course and syllabus in the first week, in which I try hard to show my enthusiasm and to make clear the difficulty of the course, how they have to be engaged in the course multiple times in a particular week, etc. I found that I had several students who dropped during the first week, perhaps because they had anticipated the course being an easy one, and it turned out to be not so much.
* Emphasizing in the syllabus, the course page, the video, etc. that I don't accept late work unless students warn me ahead of time. This is also something I do in F2F classes, and though it makes me appear a bit of a hard-ass, I like the seriousness that it implies.
* I experimented with podcasting every week (my uni has an arrangement with ITunesU that will allow me to upload podcasts and link to them from my course page) to handle housekeeping, reminders, etc. But I wasn't very consistent about them, and there was no way to check how many students were actually accessing them.
* The one change I will make -- should I teach particularly an undergraduate course online again -- will be to make the online discussion worth MUCH more of the grade. Oh, and I also grade the online discussion this way: I tell students that in order to get an A on each weekly discussion, they must post a thoughtful answer to the discussion question, must post multiple substantive responses to others' answers, and must post throughout the week. So, for example, if a student posts her answer and posts multiple substantive responses to others all within a one-hour time frame, she still gets a C on the discussion for that week.

Sorry this is so long. One of my grad students brought me some coffee from Brazil, and I think it is fueling some weird energy . . .

Dr. Crazy said...

"Online is different and comparing it to traditional doesn't work. "

I take your point, but I think the problem is that I think that fundamentally believe that if we can't compare them than we shouldn't be offering the same credit for them. I don't actually expect them to be there every single day, but I do expect them spending the same amount of time on this course that they would on a traditional one - i.e., 3-9 hours per week. If they're not doing that, they're going to fail. And ultimately, I think that they *should* fail if they're not doing that, whether the course is online or traditional or whatever.

I do appreciate all of the feedback and suggestions, though, and I definitely plan on incorporating some. What's so weird is that the discussion went *great* during the week when I did the sample blog post, and everybody was "present." The past two weeks? Yeah, people just didn't do their blog posts. Period. Those students no cannot get better than a B in the course, regardless of whatever else they do. 15% of the course grade is related to commenting, and at least 2/3 of them are averaging somewhere in the D range on that. They've got the rubrics, they've got deadlines, they know exactly how everything is calculated. They're just not doing the work. The thing is, I feel badly about this, but I kind of feel like I *shouldn't* - that you can lead a horse to water and all that, and if I fail 2/3 of the class, so be it.

Artemis said...

would a mid-term self-evaluation work in situations like this? With questions that get the students to verbally acknowledge their level of participation and to set specific goals for the rest of the course?

Of course if they're not bothering to turn in assignments with all the incentives there, I don't know why they'd bother to respond to a survey...

Also, i wonder whether all f2f is ruled out? Can you offer an optional group meeting or something that could stimulate participation? Good luck!

Life&Times said...

The other feedback you are getting sounds great. I come to this with a bias that I don't particularly see the effectiveness of online courses for some of the reasons that you've mentioned, though as someone in favor of democracy and making classes available to people who can't physically be in a class (financially, timewise, or whatever) has an ideological appeal.

But I will add that one thing that you should keep in mind-- one that you surely do keep in mind in teaching F2F: sometimes the most important lesson we can teach is that choices have consequences. Not turning in work means not getting a grade. And while we can always hope to teach more than that, some times, for some people, that's the only lesson we will be able to get across.

Rokeya said...

"I take your point, but I think the problem is that I think that fundamentally believe that if we can't compare them than we shouldn't be offering the same credit for them."

I wonder about this, especially when I think about some people's F2F teaching style. There are English folks who teach using a very "banking model" method, who do not assess student performance (or assess it to a considerably low degree) based on "discussion" and "participation," and who aren't as concerned with crafting the kind of classroom environment that you are. If *these* (traditional) classes are offering the same credit as yours, it seems that online courses which aren't as discussion/participation-heavy should be able to offer the same credit. I often think of this issue, actually, when comparing my class to some of my colleagues' when their discussion/participation component is often much, much less.

