Sink or Swim: How To Stay Afloat When Teaching an Online Course

By Janet Hawkins,
Associate Director of Public Affairs,
Washtenaw Community College

The technology used today in the distance learning classroom can be mind numbing for some of us boomers. I am a community college PR/marketing professional in my mid-50s, and I was under the mistaken notion that technology and I had grown up together.

After all, I had teethed on an IBM Selectric typewriter and found my balance on a dedicated word processor, with its eight-inch floppy disks and clickety/clackety processor. I evolved from desktop to laptop in a few short years. Now I can’t imagine a day without Facebook, Twitter or Google to monitor what fans and foes are saying about Washtenaw Community College, where I work.

So I was gobsmacked when I stumbled like a novice with a new set of technology tools in my first online class. Ironically, it was an online class to teach me how to teach an online class.

WCC requires its distance learning faculty to take a six-week, noncredit course entitled, “Teaching Online: The 21st Century Classroom.” In it, we learn to teach an online or hybrid/blended course from a student’s perspective. It’s almost like sitting in the front row of your own class.

Long before we meet our students, we get valuable hands-on experience in:

  • Posting to and moderating discussion boards.
  • Managing assignments and grades.
  • Assessing class progress with special data reports.
  • Maintaining virtual office hours.
  • Using quick capture videos.
  • Facilitating video chats with individuals and small groups.
  • Budgeting our time.

We also:

  • Examine the paradigm shift toward a learner-centered pedagogy and how technology is supporting it;
  • Experience firsthand some of the issues students might encounter that could prevent them from completing an online or hybrid/blended course.

My classmates and I were pumped last fall when we sat together for our orientation. Most were faculty from my institution; a few were faculty hopefuls from the community or from area high schools; some were professional trainers. One guy was on a fishing trip and logged in via Web conferencing from Alaska.

I had the academic credentials to teach, but I had never taken them for a spin. Teaching an online course seemed like the perfect way to dive into the pond. But after the first week, I seriously doubted I would ever dip my toes into the water.

Our first assignment was to post a photograph and bio on a discussion board. Simple enough, right? Sure, if you’re familiar with Blackboard, the learning management system WCC uses. But I had never had the pleasure.

We were expected to have a background in Blackboard, Moodle, or similar system before enrolling. I, however, was new to it. I thought I had the technical chops to learn it as I went along. Big mistake. I realized quickly that I had overestimated my skills.

I posted my brief bio just fine. It was the photo that gave me trouble. I followed the steps to the letter. I thought I was good to go. It was only when I received an email from my instructor reminding me of the approaching deadline that I realized I wasn’t as tech savvy as I had thought.

I tried reposting it. It still wasn’t there. Had I clicked the right button? Had I jumped to the next screen too quickly? Was it because I used a Mac and everyone else used Windows? I wasn’t the only one, either. There were other boomers who, like me, were feeling pretty dumb right off the bat, flummoxed by seemingly simple tasks.

So I did what any overachiever does when she can’t figure something out: I whined to the instructor. “I can’t make it work no matter what I do,” I emailed, trying desperately to avoid any point loss for this otherwise no-brainer assignment.

I had a flashback to the programming class required for my undergrad degree, and the final project with multiple subroutines that never did run correctly for me. I still have nightmares about it: stupid, stupid Fortran.

Acknowledging my futile but earnest effort, my instructor let me slide on the photo. I experienced a few more snafus as the weeks went on. But as I gained confidence beyond my somewhat stilted skills, I had a great deal of fun trying out the tools available to me and experiencing how rich the learning environment can be.

I admit that staying on top of the deadlines almost tripped me up more than once. And I know my students are bound to struggle with that as well.

I have yet to take the plunge into teaching an online or hybrid/blended class and that’s okay, I have plenty of time. It’s reassuring to know that when I’m ready, I’ll be able to swim. When the time comes, I’ll be bearing in mind five lessons I think can help any novice online instructor to stay afloat:

Lesson 1: Patience really is a virtue.

When my angst approached its flashpoint, I found reassurance in the poise and patience of my online instructor. It was my first lesson in the course, and an important one to model.

Lesson 2: It’s not a 24/7 job.

Just because smart phones and tablets gave me instant access to my instructor’s email, it didn’t mean that she would reply instantly. Because she was clear about her virtual office hours and what kind of response time I could expect from her when I emailed, I knew there would be some lag time in her replies. It didn’t make the wait any easier, but I’m sure it helped her organize her time better.

Lesson 3: Time management will always be an issue.

One surprise was how much time I had to invest in the course — much more than in a face-to-face class. To manage my time better as an instructor, I was encouraged to have a small file of general, pre-written responses that I could cut and paste where and when appropriate.

Lesson 4: Comfort with technology is key.

The online environment is great for a learner-centered approach to instruction. And to be successful, I needed to have a basic comfort level with technology and a willingness to learn. That sounds obvious, but it becomes critical when helping a struggling student, especially in the beginning, as they are getting their sea legs.

Lesson 5: Help is only a click away.

I became part of a student cohort with this class. That meant I had people I could call on to bounce ideas off of, and to refresh my memory on ways to navigate student and technology issues. It is really comforting to know that help will be there when I really need it.

To learn more about this WCC introductory course for teaching online, visit: http://TinyW.CC/TeachingOnline.

It’s YOUR TURN! CCW wants  to hear from you!
Q: What was your most difficult experience in teaching an online course?

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About ccweekblogger

Covering All Things Community College
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One Response to Sink or Swim: How To Stay Afloat When Teaching an Online Course

  1. neumaticos says:

    For a sucess online education you need to consider some basic concepts like make sure that you have good communication with your tutor.
    Read the course syllabus and course website carefully and follow instructions.
    Explore and utilize all course resources provided, including supplementary resources.
    Participate actively in course discussions, including online discussions.
    Ask for help when you need it.These simple tips will help you finish successfully you online course.

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