in Higher Ed

The trials of teaching an online class, Pt. 1

In the classroom

Earlier this year, I made a transition from talking about web strategy behind the scenes, to doing so in front of a classroom of aspiring web professionals. This is the third term I’ve taught The Business of Visual Art: Web Design course at the Community College of Aurora, but it wasn’t until now that I even felt remotely comfortable relaying my experiences in the classroom.

Public speaking is no big deal for me, generally, but I the first term I taught, it was most certainly a “work in progress” sort of deal. The course has evolved and yet, there are some interesting issues related to the whole “connecting with students” through an online course. It’s an especially difficult thing when you’re the sort of person who relies heavily on face-to-face interactions to build understanding and trust, in order to deliver your message.

My class isn’t entirely online. 3 of the classes are in person, for two hours and the rest of the program is online (over a 10 week term) so there are opportunities to connect, but I’ve had to hone this over the terms, because it’s not a natural posture for me.

I’ve taken online classes in the past and I’ve had many of the same frustrations with taking classes online, that I’ve had teaching one. A lot of it is endemic to the tools that are used. We’re transitioning to a new system, so perhaps that’ll help.

But I think student engagement can be difficult regardless of what you’re using as a tool. I’ve adapted my methods to increase participation and a lot of that has to do with the format of the course, course loads and the traditional v. non-traditional student demographics. But I’ve been in online courses in the past, where I saw thinly veiled busywork exercises developed solely aimed at manufacturing class “participation” and I think this is the sort of thing you wouldn’t see in a regular format class. Does this improve the student experience? I’d venture to say no.

My gut reaction to most learning management tools, is they’re redundant and there are better ways to deliver this sort of content to campus, but it might require innovation and nimbleness from plucky entrepreneurs who understand the problem and are driven to solve it. (e.g. A higher ed-centered Basecamp, for instance.)

I’ve wondered a bit, as I’ve exposed my students to social networking tools they haven’t used (for instance, very few had ever used Twitter and maybe 1 or 2 were regular users and no…neither were teens.) whether or not the education we’re doing on campuses related to the use of digital tools is really working at all. For all the geniuses out there trying to teach people about how to ignite their web efforts on campus, I’m still wondering if we’re not leaving people behind.

For instance, if there were innovative and diverse ways to integrate Twitter into a classroom setting, would this result in a decrease in much of the widespread resistance to such tools? Now, I’m not advocating for a widespread blurring of the lines, but once people realize that social media isn’t magic, it might make it easier to increase conversations that might not otherwise happen.

Teaching has been great to explain things that we as web professionals might put in practice all of the time, but don’t necessarily think about some fairly basic user questions about how these tools can be useful.