I want to mention one other thing (sorry for hijacking). In a F2F environment, if for some reason students weren't on board, yes, you'd talk to them, and yes, you'd try to motivate them, but what would you do if *those things* weren't effective? Usually they are for many students, but what if they weren't? I'd guess that you'd try some other approach, be it student evaluations to give you feedback, or some kind of assignment in which students have to self-evaluate according to their goals of what they want to get out of the course, or *something*. What I'm saying is that yes, the technology can dilute how effective some of your strategies might be, but that doesn't make it any less important to employ different strategies to get students motivated based on the classroom situation they're in. Somehow (and I could be really wrong here), I don't think concluding that at this point it's their problem because the technology limits what you can do is really the answer.

Rokeya said...

Minus the last sentence. You're actually not concluding that.

~VP~ said...

"I take your point, but I think the problem is that I think that fundamentally believe that if we can't compare them than we shouldn't be offering the same credit for them."


I think comparing content and learning objectives is comparable but just not the teaching method. Remember too that for some students, online classes just fade into the ether. They'll remember every now and then to do an assignment or post a quick note in the discussions. But they won't read the rubrics or the instructions or the syllabus and they damn sure don't check the gradebook!! I'll get emails at midterm asking why they're failing. I just respond with "haven't you been checking your cumulative grade to date every week since the beginning of the semester? Haven't you been reading my comments with your grades? And you haven't answered any of the emails I've sent you for the past 7 weeks."

They have to take responsibility. This goes for f2f classes too. I won't make phone calls and chase down students. I see them one night a week and if they're absent, they still have to turn in work because I don't take any paper -- everything is submitted electronically (thus there are NO excuses for missing an assignment due date).

I could go on and on and on, as could we all :-) But after three decades of teaching, I've finally learned to quit beating my head against the wall and put the responsibility where it belongs. That's not to say I won't bend over backward to help a motivated student who is having trouble. But I will not lead horses to water in a f2f or in an online class. It's not just worth the energy and time drain.

vp

Rokeya said...

Two things I want to add.

One is that I can't claim three decades' teaching experience. If that is important to anyone, I want to state that upfront.

The second thing is that I also don't think one should bend over backwards for students and do the equivalent of what in F2F teaching would be calling them, etc. I do think that when 3/4 of your class isn't on board, whether F2F or online, it might be a good idea to incorporate some kind of activities that ask students to do some self-assessment or some course-assessment. But I am not advocating coddling students. I just wanted to make that really clear.

Dr. Crazy said...

Thanks for the continued conversation, everybody! Actually thinking through this stuff in this space has really helped, and I think I have formulated a plan for moving forward. I've also reflected a bit on how things have gone awry, and I think I'm letting a couple of bad apples color who I'm thinking about the whole bunch.

FWIW Rokeya, I didn't think that you were advocating coddling them - just that you were offering ways to think about getting feedback, etc. I have more to say about that, but dude, I'd NEVER call a student or hound them for work that they're not turning in IN ANY COURSE whatever the medium, and I didn't think that you were suggesting anything near that.

I got an "A" in Crazy Beeyotch said...

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.

I've thought this too; however, I think that what the students mean is that the prof had a lot of energy, and didn't pull the "Buehler? Buehler?...Anyone?" As a relatively inexperienced teacher, "enthusiasm" is about all I have going for me, as I've expressed in my blog "[In]experienced teaching"

http://www.blogger.com/posts.g?blogID=4053388656863652665

(Sorry, I don't know how to add a link in the comments field)

~VP~ said...

"FWIW Rokeya, I didn't think that you were advocating coddling them - just that you were offering ways to think about getting feedback, etc. I have more to say about that, but dude, I'd NEVER call a student or hound them for work that they're not turning in IN ANY COURSE whatever the medium, and I didn't think that you were suggesting anything near that."

Ditto -- I didn't interpret what you said as promoting coddling either :-)

Oh about those phone calls? I've taught for colleges and universities (both online and on campus) that required professors to call students if they are absent from class. I'm with you -- I don't do phone calls to chase down students. I'll send emails right and left but I do not do phone calls for those reasons. I've quit teaching for schools that required phone calls.

That said, I have talked to some online students from time to time. It's always those motivated students who are having problems for some reason or another.

I would like to say I've enjoyed these comments. I am teaching solely online now, full time, at home and I do have to say I love it. But sometimes it gets a bit lonely and I always like interacting with colleagues. Thanks all!!
VP

Dr. Crazy said...

