I started teaching online courses four years ago, and I have to admit, when I first began preparing, I had little idea of what my role was. I half-imagined a scenario where students and professors were robots, inputting and outputting information through a computer system. I have since learned that the role of an online professor is, in many ways, different from that of a professor who teaches in a face-to-face classroom. An online professor’s role, nonetheless, is very important to student learning. Here are some myths I would like to dispel in order to help other professors considering teaching online courses.
Myth #1: Online courses will take up less of the professor’s time. Because some of my assignments are automatically graded by the course software, one might think that I have to spend less time grading. This is not true at all. While I may no longer need to grade assessments such as multiple choice quizzes, written assignments, essays on exams, discussion boards, and final projects require a good deal of my attention.
With quizzes graded by the online system, I have to work as a programmer and assessor. I often write test questions, or adjust existing questions and answers in the system before the course even starts. Then, even after the online system does the grading, I still have to look at the student scores closely. I must consider what types of questions the students are frequently missing, and why, and if particular students struggling with specific skills. In my field, music history, I find that at least 50% of my students struggle with hearing musical features beyond lyric content. I have to work more directly with those students to help them learn to hear other features, such as melody, harmony, rhythm, texture, and form so that they do not continuously miss questions that require listening skills.
Also, while I may not have traditional office hours, I do need to interact with students to answer questions, have conversations, give reminders, and even review material. Stanford University posted a guide that recommends being “present” as a number one priority in teaching an online course. I do this through email, chat sessions, Skype, on the phone, and sometimes, if the student lives near campus, in person. Each of these types of communication takes time, just as a regularly scheduled face-to-face class would.
Myth #2 College students are all very similar. This seems to be a myth that many professors at four-year institutions are not even aware that they hold. While the makeup of a face-to-face class is often of students roughly between the ages of 18 and 24 and of one predominant race, online courses are extremely diverse in terms of race, age, gender, and economic status.
I teach popular music history courses that discuss musical styles beginning with blackface minstrelsy moving on through blues, funk, R&B, and even hip hop. Students of different races view the objective musical features and the history of this music very differently. Their subjective opinions are also wide ranging. Online professors should not only be prepared for this, but also use it to their advantage. Want to teach a nineteen-year old white male student about Bessie Smith? Post a discussion board, and see what your 50-something African-American working mom student posts about it. Some really great discussions come out of these types of interactions, and even some wonderful friendships are made!
Myth #3: Students will know how to use a computer and the internet. Oh, God. If there is one myth you need to be aware of as professor of online education, this is the one. Students of all ages and other demographics do not automatically know how to use even their own laptop, the internet, or software.
As Jocelyn Neal wrote in her article “The Online Challenge: Why Not Teach Music History Unconventionally?” in the Journal of Music History Pedagogy (2011), professors should keep it simple. Some students might live in remote areas or have limited access to computers or the internet. That does not stop them from signing up for online courses though.
Even a college student with a $3000 custom-made Mac laptop may say that they were not able to find or complete an assignment because there were “too many clicks” to access it. Simplicity is important, no matter which types of students you are serving. I would advise having a limited number of necessary interactive online modules, and then leave the rest of the fun online stuff as a “bonus” for a study guide.
Myth #4: Online courses might not be a good idea for students with disabilities. I don’t know why my colleagues often bring this up when they ask about my online courses, but they are always surprised when I say that online courses can sometimes be ideal for students with disabilities. JAWS, Window-Eyes, and Dolphin Supernova are some of the best types of screen-reader software out there for students who are visually impaired. Some screen-reading software is even available to be downloaded for free. Many websites also have a “color-blind mode” as an option. These modes are relatively easy to build for those who develop their own websites.
Voice recognition software is also readily available through Windows, or for purchase, such as Dictation Pro. These types of software are immensely helpful for students who may not be able to write by hand or type due to disability. For students who might come to you in a face-to-face class with paperwork stating that they need extra time on exams or assignments, online courses are also a good choice because the professor can set the time constraints for these modules and work together with the student to find a way to make the course the best learning environment it can be.
Myth #5: You don’t have to change your teaching style to be an online professor. Online teaching is more than just posting a reading and a lecture. Yes, professors can still simply create videos of their lectures and then post them to the online course. But, there are new types of screen-capturing software that can help make your courses easier to navigate for students. Tegrity, and even PowerPoint, allow you to record lectures that have word searchable and playback options.
