I'll Never Do It Again

Illustrations by Tim Cook for the Chronicle

May 21, 2009

I trained for it, I tried it, and I'll never do it again. While online teaching may be the wave of the future (although I desperately hope not), it is not for me. Perhaps I'm the old dog that resists new tricks. Maybe I am a technophobe. It might be that I'm plain old-fashioned.

This much I can say with certainty: I have years of experience successfully teaching in collegiate classrooms, and online teaching doesn't compare. So I'll just chalk up my first and only venture to experience and make my way back to the traditional academy. Here are five reasons why.

1. "Virtual community" is the ultimate oxymoron. It is an inherent contradiction in terms —like saying one is "fresh from the tennis court." While some people find the anonymity enabling and are able to bond with their cybergroup and engage in true confessions, I find it extraordinarily difficult to communicate with people for whom I have no face, no persona, no body language, no in-the-moment exchange. To me, virtual anything is by definition not real. In the case of the classroom, it is a substitute for an actual space in which people physically gather to explore, discuss, grapple, and grow together in the true spirit of learning and meaningful exchange.

2. The lack of immediacy in communication is maddening. I met my British husband 38 years ago when we both worked in Washington. When his job ended and he returned to London during a tenuous time in our relationship, it took us at least seven days to have a conversation, let alone an argument. (Those were not only pre-computer days; overseas phone calls were still considered a luxury.) I revisited that experience every time I read and responded to students' posts, waiting to see what they would say the next time I heard from them, all the while worrying that my feedback might be misinterpreted and thus hurtful or confusing. I can think of no more important place for immediate communication to occur than in a classroom where difficult subjects are being discovered and debated. It is essential, in my view, that a teacher be able to probe, clarify, comment in the moment. That moment is lost in a virtual community.

3. The quality of education is compromised in online learning. My first experience with "distance learning" did not occur in an online course, but it did involve adult learners and minimal face-to-face time. I taught in an adult degree program in which faculty members met with students only periodically —two weeks a year or on selected weekends. The rest of the student-teacher dialogue occurred through the mail. I never felt that the independent research that the students were undertaking completely matched what they might have learned from a structured curriculum designed to expose them, in a systematic way, to theories and key thinkers in their fields of interest. I can say unequivocally that students were given credit for independent work that never would have passed muster in a traditional course of study.

Similarly, in online teaching, I was only able to introduce students to a limited amount of material outside of the textbook readings; it is simply impossible to replicate a lecture online. Nor could I adequately help them develop better writing and critical thinking skills or to foster original ideas because there simply wasn't enough time or a proper forum. For one thing, online courses, in my experience, are too big; I can't give each student enough attention. That load contributes to the poor quality of discourse —an interchange that, in traditional classrooms, is not only my reward but a way for students to realize their own intellectual growth.

4. Show me the money. I devoted at least three times as many hours and triple the energy to online teaching than was necessary for traditional courses. But I received no additional compensation for that effort. I considered that exploitation. Enough said.

5. Online teaching can be very punishing. In addition to the lack of financial incentive that one might reasonably expect from such an endeavor, it would have been nice to feel that I had some down time and a day off occasionally, as I did with classroom teaching. Sure, I had to plan interesting classes in that setting, deliver them in a lively fashion for three hours at a time, and suffer the penalties of grading copious papers and exams. But with my online course, I never had a day off. Never! I tried to confine my reading days to twice, then three times per week, but I just couldn't keep up with all the posts, replies, planning, announcements, tracking, grading, and so on unless I visited the increasingly dreaded Blackboard almost every day.

Then there were all the e-mail messages that I received from students. This one didn't understand the assignment. That one wanted to tell me why her assignment was late. Another felt that my feedback was too negative. Yet another wanted to apologize for the way she had stated her position, and on and on. Weary and obsessed, I began to feel that, despite my best efforts, I was not up to the task, not in control, not meeting my own standards. On top of that, I suspected my students didn't like me very much. That hurt. I began to break out in rashes and suffer sleepless nights.

That's when I knew that I would not do it again and would chalk it up to experience —even if that decision meant hanging up my chalk altogether. Try to talk me down. Tell me I didn't give it enough time. Call me old-fashioned and out-of-date. Just don't call me to teach online.

I'll leave that to (younger?) teachers who like living in a virtual world of virtual students with virtual goals, capacities, and ideas. Me? I'll stick to the virtues of live human interaction —in the classroom and elsewhere —in a world rapidly becoming, as some of my students might say, "totally unreal!"

Elayne Clift has been a lecturer at various colleges and universities since 1987. In 2005-6 she taught at Payap University in Chiang Mai, Thailand. She is the author of "ACHAN: A Year of Teaching in Thailand" (Bangkok Books, 2007).