By Lou Manza
“So, Lou” Ann started “do you think you could put something together about how teaching an online class helped to inform your face-to-face teaching?” With a little arm-twisting, I agreed. One of the issues that factors into my answer to this initial prompt, however, is understanding why I took the plunge into online education, and the roots of that go back to somewhere in the vicinity of 1995, when I first arrived at LVC. As I recall, online learning was rising into the consciousness of higher education at that time, and I remember reading articles in the Chronicle about various upstarts that were making grand claims about the long-term, and positive (from their view, at least; these were, after all, the companies and/or institutions that were promoting online learning as the future of education) prospects of “distance” education. My initial take on all of this was that it seemed intriguing, and it was certainly framed around taking advantage of the then-new technology of the Internet for use in teaching. But I also thought that face-to-face (FTF) learning was critical to engage students in conversation, as communication involves more than the mere exchange of words – seeing students’ expressions during conversations, or watching their body language communicating some type of discomfort when dealing with challenging topics, was unique to traditional forms of learning. I did not think that online education could replace that. Then, when a Valley colleague made the comment – that he meant, 100% — that “this distance learning is bad for us – we’re gonna be out of business in a decade” I again thought “no way.” Online learning might indeed be around in the future, but it won’t supplant FTF interaction as the dominant form of education.
Now, sitting here 20+ years later, while my associate’s prediction proved (thankfully) to be false, I have also developed a deeper sense of the utility of online learning. As the 1990s turned into the 2000s, and Internet-based courses started to proliferate across the landscape beyond Annville, I watched this growth via published reports in the Chronicle, and comments from friends, relatives, and students completing these classes within other institutions. Some of what I was seeing was certainly bad, pedagogically-speaking, but the one message that persisted was that distance education was here to stay, and if schools did not get on board with this, at least to some degree, they’d be left behind. The most direct way this impacted my own work here at the Valley was in seeing summer course enrollments (for my own and others’ offerings) consistently drop with each passing year (bottoming out with undergrads completing an average of 838 total credits each summer from 2012-14), until the summer of 2015, when the College started to move a majority of its summer classes to the online platform – and the students returned! 1,267 credits were completed that term – a 51% increase from the previous 3 years — and the growth continued during the Summer ’16 session, when 1,320 credits (a 58% increase over 2012-14) were completed. When I was then asked, in the Fall of 2015, to consider offering my Junk Science and Paranormal Phenomena course in an online manner during the following summer, I gave it some serious thought. Yes, this would require a substantial amount of effort up front, translating the hands-on interactions that occurred daily in my FTF classes into online activities, but I was up for the challenge. The additional carrot for me was that I wanted to make my preparatory work get me the most bang for the buck, by purposely taking what I was learning about online courses and use it in my FTF classes. With that, the 2015-16 year became an exercise in absorbing boatloads of knowledge about online learning, and crafting my class to be an engaging educational experience.
During the run-up to my Summer ’16 online course, I was required to complete the College’s Course Development Institute (CDI), and with this activity structured as a class, I was afforded the opportunity of seeing online learning as a student, and this then stayed in my head as I prepared the activities for my own course. Since I wasn’t going to have FTF contact with those taking my class, I wanted to at least make sure that they could navigate the course page, submit assignments, and post to discussion boards as effectively as possible. Seeing that my online students were able to take care of these tasks in an effective manner, it motivated me to utilize a similar model within my FTF classes during the Fall ‘16 term and beyond. While I do interact with the latter students on a daily basis, I do offload some preparatory course work to the Canvas platform, and I’ve paid better attention to making sure that the instructions I give for those tasks are crystal clear. This then allows me and my students to focus more of our class time on interactive hands-on learning, and not required, but less meaningful, clerical work.
My work in preparing for and then delivering my online class also exposed me to new technology (beyond the Canvas platform) that I’ve found useful in my FTF courses, with one standout being audio software. I found that while the overwhelming majority of my communication with online students came in written form, there were times when verbal interactions better-conveyed my intentions. This is easy to do in FTF classes, but a little more work would be needed in the online world. So, I did some searching for audio-based software, picked the brains of several colleagues, and landed upon Audacity. After schooling myself in how to use this platform, I could easily upload brief messages and podcast-like comments to the class, and this skill then translated into my FTF meetings when I wanted to get similar messages to those students (especially when we’d be apart for extended periods of time (such as Fall/Spring Break), or when inclement weather disrupted our standard meeting schedule).
In addition, preparing activities in my online class taught me how to get students to engage with one another as opposed to using traditional methods for peer-to-peer contact. For example, my FTF classes frequently involve students finding classmates to work with on team-based activities, as well as engaging in peer reviews of various assignments. Prior to my initial online teaching, I’d accomplish the former by posting sign-up sheets outside my office, and while this method was effective, it wasn’t always convenient for all students, especially those commuting to campus. My experiences within the CDI helped to learn how to create pages within Canvas that students could manipulate on their own, so now I can accomplish those same clerical tasks online, with students having 24/7 access to those materials, and their classmates. While this can be a minor pedagogical element, I’ve found that little details such as these DO matter to students, and anything that allows students to maintain a positive attitude towards their courses is important.
Working in the online world also allowed me to encourage my FTF students to develop a mindset that favors independent working. Before entering the world of distance education, if I needed to distribute course materials to students, I’d print copies of everything and then distribute them during class periods. Since there were no class meetings in my online class, I needed to store documents, in Canvas, in an organized manner to facilitate students’ ability to locate them online. The effort in making hard copies was, therefore, gone, and it dawned on me that I could easily adapt this model to my FTF work – plus, it would save the College money related to printing costs, and since many of these materials could be utilized in an electronic format, it’s turned out to be an environment-friendly outcome. If students want access to course materials, they need to find them on their own; again, this is a subtle process, but does, I believe, encourage undergrads to take personal responsibility for course materials.
Perhaps the most critical way that my online teaching has informed my FTF efforts has been in the context of enhancing the flipped classroom approach that I’ve utilized in the latter for many years. I’ve never been one to lecture endlessly in FTF settings – I encourage students to interact with myself and their peers on a daily basis — but this requires a high degree of preparation on their part for our FTF meetings to be as productive as possible. I incorporated this work in my online class as well, when assembling a variety of discussion-board activities, and my facility in learning how to accomplish this has now spilled over into my FTF classes – specifically when creating Instructional Equivalency assignments in these settings. While these activities occur on an infrequent basis, when they do pop-up I’ve been able to merge them into my courses in a relatively seamless manner, from the work itself (e.g., discussion boards used to engage students when the College is closed due to inclement weather) to the grading rubric necessary to ensure that students approach the activity with the same seriousness-of-purpose they employ for other, traditional, requirements.
Teaching online is not as easy as some perceive it to be, especially if one designs courses with the intent of ensuring deep student learning. There is a significant time/energy investment involved in getting such a course together (to say nothing of the work required to administer it), but the benefits are not limited to cyberspace interactions. Teaching online can easily make one a more productive instructor in FTF settings, allowing students working in the latter environment to develop an enhanced degree of learning that may not have been attained if a faculty had no exposure to distance education.