What’s it like to actually teach online?

Last modified: 9/10/2013 4:21:01 PM
I entered the online college classroom where I teach – the one that exists in that ethereal world inside the computer, on the internet and across the wi-fi airwaves – to see that students had scrawled the words “Bonjour!” and “Go, Sox!” on the virtual whiteboard of our French I course. The early students gathered for our synchronous (“real time”) session chatted via their microphones before my arrival. It was the same virtual space where I’d soon review material and engage these enthusiastic learners with an assortment of new tools.

Students would write answers on the virtual board. They could raise their hands by clicking on a hand icon. Many simply pressed the “talk” button and shouted answers or questions into their microphones. Seeing the “Go, Sox!” scrawl that day, I steered the conversation briefly toward “le foot” (soccer) and the “Coup du Monde” (World Cup) before easing them into using some newly acquired language skills.

The Community College System of New Hampshire in which I teach offers 381 online courses. During the 2008 academic year, there were 5,497 enrollments in 100 percent online courses. Last year, CCSNH had 11,676 enrollments in 100 percent online courses, an increase of 112 percent. It is the fastest growing area in enrollment and one that opens education and careers to those who may have been shut out previously, especially students who have jobs and families or live far from campus. Mothers, working students, and traveling businessmen all land in my course.

On the virtual board, I show the e-book with audio and video to refresh a concept. I can share my desktop or a web page. I present slides for them to write on when asked a question. Later in the semester, students give multimedia presentations, showing slides and talking to the students scattered around the region in front of their computers. When I put on my headset and start speaking French at the office, at home, and occasionally at a Panera restaurant, I joke and tell people that I’m landing French planes at the airport.

Truthfully, my online classroom is not very different from my traditional classroom, with students learning from the professor and from each other, with education through book learning, human interaction, discussion, homework, service/experiential learning and using all their senses. Except for the limited exposure to each other’s faces via webcams, the course proceeds similarly, at the same pace and with the same quality.

An easy camaraderie usually fills our virtual space; students get to know each other and I know them, their strengths and weaknesses, those who answer quickly and those who need more modeling and encouragement to respond. Some have thoroughly read the textbook, completed homework online, and discussed assigned topics in writing on our class website. I might invite those struggling to join me for my online office hours or request a free peer tutor through our Learning Center.

Online courses can focus on written discussion boards, readings, and papers, or use the newer tools. I was fortunate to be part of a pilot program through the community college system to develop this course using the interactive technology called Wimba Classroom (now Blackboard Collaborate). The course earned a “unique and exemplary” designation from the chancellor.

I was initially somewhat skeptical about the ability to create a course of the same caliber and with the same academic rigor as the traditional courses I teach at NHTI, especially a language course. In developing it and embracing the new technology, I became convinced that I could, but the students would still need drive and motivation to succeed. Students who have taken my online course have gone on to French II in the traditional classroom, and two won NHTI awards for Excellence in French. Certainly, online education is not for every student; in general, community college students benefit from a strong faculty presence and guidance, which may be easier to avoid or ignore online, and those students can fall behind to their peril. Some faculty also worry that because online courses are unhampered by physical walls, administration might question the need for reasonable limits on class enrollment; my experience is that teaching an online class well can be as much work, if not more than teaching a traditional course.

If anything could be improved, it would be on the book publishers’ end to be sure that materials permit easy crossover between traditional and online learners. With professors like myself teaching traditional courses, hybrid courses, 100 percent online courses, and/or MOOCs (massive open online courses), students are offered more opportunities than ever for higher education in the Digital Age, and we have to be ready to teach them, too.

(Paula DelBonis-Platt is a professor in the Department of English and Foreign Languages at NHTI – Concord’s Community College – and teaches traditional, online and eStart courses.)

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