For 25 days in June I taught my first fully-online course, the core freshman composition requirement. My developmental composition course has been a hybrid now for a number of semesters, with each student working at his or her own pace to complete an online grammar and syntax component while also attending physical classes. Originally hesitant about using a hybrid structure for these at-risk students, I discovered that it works very well. Sure, the students complain because they say they would much rather sit in class and have me lecture them, but by the end of the semester even the most reluctant students admit that they learned a great deal by having the responsibility for that learning placed squarely on their shoulders.
A course taught entirely online is a horse of a different color, however, and it was with some trepidation that I decided to give one a try. My teaching style is very personal, especially in the composition courses where I spend a lot of time working one-on-one with students and moving among their peer-groups as they review their weekly assignments. I impose my personality on the class, and rely heavily on immediate feedback from my students to help me tailor each course (indeed, each lesson) to the cohort of students in that particular section at that particular time. Even though I use many of the same writing assignments and lessons from year to year, there are so many variables and each group of students is so different that it seemed daunting to try and design an online course that would be successful.
How could I translate the give-and-take I foster in the classroom into a style that would work online? Without having the students in front of me, I would not be able to see all those little clues that tell me who understands what I am saying, who is confused, who is lost. I would not be able to cajole, encourage, bully, support, advise, and maybe even occasionally inspire students to do better, to do well, to come to understand the importance of not just writing but writing well.
Even with all that, though, I thought I saw that there was the possibility to create an online course that could, indeed, help students become better writers. I would have to rethink a number of assignments and, even more importantly, find a way to convert those one-on-one personal review sessions into meaningful written feedback on student papers.
Complicating matters was that this course would be taught during one of the college’s summer sessions, meaning we would have to accomplish in less than a month what is normally done in a 13-week semester. As I sat down to begin designing the course, one thought kept looping though my mind: “What the heck was I thinking?”
One daunting aspect I faced was that nearly everything had to be prepared and posted online by the start of the course. Now obviously we teachers prep our courses before the semester starts, and this preparation takes a long time. We reread the texts we will be assigning students, re-watch videos we are thinking about using, design new Keynote or PowerPoint presentations, upload material to our course management systems, update our syllabi and rethink our assignments. But at the end of it all, there is still something intangible waiting for us in the classroom, something that does not appear, that cannot be planned for, prior to starting a lecture or discussion. As William James advised teachers: “Prepare yourself in the subject so well that it shall always be on tap: then in the classroom trust your spontaneity and fling away all further care. . . .Just as a bicycle-chain may be too tight, so may one’s carefulness and conscientiousness be so tense as to hinder the running of one’s mind” (Talks To Teachers on Psychology and To Students on Some of Life’s Ideals, New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1902, p. 222). Trust yourself. Trust your knowledge. Allow the joy you find in studying your field to inform what you are teaching your students. I try to do this. Rarely do I have notes, and if I do they are usually just to remind me of dates or other information I do not want to forget. So how could I take this style of teaching and turn it into prepared (some might even say pre-canned) video lessons?
As is so often the case, something I at first perceived of as a deficit turned out to be an asset. I had to think very carefully about what was most important in the composition course. I had to distill all of my experiences teaching writing into video lessons that would, I hoped, take students from where they were and lead them to — or at least closer to — where they needed to be as writers. Where I would normally spend the first half of the semester leading up to, and the second half of the semester scaffolding, the documented essay that would be the culmination of the course, here I had to dramatically revise the prompts and scaffolding so the students would not only produce a good documented essay but would also, more importantly, become better writers.
Did it work? In many ways, and surprisingly, yes. Of course I had a couple of students who crashed and burned, one who plagiarized and others who failed to hand in an assignment (or, in one case, ANY assignment). But the students who stuck it out? Each one’s writing improved.
Some students had a little trouble adjusting to the concept of an online course. A few of them asked to meet with me in person (I was not even in the state at the time). Except for one student who Skyped with me, all of our communication was via the written word, either e-mails or comments on their assignments, which actually helped reinforce for the students the importance of being able to write clearly. My comments on their assignments were very detailed, much more so than what I would do in a “regular” course, and I was pleased to see that their peer review comments were thoughtful and detailed.
It was a little odd to become so familiar with these students without knowing what they look like. Usually my composition students are the ones whose names I am first able to associate with faces because writing is such an intimate act; I read someone’s paper and her personality comes through very clearly, which allows me to “know” her faster than I do even a student who participates in class discussions but has not yet handed in a written assignment.
For students, an online course offered the opportunity to try something different. At least one of my students was out of the country during the month of June. Another’s learning disability suddenly was not a factor because we were not in a classroom. And for the students working full-time jobs, being able to watch course lectures on their own schedule meant they could take a summer course.
Would I do it again? Yes, I would. I would like to see if it works as well the second time as it did the first. I would like to refine some of the videos in response to what the students did and did not have trouble understanding. And I would like to offer an alternative way for students to learn how to write better.
Would I do another course this way? I don’t know. The composition course, through its unique nature, seems better suited for online instruction than any of my literature courses do. I will have to think about this some more before I decide.
Should all composition courses be online? Absolutely not. Even with the generally-positive results of this first online course, I still believe that something is lost when the classroom is in cyberspace. Yes, the students did pretty well overall, but there were at least three who, I firmly believe, would have done better if they had been in a traditional classroom setting.
I do believe that hybrid courses can work well, and that it may be possible for at least some types of courses to be taught successfully online. Technology can enhance learning, but only if it is used properly and appropriately. It is as important to know when not to turn to technological solutions as it is to know when to use them. My fear is that, as colleges and universities look to balance the seemingly mutually exclusive problems of saving money and maintaining/increasing enrollment, they will push for more and more online courses. As with so many things, teachers and administrators need to ensure that a balance is maintained. We lose vitally important aspects of learning if we move fully into the cyber-classroom, not the least of which is the spontaneity that James, and all good teachers, celebrate.
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