Why You Should Teach Online Courses

Why You Should Teach Online Courses


“The more you hate the idea of teaching online, the more that online education needs you.”

That’s historian Joseph Rees (Colorado State – Pueblo), writing at VitaeHe is no fan of online courses, worried about their quality and effectiveness but notes that their increased prevalence is probably unstoppable. Here’s the context for the above quote:

I recently made a commitment to start teaching online, beginning in the fall of 2016. My plan is to create a rigorous and engaging online… survey course while I’m still in a position to dictate terms. After all, if I create a respectable, popular class that takes advantage of the Internet to do things that can’t be done in person, then it will be harder for future online courses at my university (or elsewhere for that matter) to fail to live up to that example. In short, I want to stake out the high ground in the online education space before that ground becomes completely inaccessible.

The only way for this to happen is for caring tenured faculty to start teaching online themselves. Indeed, the more you hate the idea of teaching online, the more that online education needs you. After all, who else could do a better job of calling out any efforts to weaken standards in online courses than someone who has provided a quality face-to-face education for years and is (thanks to what’s left of tenure) at least somewhat resistant to pressure from above?

This article was brought to my attention by Gary Bartlett (Central Washington University), who writes:

I’d love to hear what other philosophers think of this, and of online philosophy classes in general. Some folks, I know, are just dead-set against the whole idea and refuse to even countenance the possibility of teaching philosophy online. I don’t take that position. But I am leery, in large part because I’m worried that an online philosophy class just can’t be as effective as a face-to-face one. On the other hand, I wonder if that attitude on my part just reflects an unwarranted resistance to change. I’d love to hear what others think; especially others who have actually done a solid amount of online teaching already.

Readers?

(Also, check out the previous discussion of online philosophy courses, here.)

(image: detail of “Buy 5 yr” by Sarah Frost)

Frost - BUY 5 YR detail 2

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Will Behun
Will Behun
5 years ago

When I was first asked to teach an online course, I was convinced that I could never do what I do in the classroom online. I was absolutely right. But what I discovered is that a good online course doesn’t try to do what a good face-to-face class does; rather, it takes advantage of, as Rees says the ability online to “do things that can’t be done in person.” For example, I find that discussions are much more productive in online courses than in face-to-face classes for a number of reasons: students are required to participate, a requirement that can be unwieldy in a large in-person class; students who are not necessarily the most vocal are more likely to participate in an online course because they have an opportunity to consider their contributions rather than being “put on the spot”; and students with varying degrees of social anxiety are allowed to participate in a “safer” environment. This is just one example.

I think the most important thing is to recognise that online teaching and classroom teaching are two different beasts, and what works in the classroom may not work online and vice versa. I think that some classes are more suited to online teaching than others, and ultimately in a field like philosophy online teaching will never adequately take the place of the classroom environment.Report

DblUndr
DblUndr
5 years ago

I’m currently taking a formal logic course online and am loving it. As a double major it’s really helpful to have online options due to scheduling issues.
Of course, the frustration of trying to figure things out more or less on my own tends to make up for the good. Communication between instructor and students is a huge must, I almost gave up a couple times last night trying to figure out one translation out of twenty.Report

Nakia Pope
Nakia Pope
5 years ago

I’d echo what Will says above. An online course is it’s own thing, providing opportunities to do some things easier and/or better, while making other things more difficult. The online courses I’ve taught have had more structure, sacrificing a bit of the organic nature of the face to face course (and, of course, the visceral component of sitting in the same room talking to each other). But I’ve noticed many of the same things Will has — wider participation, the ability to archive discussions to easily come back to them later, and the ability to better leverage a wide array of media. I’d also add the necessity of structure has helped me to think more about the overall structure of the course — why we do what we do at certain times during the semester — which has led to better courses overall.Report

Anon
Anon
5 years ago

“He . . . notes that their increased prevalence is probably unstoppable.”

I was under the impression that people may have thought this way in 2011 or 2012, but now they no longer do. At some point since the deficiencies of online courses became clear, e.g. that they have only about a 4 percent completion rate and only about 50 percent of students enrolled in a course actually view a lecture. See here: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/12/11/us/after-setbacks-online-courses-are-rethought.html . In 2015 you just don’t see as many articles about how online education is the latest and greatest thing, and even my university’s president has stopped tweeting about all the great things MOOCs will bring.

