• September 30, 2014

I'll Never Do It Again

I'll Never Do It Again 1

Illustrations by Tim Cook for the Chronicle

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close I'll Never Do It Again 1

Illustrations by Tim Cook for the Chronicle

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).

Comments

1. sdragoo - August 28, 2009 at 08:33 am

Oh my! I've never seen anyone so opposed to distance learning. Distance learning is the wave of the future with over-crowding on campuses. As a distance student who works in education as well, I found that in most distance classes, there was more homework and more was expected from the online student. However, not all students are "cut out" for distance learning and not all teachers are. Students must be highly disciplined and self-motivated to succeed in this type of learning environment. Teachers must adjust to the teaching environment and not try to apply "on-site" teaching to a distance classroom.

2. haohtt - August 28, 2009 at 08:49 am

I have been teaching for about the same length of time as Ms. Clift, in face-to-face, blended and fully online settings. Her observations about the lack of recognition and pay for online teaching can be verified by most studies. However, her other comments about the supposed lack of quality and her inability to manage her online course(s) are a prime example of the fact that being an excellent face-to-face instructor often does not translate into being an excellent online instructor. Poor online discourse and inability to keep up with posts, replies, planning, announcements, tracking, grading, etc. can be mitigated by sound instructional design, clear policies and online classroom management skills (which are different than face-to-face classroom management skills). There is no consistent body of research literature that establishes that online students learn less than face-to-face students (although there is a substantial amount of studies demonstrating that they learn at least as well). Those of us who teach online for the first time often run into frustrations similar to that of Ms. Clift, more experienced and trained online instructors know how to design, deliver and manage their courses to avoid these problems. I know artists who are comfortable and highly competent with paint brushes and pens and are not adept at digital graphic art and design. I respect that Ms. Clift will "never do it again". She has made an impressive career with her writing and other accomplishments and has wisely determined to leave online teaching to those who can do it well. I applaud her.

Anthony Piña, Ed.D.

3. jsalmons - August 28, 2009 at 09:18 am

The crux of the matter is in the statement, "it is simply impossible to replicate a lecture online." My response: you are right, and hallelujah! Deadening lectures that expect learners to passively absorb are not workable online. Online learning involves active inquiry on the part of the student, and active engagement in projects and discussions-- in addition to writing the usual papers.

Teaching online is interactive, with lots of opportunities for one-one, team and small group dialogue. I make meaningful connections with my learners. While most of the communication is by writing-- a time-tested mode of thoughtful exchange-- there are many synchronous tools available today.

I echo Dr. Pina's comments about the value of sound instructional design and online course management. Teaching online asks something different of instructors. EDUCAUSE, Sloan-C and other professional groups offer lots of strategies and information for new (and experienced) online instructors.

I've been teaching graduate students online for a decade now, and have become a real believer in the value of online learning. For one thing, it opens the door to higher education for people who otherwise would be locked out.

Hey Chronicle-- why not ask some experienced advocates to write about teaching online, instead of publishing the negative view?

Janet Salmons, PhD

4. jsalmons - August 28, 2009 at 09:18 am

The crux of the matter is in the statement, "it is simply impossible to replicate a lecture online." My response: you are right, and hallelujah! Deadening lectures that expect learners to passively absorb are not workable online. Online learning involves active inquiry on the part of the student, and active engagement in projects and discussions-- in addition to writing the usual papers.

Teaching online is interactive, with lots of opportunities for one-one, team and small group dialogue. I make meaningful connections with my learners. While most of the communication is by writing-- a time-tested mode of thoughtful exchange-- there are many synchronous tools available today.

I echo Dr. Pina's comments about the value of sound instructional design and online course management. Teaching online asks something different of instructors. EDUCAUSE, Sloan-C and other professional groups offer lots of strategies and information for new (and experienced) online instructors.

I've been teaching graduate students online for a decade now, and have become a real believer in the value of online learning. For one thing, it opens the door to higher education for people who otherwise would be locked out.

Hey Chronicle-- why not ask some experienced advocates to write about teaching online, instead of publishing the negative view?

Janet Salmons, PhD

5. cwinton - August 28, 2009 at 09:45 am

A weakness of on-line education as currently formulated is the insistence we need to mimic existing curricula, presumably so we can compare outcomes to those produced using face to face education (as if that was something comparable even within the confines of face to face instruction). In some instances there is congruence, but in others, one delivery mechanism or the other falls short. If a degree program has content poorly suited for on-line education, then we should either look for acceptable alternative content or not claim to produce those programs on-line. We already have made decisions of that sort when it comes to face to face programs (e.g., instead of one-to-one study with a Master, we accept we can do something "good enough" using mass classes, but note that would work poorly for music performance programs). Ms. Clift made the mistake of seeking to replicate on-line the same course experience she knows she can produce in a face to face setting. Given that, it's hardly surprising she had a bad experience.

6. richlewine - August 28, 2009 at 09:45 am

RE online classes demanding more time from instructors...the problem is that this is probably so but many instructors ration their time, rather than committing what it takes to do the job well. What students don't like about online classes is the difficulty in getting a response from the instructor. No way to grab their lapels through cyberspace if they choose to wait two weeks to answer an email.

7. zviszafran - August 28, 2009 at 10:13 am

People who want to read a summary of the recent Department of Education meta-analysis of online instruction vs. "live" should look at the following link: http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2009/06/29/online.

8. jbarman - August 28, 2009 at 10:55 am

With one frustrating exception, I love teaching online (and have also taught face to face for 25 years). My frustration occurs when the course design and content are mandated by a master syllabus created by a "main campus" professor who has little or no experience (or ability) teaching online classes.

Accordingly, I am often forced to require multiple choice mid-terms and finals in online graduate courses (in my case, finance) where projects and cases make much more sense (and they likely would in the face to face classes, as well). As "cwinton" implied above, assuming that an onground course structure will work seamlessly in an online course is a disconnect that leads to unhappy students and faculty.

9. mhoferek - August 28, 2009 at 04:30 pm

The author raises some very valid points regarding the comparison with online and f2f instruction. I don't believe that the issue is really "it is simply impossible to replicate a lecture online." The issue is whether or not the content of f2f courses can be taught online. Reducing the content or "dumbing" down the courses isn't the answer - as some colleges have done. Surely, we can find ways to teach the same content through online classes. While we may develop the technology to support quality courses, the situation is complicated by online colleges/universities and their need to show a profit. If the goal is to make money rather than to educate citizens for a democracy, quality course content may become a secondary objective.

10. fsvoboda - August 29, 2009 at 09:58 am

I'm sorry, but this writer seems to me pretentious and unwilling to adapt to the different nature of on line education. She ends her article by lamenting the good old days, essentially. I have heard this same lament from other senior faculty members in a number of contexts, and it is one indicator that the instructor has ceased to view teaching realistically and probably is ready for retirement. A vital and still-engaged faculty member wouldn't be saying that she could not adapt to teaching on line after trying one course. Rather, she would be eschewing nostalgia and remembering how challenging it was to learn to teach originally--and realizing that teaching on line would take the same commitment.

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