• April 20, 2014

A Technophobe's Guide to Managing Online Courses

True confession: I've never been a big fan of online courses. My favorite thing about teaching has always been the direct interaction with students and the energy that it generates—what some might call the "performance aspect" of teaching. I'm not sure how that translates over the Internet.

And no, before you ask, I've never taught online. I've never gone bungee jumping, either, but I'm pretty sure I wouldn't like it.

Moreover, professionally speaking, I've always been a little skeptical of Web-based classes. It's difficult for me to comprehend how so many vital aspects of teaching and learning—lectures, class discussions, hands-on demonstrations, synergy among students—can be fully recreated in a virtual environment. After all, doesn't "virtual" mean "not quite"?

On the other hand, when I was a department head, no one above me on the organizational chart ever asked me what I thought about online courses. I was just told to put them on the schedule.

I became a chair in the mid 1990s, at the onset of what we might call the online revolution. Back then I argued not against distance learning—that would have been career suicide—but at least for a more measured approach, as my campus (like every other) raced to offer more and more online courses, mostly for financial, not pedagogical, reasons.

My arguments were brushed aside like those of a talk-show guest in a policy debate. Within a few years I found myself operating professionally in a brave new world, one in which the number of online courses offered by faculty members in my department alone seemed to double each year. It was a world not of my own making, but one in which I was expected not only to function but lead.

Since then I've learned a great deal, not the least of which is that I might have been wrong about online courses. Oh, I still have no interest in teaching them myself, and I still believe some administrators see distance learning as a cash cow without much regard for quality. But as some of the people I respect most in the profession have embraced online teaching, I've had to reconsider my preconceived notions. Maybe, as my colleagues tell me, you really can recreate the most important aspects of the classroom experience in a virtual environment. Perhaps, as they insist, that environment even has certain advantages over face-to-face interaction.

Regardless, online classes are clearly here to stay, at least until they're replaced by ... what? Holograms? Vulcan mind melding? Who knows.

That's one of the hard truths I've had to accept as an academic administrator who is, in some respects, a bit of a neo-Luddite. Another is that, whatever I might think of online courses, they are loved by lots of students. And even some who might not love such courses end up taking them anyway for personal reasons, such as the fact that those students are in Afghanistan. That is especially true at community colleges, where our students must juggle course work with jobs and families. For many, online classes are a godsend.

Faced with those realities, and notwithstanding my mild technophobia, I struggled to become a good and conscientious department chair for my faculty members who taught online. For any administrators who find themselves in a similar position—and I suspect there are many—I offer the following suggestions.

Suspend your skepticism. Maybe you're like me: You can't see yourself ever even taking an online course, much less teaching one. Maybe you're secretly (or not so secretly) dubious as to whether those courses are as good as the face-to-face versions. As an administrator, you have two choices. You can either resign in protest or resolve to make sure your department offers the best online courses possible.

If you choose the latter, you have an obligation to treat those courses (and the faculty members who teach them) just like any others, and not like stepchildren. Along the way you may well discover, as I did, that many of your assumptions are incorrect and your suspicions largely unfounded.

For example, a common assumption among administrators is that teaching online somehow requires less effort than teaching face-to-face, and that faculty members who teach "at a distance" are just trying to get out of work. They just want to lounge around the house in their pajamas while the rest of us go to the office.

My experience working directly with online-faculty members suggests that teaching a course on the Web actually requires more time and effort than teaching it in a traditional classroom. And yes, some of those professors may very well be working in their PJ's—at 2 a.m., when administrators are fast asleep.

Support your professors. You might not know much about teaching online or care much for the idea, but you have people in your department who do. No doubt some of them are among your best faculty members. Trust their judgment. Defer to them in matters that involve distance learning. Go to bat for them with the administration when they want to offer new online courses or have ideas about better ways to do things—just as you would go to bat for any faculty member pursuing a worthwhile endeavor.

A few years ago, a colleague who had been one of the pioneers of online delivery at our college—and who was universally recognized as being very good at it—decided she wanted to teach her entire load online. At the time, that was against college policy. (Although I never could find that policy in writing. Odd.) As her chair, however, I saw no reason she shouldn't do it and every reason she should—student demand was certainly there—so I approved her request.

The next day the dean showed up in my office, demanding to know why I had allowed that faculty member to flout (unwritten) policy. I told him we had five online sections—already full of students—that needed to be taught, and that we could either allow her to teach all five, thereby making her happy and providing students with an excellent instructor, or we could demand (per "policy") that she teach two of her classes face-to-face and then twist somebody else's arm to cover the remaining online sections, thus creating unhappiness all around—especially, perhaps, among students.

The dean harrumphed (yes, he literally harrumphed), and said, "Well, it's your department," and strode out the door. Not only has that colleague been teaching her entire course load online ever since, but the college now has a large cadre of faculty members who do the same.

Learn all you can. The fact that you're not an expert about online pedagogy, or that you don't have any personal interest in the subject, doesn't mean you can't at least learn the basics of how courses are taught online. I'm sure your college, like mine, offers numerous training seminars for those who want to teach online. You might not have time to attend all of those sessions—nor do you need to—but you can probably fit in at least a few.

You also have a great resource in your online instructors. Most of them will be happy to give you access to their courses and perhaps even walk you through them. The IT experts on your campus can also help out and answer your questions. So don't be afraid to ask.

