A huge part of my distance learning experience here at University of Maine at Augusta has come in the form of online classes, and I’ve been pretty vocal about my appreciation – and even love – for this kind of learning. One of my astute followers, a former professor, writes an excellent blog about current issues in higher education over at Getting the Words Right. A while back we engaged in a discussion about live classroom learning and online learning (post and comments here) and have followed each other’s writing ever since.
As an educator, Bill thinks of online instruction from a teacher’s point of view. How can one teach when all the oral and visual communication cues are missing? How do instructors engage their students when their interface is so impersonal? Since then, I’ve wanted to do a mini-interview with a couple professors who teach online. It took me awhile, but I’m thrilled to share their views here.
Jodi Williams is an Assistant Professor of Information and Library Services and the Coordinator of the ILS Program at UMA. Jodi wrote a fabulous guest post about her time in Palau (part 2 here), expanding UMA online classes to the islands throughout Micronesia. Our paths have crossed a few times since, and I thought she’d be a perfect person to ask about her online teaching experiences. I love her personal/teaching website; what a great way for her students to get to know who their professor really is.
Sarah Hentges is an Assistant Professor of American Studies at UMA, and she also teaches classes in women’s studies and English. When I took Intro to Literary Criticism and Theory last semester, Sarah was my teacher. The funny thing is, I wanted to take that class for five years, but it was only offered on campus in Augusta. At the time, I really couldn’t make the commute each week, so I kept hoping, wishing, and yes, begging for this class to be offered online or via ITV. I even heard rumors that “Lit Crit can’t be taught online.” Well, I’m happy to report that rumor is untrue. When I wrote my (very opinionated) list of what I want in my online courses (and here and here), I practically used Sarah’s class as a model.
I’ve got a lot of respect for both these women, and I’m grateful they took time to give thoughtful responses to my questions. While I would have loved to sit around the table with them and ask these questions, in order to be able to bounce off each other, this was a straightforward email interview.
Because there’s so much meat on this bone, I’ve divided it into easily digested parts. Please check back tomorrow for Part 2!
One more note: Blackboard (BB), mentioned below, is the interface used for online classes here at UMA.
So let the interview commence…
What are your general feelings about online classes compared to those taught in traditional face-to-face settings?
Jodi: In general I feel that both course modalities have their place. Sometimes I feel it is hard to compare them because they work for different types of learners and teachers for different reasons. I am a creative person, strongly creative and LOVE the classroom spontaneity of ideas being generated and being able to do creative things, on the spot that may come to you while you are teaching. In the online environment; I find our students have much deeper engaging conversations about topics. When talking about something controversial, say censorship in the library in my online class, students tend to feel more comfortable having a dissenting opinion in the online course than they likely would face to face. This of course isn’t all the time, but as a general rule I have found that to be the case.
Sarah: For a long time I was totally against on-line classes. I thought that there was no way that an on-line class could ever be the same experience as a live class. I worried that my pedagogy would not translate well into an on-line space. But, in part, my feelings about on-line classes changed when I met my UMA students, when I saw how many students really benefit from on-line classes. Thinking about the students who need, and even enjoy, on-line classes made me think about how on-line classes can be successful but only if we think about them as a different kind of class. If we try to simply translate the in-class experience into the on-line experience, I don’t think on-line classes will be successful. I still prefer a live class but I have come to appreciate on-line classes in different ways. They free up time in my day since I can do the on-line work any time, they give me a different challenge, and they allow me to reach students in different ways and in different places.
Have you ever taken an online course yourself?
Jodi: I have taken some informal seminars and semester long classes (not for credit) classes online.
Sarah: I have not taken any on-line classes. When I was an undergrad we had e-mail but only a very simple version of e-mail and none of my classes ever asked me to use the internet (this was in the mid-to-late 1990s). As a graduate student there were not on-line classes offered.
How long have you been teaching online?
Jodi: I started teaching online in 1999, so (WOW) 12 years now! EGADS. This was back when employers were very dubious about online degrees and frequently made reference to correspondence courses found in the back of the Reader’s Digest. However, as time went on and online became a more prevalent modality for teaching I would hear from employers that, “wow, when I went to school we never covered this type of content that deeply.”
Sarah: I taught my first on-line class last summer (American Girls: Identity, Culture, and Empowerment) and taught another one in the fall of 2010 (Introduction to Literary Criticism and Theory). I am currently teaching a hybrid class that combines on-line instruction with a live class and I will teach American Girls on-line again this summer. In the fall I will teach “Hip Hop: Art, Culture, and Politics” on-line.
Please check in tomorrow for Part 2, where Sarah and Jodi discuss how they engage their online students, and the particular challenges of teaching online.