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TEACHING ONLINE: THE BRAVE AND ENERGIZING NEW WORLD


by Diane Finley

(Professor, Psychology)                                                                                Article (Adobe Acrobat)

 

Editor’s Note: This article first appeared in the e-column of the Society for the Teaching of Psychology, Division 2, American Psychological Association on February 1, 2004. Their Web site is http://teachpsych.lemoyne.edu/teachpsych/div/psychteacher.html.

 

For most of us, using technology, and in particular, the Internet, has become second nature. It is a vital part of our teaching and professional (and probably personal) lives. It is hard to imagine teaching anymore without using some type of technology. Yet, many of us use that technology sporadically and we see it only as something extra. We do not see it as a vital component of the course and the learning. It is the cherry on top of the sundae, not the ice cream. At the same time, it is clear that one of the new trends in education is moving the entire learning environment to the Internet. Yet, many professors are reluctant to move their entire course online. For those of us who began teaching when technology meant an IBM Selectric typewriter and a cumbersome Betamax (video) player, it is hard to imagine moving an entire course totally online. It is difficult to accept that the online classroom can really be as good as the physical classroom.

Yet, I have had precisely that experience. I began teaching a long time ago when we used mimeograph machines and technology was a filmstrip. And while I was excited about much of the new technology that came out during my years of teaching and while I incorporated much of it into my teaching, I remained skeptical about teaching an entire class online. I thought online courses would essentially be correspondence courses taught through the computer rather than through the U.S. mail. Interaction would be minimal and students would read the text and send in papers. The only plus of using the computer would be that assignments would be delivered more promptly. I had a surprise coming.

 

I started teaching in alternative delivery format as an adjunct for the University of Maryland University College (UMUC), a campus of the University of Maryland System whose mission is to work with adult learners. As such, they offer courses in many alternative formats, including ITV (interactive television, broadcast from a central location to remote students) and telephone. I taught for UMUC for several years in various distance formats, including courses by mail and by telephone. While each of these delivery formats had tradeoffs, they served the UMUC population, which was nontraditional. I had found that these alternative formats were not as satisfactory as face-to-face classes, and while I had some terrific students in those courses, I always felt as though the students were missing a part of the educational experience, especially in the mail and telephone courses that were becoming an increasingly large part of the offerings. Yet, those formats were necessary to serve the UMUC population and I did my best, as did my students.

 

As time progressed and technology improved, UMUC began to invest heavily in online education. When that happened, the chair of the Psychology Department requested professors to take the online training and become certified to teach online. I resisted until one summer session about six years ago. UMUC offers traditional classroom courses, but those are always given at night or on weekends in order to serve the students' schedules. In summer school, class meant two nights a week, four hours per night (not including drive time which, in the DC area, can add an hour each way). That time commitment caused me to miss multiple baseball games of the team with whom I do some work. One night, as I sat on the Beltway for an hour following a four-hour class, it occurred to me that if I taught online, I would not miss any games! So, I signed up for the training, still not convinced that online would be as good as face-to-face and sure that it would have the same problems as other alternative delivery formats. Was I wrong! What did I discover?

 

 Moving to the online environment requires a paradigm shift in how we think about education. It requires the acquisition of new beliefs about what teaching is. In doing so, we actually go back to denotative roots of the word "education" – educare  – "to lead out." We become facilitators, rather than providers of knowledge, and students shift from passive to active learners. Of course, not all students manage this shift successfully (nor do all instructors who move to the online environment), but it is exciting and gratifying to watch those students who do make the shift as they take charge of their own learning.

Along with rethinking the educational process and what that means for course design, migrating online also means rethinking and restructuring the role of the teacher. Most importantly for me (and probably for most of us) is the change in the dynamic of the course. Traditionally, the teacher is in front of the classroom and controls most, if not all, of how the course flows. This approach is often called the "sage on the stage." As online teachers, we have to be comfortable giving up some of the control. Teaching online requires the instructor to shift that fundamental thinking about the role of teacher and student that most of us grew up thinking. In online courses, the instructor is much less didactic and more facilitating. We become the "guide on the side." Students share much more in the process of learning.

Changing this dynamic is not the path for everyone. Just because a person is a good teacher in the classroom does not mean that person will be a good teacher online. Some great teachers in the classroom fail miserably online and vice versa. The two mediums require two completely different approaches to designing how to reach the course objectives and how to interact with students. Giving up some of that power can be a scary adventure, and it can be hard to convince students that they must share in the process. However, once that shift has been made, even introductory courses can become similar to graduate seminars where everyone is exploring the material and contributing to the learning process. This does not mean that introductory students always have insights similar to graduate students, but the courses flow more like a seminar.

Changing directions like this can be a challenge, but such challenges are often the most fun part of teaching. In fact, as in my case, the move to online can be a truly energizing experience. I have been teaching for a long time, and when I moved to the online environment, I saw it as just another classroom. I found instead an unexpectedly exciting place to teach, which has been revitalizing.

 

The Instructional Area Newsletter, Volume 19, No. 3

Spring 2004