I mean nothing against Prof. Rees and his project– in fact I greatly admire his commitment to teaching!Report

Gary Bartlett
Reply to  Anon
5 years ago

Anon, while its headline says “online courses”, that article is more specifically about MOOCs — massive open online courses. And you may be right that enthusiasm for MOOCs has abated somewhat. But not all online courses are, or are aiming to be, massive and open. On my own campus, at least, administrative enthusiasm continues more or less unabated for us to offer online classes.Report

Matt
Matt
5 years ago

Yes, MOOC enthusiasm may have abated, but not enthusiasm for online versions of courses usually taught face-to-face. I teach at a campus of a state university system, and there is a huge push to have courses offered online so that students at any campus can take them. Those campuses that got in on this early effectively stole a lot of tuition $ from those that didn’t. Now things are evening out a bit, but it’s kind of an arms race.
I got into online teaching (which I’ve only done once) for exactly the reason that if I don’t do it my way, someone will tell me how to do it in a way I don’t like down the road. I was pleasantly surprised by the experience. I agree with the comments that there are some real benefits to online education, discussions in particular, and I too have found that I’ve rethought my usual courses a bit as a result of teaching online.
My biggest concern is that we will suffer in our ability to draw majors and minors in, since that often turns on the personal connection you can make with students in the classroom. But it’s too early to tell. I also worry about security of testing, plagiarism, etc., but there are increasingly better ways of handling those concerns.Report

Kate Norlock
Kate Norlock
5 years ago

Anon, it is most definitely not the case that those statistics on MOOCs apply to online courses at particular institutions. At my university, online courses have fairly typical completion rates, grade curves, and so on. And students pile into them, high-enrolling. I have heard the criticisms one might expect; students in the Philosophy major said the classroom experience is sorely missed when they take one of the online courses; some of the reasons they went into the major, including the eager give-and-take of interpersonal discussion, just can’t happen. Some of the less advanced students and/or non-majors say they feel like they’re stumbling a lot in the first month, left to figure out more on their own than beginners generally should. But yes, all the students strongly appreciated having one class with flexibility of timing. Viruses become manageable things to work around rather than hassles to be justified to instructors. The advanced students seemed to appreciate the flexibility even more than the beginners.

I’ve though many times exactly as the historian in the OP, that as a tenured prof I should be the one teaching online, and developing the right sort of amazing course. Unfortunately, two things daunt me. One is the time-consuming development of a great course, on top of all the other service (the chairing, the committees, the refereeing, the governance things; tenure is so much more service-filled than I even imagined it might be). The other is the knowledge base that I lack, as to exactly how to develop a great, effective, engaging online course, which I’m sure my university can help me with, but which will add to the time requirement. I really need to figure out how to stop time, just for a bit. Meanwhile, if anyone could post below citations or links to evidence-based research on how to design a great online course, I’d love to know of some! I’ve gained a bit from inefficient searches on my own. It’s not enough. And again, time.Report

