Combating Myths About Distance Education

February 22, 2010

In addition to my day job as an academic librarian at Yale University, I have been teaching online courses for several library schools since 2002. I have taught courses on reference, online searching, children's literature, U.S. government documents (finding them, that is, not creating them), and book and library history—all on a part-time, adjunct basis. I've even taught a few online courses on writing or research skills for undergraduates.

I enjoy the work and feel confident that I have helped students become better readers, writers, future librarians, curators, and researchers. Yet every time I speak with faculty colleagues who have only taught what distance educators call "face to face" or "on ground" courses, I get the same bewildered responses: "I've never understood this whole online teaching thing" or "So do you teach via e-mail?" or "Is that like a correspondence course?"

Hidden beneath the surface of such seemingly innocuous comments and questions is a little jab, which, if put into words, would go something like this: "You're not a real college teacher, are you? If you were, you'd be interacting with students in a bricks-and-mortar classroom like I do."

No doubt that attitude owes, in part, to the bad press emanating from investigations into certain online "colleges" that have turned out to be little more than diploma mills. But the attitude also seems to be connected to the very idea of online teaching, as though no real college-level content could be delivered or absorbed without face-to-face interaction between teacher and students. That myopic notion even extends, in some cases, to administrators of the programs themselves: One department I have taught for at a big state university does not even acknowledge its online instructors as members of the faculty on its Web page. In the department's eyes, I am, like Pinocchio, not a "real boy."

I'll be the first to admit that online delivery of undergraduate or graduate course work is not always a wonderful teaching and learning experience for everyone. But then, neither is face-to-face delivery. The method of delivery itself is not ipso facto a blessing or a curse. That's because any classroom, whether it's the face-to-face, online-only, or hybrid variety, is only as good as the people in it. If both teachers and students are prepared, responsive, and engaged, things run remarkably well. But if the instructor is teaching at too low or too high a level, or if the students are underprepared for the work—or, heaven forbid, if both are the case—problems will arise whether the course is face-to-face or online.

That said, online education does have its particular challenges. That's why there's no guarantee that a great classroom instructor will make an equally great (or even adequate) online instructor. By contrast, in my experience, good students in a traditional classroom also make good online students because the key to online learning is initiative and a strong sense of responsibility, qualities that all really good students seem to have. I would also guess that many instructors who are good online are also good in a traditional classroom. That's because part of what makes instructors good in the first place is their sensitivity to how different learning environments can affect the quality of the course, and a concomitant ability to make adjustments based on that sensitivity.

Why might a good classroom instructor have trouble making the transition to online instruction?

Any number of possible factors could affect the quality of instruction online, including skills as seemingly trivial as speed and accuracy in typing and a good proofreader's eye. But the crucial factors in online instruction are organization and, related to that, course design or presentation of material.

Organization and course design. What student hasn't sat in a face-to-face course in which the syllabus gets adjusted on a daily basis as the professor, realizing that he was overly ambitious, is forced to acknowledge that he is not covering the material according to the original plan?

That's all well and good in a traditional classroom: Most students come to class, so the instructor can just announce any adjustments to the next day's schedule. He or she might also grant a deadline extension on the spot, since students can't be expected to hand in their essays on Shakespeare if the instructor is still back on Chaucer.

But online, changing the schedule of what is to be covered and altering assignment deadlines can cause chaos. Say you get behind in the content and decide to extend the deadline for a paper assignment. Inevitably, some students will overlook the announcement you post on the course Web site. They will go ahead and write the paper without the benefit of the instructor's lectures or class discussions and hand it in on the original deadline. When they get it back with a less-than-stellar grade and a note from the instructor explaining that many of their errors could have been avoided by reading the lecture and participating in discussion, they will complain that they didn't know they could have had more time because you, the instructor, didn't stick to the original posted schedule. And you didn't go back through your course Web site and change all the deadlines affected because you knew you risked creating another problem: Would everyone understand that they were now looking at the new due dates and not the old?