Personally, I like using Prezi, which has a free version for educators. Prezi allows you to use multimedia to create a lesson with music, voice recording, pictures, YouTube videos, and more. Because Prezi functions more like producing a movie than a set of bullet-point notes, many professors and students find it immensely engaging. Even if you are more of a guide-on-the-side instructor, Prezi allows you to create discussion boards. This way, you can still post thought-provoking questions, and encourage students to respond individually, or in groups.
Myth #6: The professor does not need to be as accessible for an online course. I can’t tell you how many times my colleagues comment on “how much flexible time” I have as an online professor – right before I try not to laugh. I still need to schedule just as much time to be present virtually, a I would if I were teaching physically (see Myth #1 above). You can, however, set constraints, but it’s still hard!
You need to email your students, and to make it very clear in the syllabus and on the course website how and when you will be available. Here are some questions to consider: Do you want to speak with students on the phone? On your personal phone? Do you want to use Skype? Do you hate piles and piles of email? Oh, and guess what, you also need to be very, very clear not only about the days and hours you are available, but also in which time zone those hours apply to. I made the rookie mistake once of telling a student his assignment was due at 5pm. When he turned it in at 9:45 pm, I was initially put off, until I realized he was a young soldier stationed at the Wheeler Army Airfield in Hawaii.
Myth #7: Every lesson will be the same in an online course with little variety. Online professors have a number of choices of how much variety they create in their online course. There are two main forms of interaction: synchronous (happening in real time) and asynchronous. Professors can choose to use one or both of these types of interaction with their students. Some students enjoy live webinars while others would like you to archive courses as videos they can watch at a later time.
Tisha Bender’s book Discussion-Based Online Teaching to Enhance Student Learning (2012) addresses the importance of personalized education. Bender builds on the question of how technology can give us access to previously inaccessible information, and recommends teaching practices and assessments that have worked in a variety of online teaching environments. I gained a great deal from her suggestions on how to overcome lack-luster participation.
Myth #8: Feedback from the professor will not reach the students, thus affecting learning. Some of my colleagues are skeptical that if you can’t physically see your students in class, then you cannot give them feedback. Online courses allow a variety of forms of feedback. This can come from written assignments where, when the student receives their grade, they must first click on the box with comments from the professor about their performance on the assignment. Feedback can also be as simple as a multiple-choice quiz.
I employ feedback loops at a variety of levels. One is short: the 10 question multiple choice quiz the student must complete before every class on each lesson. The student knows right away which questions they missed, but also, why they missed them because the system tells them the correct answer and why the one they chose was not correct. I, as the professor, can view their quiz and can choose to address it with the student in a follow-up email or chat session.
Longer feedback loops happen in the form of written assignments which occur less frequently. These assignments ask students to write an essay based on a question that addresses material from the last five or six lessons. This allows both the professor and the student to see if they have improved the skills they had trouble with in the short multiple-choice quizzes. Midterms and final exams can also be designed for a more comprehensive assessment of student retention and improvement.
Myth #9: Online courses are cheaper for universities. If you are considering teaching an online course, I would strongly advise you to first make an appointment with your dean to discuss a number of issues, many of which involve money. Many professors might not think of this, but they need to ask “Who owns the intellectual property I create?” This could include the website itself, its content, the assessment modules, etc. Many online professors teach online courses for different universities. You need to be clear and upfront with your dean about whether or not you can re-use the site or the materials you create at another university or department.
Second, you need to think about start-up costs. My dean was very gracious in offering me monetary support not only for my time in creating the online course before classes began, but also for necessities like software, a webcam, and a microphone. Different disciplines have different needs. Consider what other software or hardware items you need in your discipline to get the job done.
Myth #10: Online Courses “aren’t fun” and therefore, the professor isn’t either. This myth saddens me the most. A colleague told me that she once took an online course and it “left a bad taste in her mouth” because it was so routine. Teaching online doesn’t have to be that way. As an online teacher, think about what you like to do for fun. Do you like music? Find some YouTube videos or mp3’s to upload to your course website. Do you like video games? (I can assure you that your students like them!) You can create all kinds of games, simple or complex, with software that is free and easy to use.
José Antonio Bowen’s book Teaching Naked: How Moving Technology Out of the College Classroom Will Improve Student Learning (2012) promotes using technology to make learning interactive and fun, even if it is for assessment purposes. The book even encourages professors to design their college courses more like video games, not only by creating games themselves, but also by understanding how students view rewards for their progress in the same way in which they enjoy video games.
Final Thoughts: Most importantly, I would advise professors of online courses and face-to-face courses alike to have an open mind. Creativity and learning come in many forms, and they do have a place in online education. We can strive for our courses to be student-centered, even if the student is not sitting in front of us.