Following what VP said about talking to some online students on the phone... I've actually met in person with two of my students this semester, just to get them comfortable with the technology and to address insecurities. The only reason I've avoided the phone is that it's a way of making a boundary - one I think is necessary to keep the playing field equal between students and between them and me in terms of investment. That said, I can totally see where the phone would be useful/necessary in some situations in an online environment :)

~VP~ said...

Hmm I've never thought about phone calling in terms of boundaries. Makes sense. Oh and I forgot to say that some colleges require profs to give students a phone number. I don't do that either.

Another thought -- sometimes with my online classes I'll do a synchronous chat, especially if there's a week or topic in which more than just a few students are having difficulties. I try to offer to options for times -- a day time and an evening or an evening and a weekend time.

It's hard to do that sometimes because of all the different time zones my students live in but I can usually manage a time for all US time zones. If I have students out of the country it gets difficult :-) But it's never mandatory so if students can't make it, they're not penalized in any way.

Back to showing enthusiasm and being a "real" person in an online class - I do a lot of short audio clips, usually as summaries at the end of a unit or to wrap up a weekly discussion. I don't record more than 2-5 minutes because that's about right for holding interest (personally I hate listening to audios so I keep it short for my students). It's just a little extra. Sometimes I really draw out my southern accent just for fun :-)

Let's see what else? Oh I refuse to do videos -- just not my thing. I guess I'm too old to be really comfy with it (53 this year) but I do show them some selected photos on a webpage -- our grown boys, daughter-in-law, our RV, some camping and traveling pictures, and my dogs and my office away from home (in the RV). I tell them when I'm traveling so they know I do my work wherever I am.

I let them know me. My graduate nursing students know about my auto-immune diseases (which is why I now teach at home full time) but I do not share that with my undergrad communications and CJ students. With the undergrads, I share stories (some serious, most humorous) from my private security work -- and there are some doozies!!

Don't underestimate the power of humor -- but start out slowly by telling stories on yourself. It takes me about halfway through the class before I can get a feel for whether the students overall will appreciate one-liners. Sometimes they go flat and sometimes the students are in stitches. My personal goal is to make at least one student spew coffee all over a keyboard before the class is over. And I tell them if they make ME spew coffee, they get 5 extra credit points.

I try to put some fun into the learning. It helps them get to know me, helps me get to know them, and provides a level of comfort that encourages them to get to know each other so they can take risks in their learning.

Good gosh past bed time -- sorry for the ramble. Just sometimes thinking about teaching is like free-association.

g'nite all -- great to meet you !!!

Hey Crazy -- can you set up this comment section so we can click on receiving new messages after we've posted. I think I've got that set up on mine but I"l have to go chekc.

g'nite!! Have a great weekend. I'll be around - -who else works on the weekend?

VP

Dr. Crazy said...

First, re: the getting notification of comments: there's a little box you can check beneath the comment box that will do that for you, I think. (It shows up for me.... it should show up for you.) Let me know if for some reason this doesn't exist for you.

Second, re: synchronous chat: I've actually got this built into the syllabus. In the first week I had all of the students submit an info sheet about possible times of availability, and they're required to do it 4 times over the course of the 16 weeks - more times will just up their participation grade. I offer two hours a week of this where I'm available. So far, just one has shown, but it's still early (we only had the first week - last week's was cancelled due to the power outage in the region). In theory, this should be a really useful thing. We'll see, though, how things play out.

~VP~ said...

I don't have a comment checkbox. I've seen them before on other blogs but I don't get one here. Oh well, I just keep checking back :-)

Since I work at home now I've kind of gotten away from scheduling anything longer than a week in advance. I just don't like being tied to a schedule. I played enough games over the years that I just like doing my own schedule. Which is why I love asynch teaching.

One thing I found was that when I scheduled chats, one or two showed up the first time, no one after that, and I just quit doing it.

With live chats that you spring on them a week ahead of time, they really find that intriquing and will often show up, Radio Shack microphone in hand :-) They can always type if they don't have a mic. But the point is that it's different and I have about 50% of the students show up. It's fun. The only negative is that I can't watch tv or listen to music during a live chat :-)

Okay almost midnight here and I have a lot to do tomorrow to get ready to leave town for a few days. I definitely need to get away (laptop in tow of course).

Have a good weekend!
vp