Without further ado, I give you the final installment of my interview with Jodi Williams and Sarah Hentges, two professors at University of Maine at Augusta who teach online classes to distance learners all over the country and even the world. I’m very grateful to both of them for sharing their thoughts here. You can read Part 1 here and Part 2 here.
What are the benefits of teaching online?
Jodi: For the most part, Maine has a pretty homogeneous population, if students were in the classroom face to face and we just drew from that population, while there may be age differences, it would be a pretty similar population in the library field. Online, we have students from around the United States, with varied, rich backgrounds and we have students from around the world. How wonderful to have a student living in Africa, sharing her Archival class project, time at a Muslim Document center in the Sahara working with 13th century documents, with students here at UMA. Or a student in California who is working for “about.com” sharing her work and job experiences with the class. A multicultural, divergent population makes the online classroom a wonderful rich experience for everyone.
Sarah: Of course the number one benefit is being able to reach students where they are physically, students who would not otherwise be able to attend classes. I also find that students who take live classes enjoy the flexibility of an on-line class. On-line classes require just as much time, if not more, and a different way of learning. For some, this is not possible. For others, they really get a lot out of the on-line experience. I have found that, in some ways, I can get more information across in an on-line course because we don’t get as easily sidetracked, there are no snow days, and the forum is consistent. I think that I have been able to build some relationships with students through on-line classes and I have seen many students learn a lot in my classes. In these ways I don’t see a big difference between the two modes.
Is there additional work for you in preparing and conducting online classes?
Jodi: There is, to keep up with emerging technologies, effective strategies for teaching and learning, engagement and of course the ever changing, shifting and missing pieces of the web that come and go term to term. Though teaching a live class I would have similar changes that need to be made. The work might not be so much in the preparation for me, it feels old hat now, but more likely it is in the upkeep where there is more work than a face to face class. For example, last term I taught an ITV class and likely prepped 15-20 hours for each 3 hour class. It was my first time teaching this course at UMA and in this new to me format, but there was a lot of preparation time.
Sarah: There is a lot more “front-loading” that has to happen in on-line classes. I also find that I need to be much more thorough, clearer, more organized, and more on top of questions and on-line discussions. I have not yet taught an on-line course that was 100% ready when the class began. And since I always adapt and change classes, this may always be the case. Thus, I always have to stay ahead of my students and work to get materials up in a timely fashion. I also find that I need to be on-line a lot more when teaching on-line (obviously!). It is not always easy for me to get into the habit of checking BB regularly though I try to do so as often as I can. It also takes a lot more time to respond to students’ writing since everything must be written. However, I have developed strategies to be able to respond more quickly (and changes to BB have helped me do this) and I find that I really enjoy reading what students have to say. If students do the work, I think that they will get a lot out of an on-line course. Students who do not put forth the effort will not get as much out of the class. Of course, this really is not different for on-line classes compared to live classes.
Is there anything I haven’t asked you that you’d like to add?
Jodi: I like to think of online vs. hybrid vs. face to face not as one is better than the other, but rather each has its own pros and cons that allow students with different needs to obtain their education.
Sarah: I think that too many teachers who teach on-line don’t really think about the work load, the timing of assignments or the ability to use different kinds of pedagogical strategies. In talking with students and in getting feedback about my classes I have seen that some teachers do not require enough work, do not provide sufficient materials, and do not put in the effort to engage students. On the other hand I have also seen that many teachers load the students up with an unreasonable amount of work and expect them to meet deadlines that are too rigid and too dependent upon whether other students do their work or not (such as replies to other students’ posts). I think there needs to be a better definition of on-line work load. I generally translate the hours a student would spend in class into one set of assignments and then assign the same general workload for papers and assignments outside of class time.
I also don’t think that enough of us really think about the best way to deliver material and to engage students with that material. Many of us in the liberal arts do not believe that on-line teaching can be effective. We want the on-line classroom to be like the live classroom. However, it cannot be the same experience. It must be adapted, rethought, and seen as a different but potentially equally valid form of education. I am afraid that too many students read and respond, watch a video (maybe) and then write a post, read and then take a test. I would guess that tests are over-used in on-line courses. I think there is a lot of potential for civic engagement, for instance, in on-line courses and try to ask students to engage in their local community through their on-line class work. I think we need to think about the ways we can make on-line learning work for us and always think about what is best for our students…wherever they are.