The online learning environment can be much less forgiving, for instructors as well as students. That's why it is crucial to be organized when you teach online.

That's also why you need good course design. Without it, your students can easily overlook important components of the course like the schedule of readings and assignment due dates. Because students are mostly silent online (unless you hold real-time meetings, as some instructors do), neither of you may know what they've missed until it's too late.

My advice on course design is to keep it clean, simple, and straightforward. Most of all, post deadlines in as many places as possible on your course Web site: on the syllabus, on the schedule, on the calendar, in the grade book, and under the assignments and readings tabs if you have them.

Best practices. Beyond those basics, what makes for good online courses? Surely the answer varies from discipline to discipline.

But let me begin with two crucial distinctions. The first is that undergraduate courses should be run differently from graduate courses, just as they are in a traditional classroom. While many face-to-face undergraduate courses involve lots of lecturing, many graduate courses do not. The same should hold true for online courses.

The second distinction is that students have to be up to the challenge of learning online, meaning that there is a level of maturity required that is less necessary in a physical classroom.

When undergraduates take courses in a traditional classroom, they can skip class or the reading (or both), and sit passively like baby birds awaiting a worm from Mother, thereby forcing the instructor to do the heavy lifting required to make the course engaging. And as long as students show up at least some of the time, take and pass the tests and quizzes, and turn in their papers, they usually do fine. Trust me, I was a face-to-face instructor (and before that, a student) for long enough to be thoroughly familiar with the panoply of tricks that can be used to thwart full participation in class, or anything like mastery of the course material while still receiving a decent grade.

By contrast, when undergraduates take good courses online, they are required to be full partners in their learning process. That's because "attendance and participation" means not simply warming a seat in a classroom but logging on to the course site, posting a thoughtful and informed comment to the current discussion on the discussion board within a specified time frame, and getting graded on the quality of that comment.

Can you imagine a course in a traditional classroom in which every student participates in every discussion and gets graded specifically for his or her comments? I can't.

Another feature of quality online courses—both undergraduate and graduate—is good course-management software that instructors use to design highly functional, easy-to-navigate virtual classrooms. (It helps if instructors have expert and responsive support from information-technology administrators at their college or university.)

Over the years I have had to use much of the available courseware out there: eCollege, WebCT, WebCT Vista, Blackboard, Blackboard Vista, Angel, Sakai, and a host of programs developed in house by various universities. As much as they have evolved, they are still not all created equal.

Some are easy to use for both instructors and students; others not so much. To cite just one typical problem: The fewer clicks required to reach the course content you're after, the better; that saves time and frustration. Yet much of the software out there is not built to minimize clicks but to ensure that the instructor has maximum flexibility when designing a course.

I guess it's a trade-off, because courseware built that way inevitably adds clicks and headaches for all users. In some courseware these days, after you log on, you may have to click seven times before you reach the grade book and are actually reading a student's paper. Ditto with reading students' comments posted to the discussion board. That's too many clicks. So if you have a choice, use good courseware.

Finally, be friendly and welcoming, just as you would in a traditional classroom. Make yourself available to students as much as possible via cellphone, e-mail, or even instant messaging. That does not mean 24/7, even if some students will hope it does. But if students think you are unavailable to them or unapproachable, they will like you and your course much less.

In a future column I'll examine the difference between assignments that work especially well online versus those better suited to face-to-face courses. I'll also offer advice about how to give instructions to students that are specific enough to cut down on your having to answer the same questions repeatedly while also empowering students to help themselves. Meanwhile, as you begin to imagine yourself becoming an online instructor, it might be helpful to think of your new role, not as that of the sage on the stage, but the guide on the side.

Todd Gilman is librarian for literature in English at Yale University Library and a part-time instructor for the Schools of Library and Information Science at San Jose State University and Wayne State University as well as for the journalism department at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.