You can even learn from students. They'll be happy to tell you who are the best (and worst) online instructors. Of course, you can't always take what they say at face value, because much of it will be sour grapes and petty complaints along the lines of, "He makes us read too much" or "I don't think she likes men." But over time, if you listen to students, you can certainly detect patterns and trends that may inform some of your managerial decisions.

Just relax. No one expects you to know everything about every aspect of your department, especially if you lead one of those multidisciplinary mega-departments so common on community-college campuses. As a chair, I supervised faculty members in drama, speech, reading, and art—none of which is directly related to my field, English. My good friend the physicist chaired a department full of biologists, chemists, and environmental scientists. And so it goes.

Once you learn to look at online teaching as a type of specialization, you can place it in its proper perspective. Your primary role as an academic leader is to maintain the quality of your department's course offerings, online or otherwise. You don't have to know all the ins and outs of the technology, and you don't need to have taught online yourself, to judge whether or not an online course is fulfilling its purpose, following the course outline, and meeting students' needs. Any reasonably competent administrator—even a technophobe or a neo-Luddite—should be able to make those determinations.

Rob Jenkins is an associate professor of English and director of the Writers Institute at Georgia Perimeter College. He blogs at www.academicleaders.org and writes monthly for our community-college column. If you would like to write for our regular column on faculty and administrative careers at two-year colleges, or have a topic to propose, we would like to hear from you. Send your ideas to careers@chronicle.com.


1. 11182967 - March 11, 2010 at 09:14 am

The intent of online instruction is not necessarily to "recreate the most important aspects of classroom experience in a virtual environment"--any more than the intent of a written document is to recreate the experience of a spoken lecture or interchange. Online instruction should be judged on its success in teaching the student what is intended to be taught, not by how much like a classroom it can be. And anyway the differences among forms of "classroom instruction" are as varied as the differences between "classroom" and online." Online instuction will be better understood--appreciated for its strengths, criticized for its weakenesses--when people stop trying to define it in terms of the degree which it replicates the classroom.

2. mbelvadi - March 11, 2010 at 10:59 am

Commenter #1 has an interesting point, which I think will take us right back into that age-old debate about what exactly is the point of higher ed classes, and how do we assess whether specific courses are addressing that point. Are classes about discipline-specific learning outcomes or about experiences? Some subjects lend themselves more readily than others to objective measures of learning outcomes. If you have an online section and face-to-face section of the same course, is it reasonable to require of the instructors the same learning outcomes for the students in the two sections? If not, as commenter #1 seems to imply, if for instance one class gets more experience giving presentations in front of a live audience while the other learns more about organizing a group project in an asynchronous environment, then is it fair to the students to even label them as being the same course just because they both ostensibly dealt with nursing theory, or Dante, or whatever?

3. vicden1 - March 11, 2010 at 11:52 am

mbelvadi, I think so, because not every F2F section of a class is going to be taught the same way, e.g ain a department of which I was once a chair, one instructor would require students to give a final presentation in front of the class using the skills they had learned in the class, while another did not. Both Instructors met the competencies of the class, they just had different styles.
Mr. Jenkins: I have been a chair of a multi-discipline department, so I know the time contstraints, but maybe see if one of the Instructors or your DL Administrator could give you student access to a course. Most Institutions have "Fake Student" accounts that allow Designers and Instructors to look at a class from a student point of view. Taks a look around, and see what it looks like, see how students interact with each other and the Instructor. Not to lurk and follow the entire class (that's an entirely different subject) but to see how things work. It takes some time, certainly, but probably not much more than preparing for and doing a classroom observation.

4. arrive2__net - March 14, 2010 at 04:22 am

The first commentor raised some striking points, the optimal online course design will benefit from being designed for being online, it should be designed for success in that environment. Jenkins said, "I still believe some administrators see distance learning as a cash cow without much regard for quality". I think such administrators should consider the ethical implications of "treating classes as cash cow without much regard for quality". If administrators do treat online courses that way and let quality slide, its tough to believe they won't soon be tempted to think of some of those peskier face-to-face classes in the same manner. I think Jenkins made a good point in saying "Your primary role as an academic leader is to maintain the quality of your department's course offerings, online or otherwise." I think this way of thinking has ethical as well as pratical value. I liked his point about supporting your online faculty. The online activities also carry the university's good name, and the good name of the department and its leadership. And if the leadership doesnot care about the online faculty or the courses, it is not clear who will.
Bernard Schuster

5. lisa_c - March 17, 2010 at 08:36 am

Bravo for Mr. Jenkins for being able to get past his pre-conceived notions of online learning. Many are not able to do so. A key point to remember is that there are good and bad courses, and better and lesser instructors face-to-face. Just because a course moves online will not override this fact - there are good/bad, better/lesser online as well. However, forcing faculty to teach online when the have no interest or digital pedagogical training to do so is a sure recipe for failure.

I still find it interesting that admin has such difficulty with the idea of a full-time faculty member teaching all their load online. Exactly what is the problem with it if the courses are filling, students are learning, and the faculty member is providing service to the school beyond their teaching scope the same as any other faculty member? Why have policies that limit any particular instructor to two online courses while at the same time having policies that force the unwilling to teach online? These two stances seem at odds and "rules for rules' sake".

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