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Chaparral 2016-2017: 25.3 The Agony and Ecstasy of Online Teaching

The Agony and Ecstasy of Online Teaching (March 2017)

The Agony and Ecstasy of Online Teaching

by Julie Gamberg
English Department

Three years ago, I inherited a course from another instructor: English 101 contextualized for students studying to become firefighters. What an interesting course! In preparing to teach,  I learned about situational awareness: the thousands of minute calculations and decisions that well-trained firefighters must make to “read a fire” while they are surrounded by an atmosphere poisonous with toxins and oxygen deficiency, 1,400 degree heat,  and the real possibility of imminent death. I learned about disaster survival, and that the actual first responders to most disasters are other survivors, and thus how truly important those fire and earthquake drills really are! I loved refining and teaching this course where I taught the skills of critical reading and writing while focused on readings about firefighting; however, the class was like a perfectly planned party to which only party crashers attended (albeit delightful party crashers).

For two semesters, not a single firefighter–in-training enrolled in the course. So CTL and my division went back to the drawing board, and we decided to cast a wider net. We broadened the course to cover topics of interest to not only firefighters, but first responders of all kinds (EMTs, police officers, etc.), and administration of justice majors.

In preparing this expanded content, I learned so much more! I learned about how implicit bias can mislabel a crime victim as an alcoholic, causing medical personnel to mistake subdural hematoma vomiting from head trauma for an alcoholic’s mess, and how this caused David Rosenbaum, an award-winning New York Times journalist to die, avoidably, in the Emergency Room. I learned that most cultures and generations believe their criminal justice procedures are fair, even when those procedures involve determining guilt by buoyancy: who will float and who will sink in a pool of water. However, this extra special incredibly beautiful party was also a bust. Students enjoyed the class, but we still did not get enrollees from the targeted majors. 

So, we spoke with the counselors (Tip to other instructional faculty: Always do this first!). Lo and behold, many of the courses for these majors are 100% online. Thus, the recommendation was that, to better accommodate these students, I should offer my course 100% online. My English 101 course contextualized for first responders and administration of justice majors – online.  

But I’m an English professor, I thought.  My bread and butter is helping students tease nuance out of text, steering them toward recognizing what critical interpretation looks like while I watch for faces to blink on like a row of streetlamps, circling back to any that are still flickering. I sit with students, knee to knee, eye to eye, and ask them to “read that back to me,” so they can discover for themselves where their prose falters and, together, we can figure out how to improve it. None of this is online work. This is real human connection in the real human world. Speaking of which, isn’t that something our younger students need more of anyway? Don’t they spend enough (way too much!) time on their devices and isn’t part of what I can offer them skills in navigating the real world? The skills of problem-solving and working together that come from using cooperative learning techniques? The ability to engage in respectful, challenging dialogue with others? The skill of artfully and persuasively expressing their ideas to others?

Yes. And no. I began to understand that these skills of critical analysis and expression are needed, perhaps in even more abundance, in the written world (a world whose presence has, perhaps most surprising to us English instructors who were told it was disappearing entirely, only increased). Students are communicating greater and greater portions of their lives through the written word. Between texting, emailing, and social media of all sorts, they are navigating much of the public sphere and their social spheres, through reading and writing. And I would argue that they are not being challenged well enough around their virtual written presence. I myself have often taught the way that I was taught, the way that “feels right” to me, or the way I settled on in graduate school pedagogy courses. Yet in becoming overly rigid in my own thinking about how students need to learn, I had forgotten three crucial tenets of teaching: meet students where they are, teach content and methodology that is authentically relevant for students, and let data inform pedagogy. 

So I decided to give this 100% online thing a go.

I am not afraid of serious effort. I love a good challenge. The phrase it’s going to be a lot of work is more likely to make my eyes light up than to scare me. But online teaching nearly did me in! Teaching online differs radically from face-to-face teaching. In order to make my course meaningful and steer my students toward the outcomes that my face-to-face students achieve, I had to rethink everything.

The online Distance Education (DE) training here was a great place to start. I’m also lucky to have a friend who designs online instruction trainings for the state. She was willing to accept pots of lentil soup with crusty bread, for endless brain-picking sessions. She showed me example after example of online courses that showcased the best and the worst of what can be done in the online format. I saw courses whose instructors who were clearly “phoning it in” and teaching the dreaded “correspondence course.” Those courses echo the most jaded beliefs about online teaching -- that online instructors simply “set it and forget it,” loading a course with multiple choice quizzes and pre-recorded lectures and letting a machine take over. But I also saw courses of great beauty – courses where I wondered how the instructor had time to sleep or eat, so hearty was the ongoing engagement, feedback, and “real-time” response targeted toward each student. In viewing these outstanding courses, I saw possibilities for a shift in my own discipline-based pedagogical assumptions. What if, instead of looking students in the eye, and prizing their ability to verbally articulate their ideas, what if I were to meet students at their written words and, through an endless stream of “low-stakes” writing assignments, guide them toward thoughtful expression which carefully considers a variety of perspectives and evidence? What if I could go one step further and, through additional feedback on their feedback, teach them how to evaluate the written expression of others for these same traits?

Thus began my conversion to becoming an online instructor in earnest. Through workshops, trainings, and trial and error, I learned that careful, creative, objective-oriented planning, and consistent communication and follow-through, can create a learning environment in which students can go as far, and sometimes further, than in a face-to-face environment.

In my online courses, students experience a near-daily stream of individualized, yet public, feedback on their writing (in addition to the private feedback on essays that more closely mimics the face-to-face experience). I am able to guide students not only in their own writing assignments, but also in how to provide guidance to other students, who then use that to provide further guidance, which in turn has its own feedback loop, from me, and from peers. And if that sounds like the verbal equivalent of an M.C. Escher painting, I admit that managing the class does sometimes feel just like that. Yet, although class management is complex, the payoff is astounding. I have been seeing students make leaps in achieving clear, thoughtful analysis much earlier in my online English 101 class than in my face-to-face class. 

That discovery alone has been extraordinary. Additionally, I have learned how important online teaching is to student equity. Online courses are a way to level the playing field for students with disabilities, for students with work and family commitments that preclude commute time and campus involvement, and for students with intermittent or “on demand” jobs whose schedules are not consistent.

On the other hand, I am finding online teaching to be more time consuming than face-to-face teaching. While this is certainly a challenge, I’m also energized and motivated by my own feelings of discovery and exploration. Online teaching is very newly charted territory and there is a lot to learn, with new data, new or improved technological tools, and pedagogical innovation happening all the time. It is also clear to me that there are new discoveries yet to be made. I am honored to be working with Fabiola Torres, Connie Lantz, and all the DE mavericks at GCC, as well as colleagues throughout the state. I look forward to offering workshops in the near future to share some of what I’ve learned over this past year. And I hope that, together, we can make GCC a shining jewel of excellence in online education. I dream that in five years, our online courses not only reflect our excellent Distance Education teaching skills, but also a vibrancy of student learning that looks like a row of streetlamps coming on, virtually but brightly, one by one.

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