• October 25, 2014

Bitten by the Online Bug

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Brian Taylor

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Brian Taylor

The label "online lecturer" used to bother me. You didn't see teachers in a traditional classroom calling themselves "in-the-flesh lecturers" or "face-to-face lecturers." I feared that if I became an online lecturer, my colleagues might start to question the quality of my teaching or my reputation—as though the "online" bit would make what I did a little less important. Or a little less, well, good.

Then I finished teaching my first online course and I switched sides. "Online lecturer" is simply the best way to describe what I do and how I teach, and I now find myself proud of the title.

Three caveats here: Online teaching is relatively new to me, as I just taught my first such course in the spring of 2012. I teach relatively small online courses in a professional-development master's program, so all of my students are fellow academics, administrators, or graduate students. I'm not teaching 15,000 people around the world in a MOOC. I'm teaching about 30 people across Dublin, and, this semester, across Ireland.

But I'd wager that my experience is more representative of the reality of online education today than the MOOC's that we are now hearing so much about. Not all of us will end up teaching hundreds of students in a MOOC, but I bet that in the coming years most lecturers will have to, or will want to, teach at least one course online.

After my first semester of online teaching, I began fiddling with the syllabus, format, and delivery of my courses, getting ready for the fall semester of "laptop lecturing" to begin. And to my surprise I found myself waiting more like a kid on Christmas morning and less like a kid waiting for the first day of school.

Having lectured entirely through face-to-face experiences, I came to online teaching thinking it would be a pale comparison to "the real thing." How could I convey passion and curiosity through a discussion forum or a computer screen? How could I build a community if students didn't see one another? How could I get to know them and let them get to know me if we always interacted via something as stale sounding as a "virtual learning environment"?

Oh, how naïve I was. After a couple of weeks of teaching through a combination of Moodle, Blackboard Collaborate, Twitter, YouTube, Articulate, and other tools, I was hooked.

I'll be the first to say I had a rough start. My initial online lecture, or Webinar, was a bit like a first date. Me, the technology, and the students had a lot of "getting to know each other" to do. There were awkward silences when I, or a student, was trying to figure out how to use the microphone. At the end of the first class I wasn't quite sure how to close. Should I say "see you later" and sign out right away? Should I stick around the virtual classroom and have some casual conversations with students?

Those quirks were all the more strange to me as I had never been an online student. When you give your first lecture ever in a physical classroom, as a faculty member, you have an idea of how it is supposed to go because you've been a student in a lecture before. And most of us had multiple trial runs at lecturing when we were teaching assistants in graduate school.

We know how these things work, what to say, what to do, when to do it. But while some experiences from face-to-face teaching can translate into online teaching, there are unique aspects to the virtual realm that a traditional classroom does not prepare you for. Like what to do when you are in the middle of delivering a lecture and your Internet connection drops. It's the online equivalent of that nightmare where you show up to your lecture naked—except there's not much chance of that really happening. I got through that awkward online moment, and many others.

Is online teaching less personal? Well, I used to teach a traditional lecture class with 80 students. I came to know some of them through conversations before and after class, but I struggled to remember most of their names, their majors, and what excited them about my course. And it was safe to say I had no idea what they did when they were not in my class.

In a Webinar, a lot of the time I'm broadcasting into my students' homes, their gardens, their lives. The last day of my class fell on the sunniest day of the summer, thus far, in Dublin. I thought no one would come. Instead, I found myself hearing the birds tweet in the background of one student's garden while she made valuable contributions to the discussion. Once I rescheduled a Webinar to 8:30 a.m. and was wondering why none of my students had turned on their video cameras. One student promptly shared that she was in her pajamas drinking coffee, and others agreed. We had a laugh, and that moment felt more personal and, well, human than most experiences I've had in lecture halls, as student or lecturer.

Is online teaching more time consuming? Yes and no. It definitely requires some time and planning, especially if you haven't taught online before. And it requires preparation and support from your university's IT team.

But more and more resources are available out there on curriculum planning for online courses. There are tools for auditing the types of teaching and learning experiences you can then build into your courses. The learning curve may be steep for some people, but I've found that it's worth the climb when you get to the top.

The responses from my students, in a post-course evaluation, were overwhelmingly positive. Those with criticisms framed them as constructive ways to improve the online course rather than expressing some desire to return to a face-to-face format.

For me, online teaching has opened up new possibilities. It has challenged me to develop my teaching skills in an innovative way, and to get better at something I thought I was already pretty good at. Online education has implications for access, global reach, and new types of teaching and learning experiences that may be more in line with what students face in the world of work.

To find out if it's worth it for you, you'll need to try it yourself. And with the way things are going in many higher-education institutions, chances are if you don't choose this route, you'll be dragged into it anyway. Better to go willingly and get ahead of the curve, instead of kicking and screaming with the masses.

Eloise Tan is a teaching and learning developer in the Learning Innovation Unit at Dublin City University.

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