Should you Teach an Online Class?

A couple of weeks ago, I told you the factors that I think make a student more likely to be successful in an online class. But just as some students think that the skill set for taking an online class is the same as a traditional class, some instructors think they can just directly adapt a traditional class and class policies from a traditional class to an online class. Having taught both, I can attest that this is not the case. While online classes can offer you more flexibility (you can go on vacation or to a conference, get sick, have more time at home, etc.), I certainly would not say that teaching an online class is any easier than a traditional class. In fact, some aspects of it are more difficult. So are you ready to teach an online class? Here are a few things to consider:

1. You may have huge classes with no help. My undergraduate face-to-face/hybrid classes generally max out at 75 students, which is already a lot. My online classes? 150, easy. This summer, I'm teaching two online and one hybrid, which means I have 375 students to grade, communicate with, and manage. Now huge classes are nothing new in college campuses, but I have no co-instructor, no teaching assistant, no help whatsoever. So I have to be extremely deliberate in how I design the classes, very detailed in my assignment descriptions, and keep up with student e-mails regularly. I map out the entire class weeks before the semester even starts, so I can make sure that no one week is too overwhelming for me in terms of grading. On the other hand, I don't want to dumb the class down so the students aren't being challenged. It's a fine line to walk, and it took me a few semesters to get the hang of it.

2. You have to be very, very, VERY communicative. I had more than one professor in both undergrad and grad school that made it clear that they checked student e-mails once or twice a week, maximum. That said, these are typically classes that met at least once per week, or three times per week in the case of my undergraduate classes. Thus, you got a lot of face time with the professor, could ask questions in class, ask for clarification on readings or assignments, etc. With online classes, all the student knows is what is posted on the course website. While you might write assignment instructions that might be clear to 95% of your students, that 5% that will have questions (particularly if you have huge classes, see above), adds up quickly. And when it comes to assignments, you can't take a week to respond to their e-mails. I tell my students to give me 48 hours to respond, excluding weekends, but I generally get to them within 12 hours (and will even check my course e-mail once or twice on weekends). I also post a detailed announcement every Monday morning that goes through what we did the week before, what is coming up that week, and what to look for in the next few weeks. I'm sure a few students ignore or skim it, but I get overwhelming student feedback that they really appreciate the constant check-ins. It's more work on the front end on my part, but saves me untold amounts of time on the back end from student e-mails, meetings, or phone calls. If you're not able and willing to check e-mail regularly and communicate with students often (via Skype, phone calls, or office hours), online teaching might not be right for you.

3. You need to provide lots of dynamic content. I use any and all modes of material delivery with my students. For APA formatting alone (a minor but important component in my class), I provide an interactive module, videos created by my university's library, links to external websites and templates, and PDFs they can download straight from the course website. You can't just provide some slides or handouts and expect your students to connect the dots in online classes. I even know some professors who video or audio record their lectures and post them online (I'm still considering this, myself). You have a massively diverse student base in your class, and you need to find ways to reach as many of them as possible. You don't have to jump through hoops for every assignment, but you need to be willing to find the best resources that exist for your class, on the internet or otherwise, and incorporate them into your curriculum. If every assignment, discussion board, and test is just "read this prompt and respond to it," your class is going to bore your students and won't help them engage with the material. Mix it up. Throw in a few videos (videos exist for everything). See if your university offers online modules you can build into your course. Upload podcasts, PDFs, newspaper articles, etc. Show your students that the material exists outside of their book. 

4. You have to be okay with a feeling of anonymity. If you're used to teaching huge classes, this might already be easy for you, but in an online class, it is exceedingly difficult to get to know your students on any semblance of a personal level. I have them do student introductions at the beginning of each semester so I have a sense of their background and career paths, but that's about as much as I get a chance to learn about them. Similarly, without meeting you, to many of your students, you are just a random facilitator of online material. You have to work very hard to inject any sense of personality into your class, without coming across as too casual or informal. You have to be comfortable with the fact that you won't get to know most of your student's on a first name basis, and they might not learn your name at all, since they never have to say it out loud (the first few semesters I taught, due to my foreign-sounding name, most students referred to me with male pronouns. Finally, I uploaded a picture of myself to avoid the awkward corrections).

5. You have to be exceedingly patient. This is probably the case for all instructors, from elementary school to college, online or not. But in my own experience, comparing my online to face to face classes, I get a lot more questions that I've already addressed a million times, demands to accommodate unreasonable requests, and just plain old strangeness from my classes that are solely online. I don't know if it's the lack of face-to-face interaction opportunities or the feeling of semi-anonymity, but every semester without fail, my students from solely online classes test my patience a lot more than even students in hybrid classes. The first few semesters I taught online, I had a lot of "WHAT?!?!?!" internal responses to some questions. Now, I anticipate the strangeness and its much easier for me not to take it personally. Having talked to colleagues who also teach online, I've learned it's not just me. Students can come across as much more brusk, demanding, and oblivious online than they would in person. You can't respond in kind or be condescending. You are the professional- you have to just answer the question or respond to the request smoothly and succinctly, and always with a positive attitude. Any sense of sarcasm or arrogance on the instructor's part online comes across ten times worse than you might have intended, so you need to scrub that urge and just move on. 

Online teaching has revolutionized education. It's allowed students in India to take classes from professors in the US, working professionals and other non-traditional students to go back to school, and afforded instructors with the ability to have a greater sense of control over their work-life balance. That said, whether you are a student or instructor in online academia, you have to be ready to accept the challenges that come with the freedom that this educational modality has afforded us. You have to know yourself and your shortcomings, and be prepared to tackle them head on. I hope these posts have given you some insight as to the process of taking and teaching online classes. If you have further questions, don't hesitate to leave me a comment or catch me on Twitter.