Exploring Online Teaching and Learning

Meg Morgan, ATTW Teaching Committee
UNC Charlotte
Fall 2009

I recently read an article in the August 11, 2009 electronic edition of Inside Higher Ed about online teaching written by Jonathan Kaplan, President of Walden University, an online university.  Kaplan summarizes a recent report published by the U.S. Department of Education “that looked at 12 years’ worth of education studies, and found that online learning has clear advantages over face-to-face instruction.”  In his article, Kaplan cites the report which stated: “students who took all or part of their class online performed better, on average, than those taking the same course through traditional face-to-face instruction.”

I was particularly intrigued by the article because in our technical/professional writing program, we have an overwhelming demand for courses at the undergraduate level in our minor but much less demand for our graduate courses.  Because we teach mostly combined courses (undergraduate/graduate), to accommodate the undergraduate demand we often have to shortchange the graduate students by offering them a too-limited number of seats in our computer classrooms.  To explore possible solutions to this problem, I suggested to my colleagues that perhaps we should offer more graduate courses online or partially online.  The positive response was underwhelming; most faculty members stated that the personal connections to students get lost in online teaching and that online teaching is not as effective as face-to-face teaching.  I have never taught a course online, so I had no rebuttal to this assertion, but the Inside Higher Ed article provides me with data that I can use to begin the conversation.

Although admittedly biased because he administers an online university with many years of experience, Kaplan points out three advantages of online learning.  First, he maintains that online teaching and learning require “[g]reater student engagement: In an online classroom, there is no back row and nowhere for students to hide. Every student participates in class.”  I teach in a computer classroom, and one of the hardest things for me to achieve is the kind of engagement where every student participates.  Because students who do not want to participate often sit in the back of the room, I call on them more frequently that they might have expected, sometimes to no avail.  I have learned to move to the back of the classroom and write on the board; thus, I force all the students to turn away from the computers, and the last row of students becomes the first row of students.  This practice, of course, forces me away from my technology—the smart pedestal—and back to writing on the blackboard.

Kaplan also points out the need for what he calls  “[i]ncreased faculty attention” in online courses.  He notes that “many faculty members choose to teach online because they want more student interaction.”  While I teach relatively small classes of writing students, I can see where teaching a large, lecture-based class would eliminate most student discussion and faculty involvement with students. Kaplan’s statement initially seems counter-intuitive except that I find that students are often much more willing to email me with comments and questions rather talk in class.  Perhaps the culture of increasing one-on-one electronic communication is changing our students.  And readers offer some rebuttal to Kaplan’s point in theInside Higher Ed comments section.  However, something may be motivating students to be more active online than they might be in a large class.

Finally, Kaplan argues that students in online courses have access to the teacher and to each other all the time: “Online learning occurs on the student’s time, making it more accessible, convenient, and attainable.” I observe this time challenge frequently in my current setting, especially with my graduate students:  working parents (often single) who drag themselves to night classes after working all day, making dinner for kids, and negotiating with the other parent or a baby-sitter over bed time, TV/computer time, and homework.  Of course, 24/7 access has its downside for faculty members.  I get e-mails from students sent at 3:00am, during the weekends, and even during class when I am teaching them.  However, I can also choose to answer those emails at a time convenient for me.  I set an email “office hour”; students can send their emails whenever they want, but I only have to respond to the emails during the time I have set aside to do so.  I’m not sure that one can do this with an online course.  The presumption may be that online means 24/7 access to the faculty member.

The responses in the comment section following Kaplan’s article were similar to the responses I received after my inquiry about making some of our graduate courses online or hybrid.  Vocal people with an absolute antipathy to online teaching cite rampant cheating, ineffective curriculum outlines, etc.  Others, many of whom are students at Kaplan’s university, cite the highly positive experience they have had learning online.  One commenter quoted from the report which states: “Instruction combining online and face-to-face elements had a larger advantage relative to purely face-to-face instruction than did purely online instruction.”  He goes on to say “Unfortunately, it does not quantify just how much FTF contact is enough!  It would be interesting to compare programs that are a.) Completely online, b.) Hybrid courses with a substantial (25% or more) amount of FTF time; c.) Online programs with superficial FTF time (e.g. a few days of residency for the entire program), and d.) Completely FTF with no online component.  That might produce some interesting results.”

The debate about online courses will continue.  I hope that this teaching tip column in future issues of the Bulletin might discuss online teaching, both in completely online courses and in hybrid courses.  (See the Call for Teaching Tips elsewhere in this issue of the Bulletin.)  I encourage readers to read Kaplan’s article (athttp://www.insidehighered.com/views/2009/08/11/kaplan ) and the report (at http://www.ed.gov/rschstat/eval/tech/evidence-based-practices/