BT
BT
5 years ago

This issue actually goes beyond the online approach per se. The same range of mixed motivations – from offering more flexibility and convenience to students, to bringing in more income for the institutions, and many other worthy and less worthy aims – has also pushed some schools (especially for-profit ones) to offer their online classes in shorter formats (say, 5 weeks), to have adjuncts teaching the vast majority of classes, to rigidly standardize the courses, and to target “nontraditional” ones (parents, older students, those with full-time jobs, low-income, those serving in the military overseas, etc.). This is a somewhat different issue than what Rees and others in this thread are talking about, which apparently has more to do with teaching online courses that are much closer to traditional courses in terms of duration, demographics, and flexibility, etc. But his larger point seemed to be that the contemptuous view that many in the profession have toward these new approaches is a bit short-sighted, and the positive possibilities unrealized. But both of these – the contempt and neglect from others in the profession, and the detrimental effect this has on a growing reality by letting other forces set the standards – is especially so at for-profit institutions like the one where I teach full-time. I design and manage an Ethics course that is taken by 15k student a year, and oversee dozens of adjuncts. Having received my PhD from a very good program but during the nadir of the recent job slump, I pretty much had no choice but to take this position, and I was rather bitter for a while since it goes against most of what I think is important and necessary for teaching philosophy. However, the students are very real people with a real desire to get a good education, and many if not most of my students simply would not have been able to do so otherwise given their life circumstances. These are students that most people reading this blog rarely encounter, and I likely would not have if I had been able to get the kind of job I wanted – the kind that are often talked *about* in philosophy courses, but much less often talked *with*.
So there’s something worthwhile and even noble going on, about which the rest of the profession is, again, either contemptuous or just ignorant. Yet it’s not going to abate anytime soon. Meanwhile, there’s the actual, concrete challenge of, say, teaching a whole course on ethics in 5 weeks, online, to students ranging from a 30-year-old single mother of 4 working 2 jobs, a retired army colonel, a 40-year-old man struggling to establish himself after getting out of prison and hoping that a degree will make that easier, a 55-year-old woman who barely made it through high school and hasn’t read or written anything academic for decades, but who wants to open up a daycare center… It’s a real challenge, to say the least, but it’s not as easy to turn one’s nose up at this and criticize it when you start encountering the real students who are taking these classes. Currently the dominant forces trying to meet the challenge are MBAs and such. I often wistfully imagine the possibilities and benefits if more of the ingenuity among those in our profession contributed to this challenge instead.Report

Matt Weiner
Matt Weiner
5 years ago

One issue here is that administrations’ enthusiasm for online courses and the problems with online courses may have the same underlying reason: The administration wants them done cheaply. An online course foten isn’t going to be something that gets folded into a tenure-track professor’s ordinary teaching load, but something that a lecturer gets hired to do at a piecework rate.

It’s not clear to me that tenured faculty volunteering to teach online courses at that same piecework rate is going to solve the problem. Even if the tenured faculty puts extra time and care into the class–which is what Rees is calling for, as he says that the best online courses are very labor-intensive–and this makes it harder for future online courses at the university to fail to live up to that example, the likely endgame is that some lecturer getting paid by the seat is asked to do much more labor-intensive work for their course. (Or, more likely, that the tenured professors will do what they can do and the lecturers will have so many students that they wind up doing more cookie-cutter courses.) When Rees says that his administration is asking for a list of online courses because they want the department to teach more of them, I bet they’re not going to be content to hear “We have this many online courses, which we use to teach exactly as many students as we did before we started putting courses online, and we can’t scale them up.”

That’s not to say that Rees shouldn’t be praised for trying to develop a really good online course. And he’s absolutely right about Blackboard. I hear Moodle is even worse.Report

P.D.
5 years ago

With face-to-face courses, the administration often has to offer multiple sections of popular courses so that it will fit into different schedules and because room size puts an upper bound on section size. For an asynchronous on-line course, neither of these considerations apply. So one worry is that there’s no logistical constraint on just increasing the class size.
But running a good on-line course is labour intensive. In my experience, this scales linearly with the number of students. So there’s the danger that on-line instruction will really exploit instructors in a way that conscientious professors designing courses can’t control for.Report

sydm
sydm
5 years ago

I’ve been teaching an online summer course for three years. They’re demanding classes, expected to cover an entire semester’s worth of material in half the time. I’ve learned a few things along the way that have made the course better. One is that it’s important that students understand that there is a lot more they need to do: they have to be self-starters, staying on top of assignments and following the schedule. I find it’s important to make sure their expectations are in line with reality. The first year I taught the course, about a third of the class just disappeared after the first week. They never dropped the class, but they never did any assignments either, so they failed. The last two years, I’ve had a 100% completion rate because I am very clear about what is expected of students. Second, it’s really important to have a clear structure and schedule. Every week, they can expect the same deadlines and assignments, every week they can expect content from me on specific days. Every day, they have content from me or an assignment due. Online discussions are required and graded. They have to take a short quiz, but to access the quiz they first have to watch the video lecture, etc. I don’t think it’s as good as a face-to-face class in every way, but it is as good in some ways, and just different in other ways. It is very popular with students because it gives them flexibility and access, and allows them to earn credits when they’re home for the summer, working jobs, traveling, etc. It’s not MORE work for me than teaching a face to face class (and I make extra money doing, which supplements the salary).Report