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CyberPsyc V: Pleasures, Promises and Pitfalls
Dr. Diane Finley
Presented at Eastern Psychological Association Annual Conference
April 21, 2001
Washington DC
For information, contact the author at Department of Psychology Prince George's Community College, 301 Largo Road, Largo MD 20774
dfinley@pgcc.edu

Teaching online requires the development of new teaching skills as well as ventures into the sometimes confusing and often frustrating world of technology. It requires that the online teacher management class interaction and deal with issues of diversity without seeing the students in the course. In this presentation, a relatively new online teacher will discuss moving from the classroom to the Web. Dealing with issues of diversity and managing group discussions and projects will be considered. The pleasures, promises and pitfalls of teaching online will be examined. Suggestions for those considering a move to the online environment will be included.

Pedagogy is the art and science of teaching. There are 4 components: the learner, a task, knowledge needed to complete the task, teacher. I say art and science because I think teaching is both. And I deliberately put the teacher last because I am not convinced that the teacher is the most critical component. Traditional approaches to pedagogy put the teacher first but the online environment is shifting that hierarchy.

Traditional theories of behaviorism and cognitivism have dominated the pedagogical literature for a long time. These theories tend to be instructor-centered.  Constructivism is the newest theory to appear in teacher education and educational psychology texts. Constructivism stresses the participation of the learner and active learning techniques and it shifts the role of the teacher.

Constructivism is really the theoretical model for online learning and teaching. Constructivism is based on the work of Jerome Bruner and Lev Vygotsky. The learner is actively involved and constructs knowledge for him or herself. Interaction among all parties, including student to student is important. In constructivist teaching, the teacher becomes more of a manager or a facilitator. This approach is what we see in the online environment. The online teacher becomes as has been stated in many places, the guide on the side, v. the traditional sage on the stage.

Learning becomes a team-focused approach: Instructor, Course designer, Web support, Administrator of distance education, Technical support people (and I think they are really the most important).

Moving to the online environment (or any constructivist classroom, for that matter) requires a paradigm shift in how we think about education. Let me share some thoughts from one of my students.  We do have to shift our thinking. In doing so, we actually go back to denotative roots of education – educare – to lead out.

Along with rethinking about the education process and what that means for course design, it also means rethinking and restructuring the role of the teacher. Most importantly for me (and for most of us) we have to be comfortable giving up some of the control. In online courses you are much less didactic and more facilitating. Teaching online requires the instructor to shift thinking about the role of teacher and student. Just because you are a good teacher in the classroom does not mean you 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 you reach your course objectives and how you interact with students.

In preparation for this symposium I asked members of a faculty listserv for distance educators about teaching online. One of them said that one of the pitfalls is thinking that teaching online is like teaching in the classroom.  There are some commonalities: if you really enjoy what you do and you really enjoy working with students and you know you are a good teacher, then the transition is not that difficult. It is 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.

In the online environment, the instructor becomes a manager. We organize our course content and design interactive activities that will help students understand the content. We manage the information exchange and the interaction.  We really are forced to think about the course in total before the semester begins. We have to think about what we want our students to learn and to accomplish during the semester. Actually doing so makes us better teachers I think since things are more coherent.

Let me talk a little bit about the online classroom and some of the implications of that classroom.

 Asychronous – not real time
  
     –     Can take longer to identify conflict and to reach consensus (keep group work in mind)
An uncertain environment
  
             –     Don’t know anything about others, except what they share
   
                 Differing levels of comfort with the technology
Unstructured communication situation
               
     Relies entirely on text
               
     Messages are often blunt; people are often less inhibited
               
     Can escalate quickly into flaming
                -
-     No nonverbal to either soften words or signal potential conflict
                –     Greater potential for misunderstanding since we don’t know any characteristics
                        of other  learners,  except what they self-disclose (face-to-face is difficult enough)

Because of these differences, there are things an instructor has to take into account.   Richard Powers in the Faculty Focus, a UMUC publication, identified 6 myths:

1)       I can just post the notes I already have on the computer

            Students won’t scroll through all those notes (just like they don’t always listen in
                face-to-face classes (f2f).
            Students need interaction, particularly online.
2)        My subject is not really group friendly and I hate group work.
           
Most web programs are designed to encourage group work.
3)       I have my f2f students answer discussion questions each week and turn them in.
                I can just transfer that assignment to the web  course.
           
You will end up teaching a bunch on individual one-on-one courses – you will go crazy!!!
4)       Grading and returning papers promptly online will be easier.
           
In some respects, yes but because you don’t see the students you have to be disciplined
            about keeping up.
5)       I can just have my student search out web sites and report on them
           
Websites can be a secondary source but you cannot just have them do this.
             I actually took a course online (the instructor did  not know who I was or
             my background but I thought I should have the experience if I was
            going to teach to get the other view) where we did this and I thought
            I would die of boredom before the class was over)
6)       My grading is set up on 2 tests and one paper.
           
If you do not require significant interaction and grade it, you will have none.
            And you might as well be teaching a traditional correspondence course if this is what you do.

Issues related to moving to the online environment:

 Must plan a whole semester ahead. -         
 
Must give up control
 Online takes more time – some estimates are about 20% more

 
Nature of online environment: no physical and vocal cues of f2f
 
Comfort with technology
 Collaboration
 Training students how to act:  Names on emails;  Grammar, spelling;
               Appropriateness of tone and content; Use of names of real people
  24/7 availability
  
Publicness of comments
  
Importance of clear instructions and direction
  
Adherence to copyright laws and rules

PLEASURES

Thoughtful answers from students, indicating that they have spent time with the course
            material and care about learning

High percentage of students who participate
Sameness of teaching the same material over and over is alleviated since
            you get new responses each semester
The computer keeps records of times material is turned in, there is no more arguing about late papers
Relationships with students - Can get to know more students better.
 Diversity of students – in social psychology we look at cartoons and the social learning of aggression.
                I have a student who is in Africa (and is African) and his perspective is really
                contributing a great deal to the discussion.

Great lab for testing principles of learning – reinforcement, shaping, schedules
Allows you to work during your best time (early morning, midnight)
Allows you to travel to professional conferences (or even vacations) without worrying about
                something meaningful for students to do.
Running into your students all over (including the dental chair)
Teaching in pajamas
Can watch baseball while I am teaching

 

PITFALLS

Technology, technology, technology!!!!
Some students have little experience with the technology
Misconceptions by students about the rigor or online courses
Students who expect you to be on duty 24/7 – students talk about the lack of immediate
               feedback but that is sometimes a matter of setting up the parameters early in the semester.
Diversity of students
Running into your students all over (including the dental chair)
Inability to see students and thus you can’t tell when someone is not getting it
Enormous amounts of time spent reading and responding to email
                  and discussions (underestimating how much is required) and looking at websites.
Underestimating the difficulty of teaching difficult concepts “blind”
Student attrition
Informality – occasionally students cross the line
Status differences are less important and obvious online –
           you need to be aware of that
Students wait until the deadline to post and then you have a bunch of things to read and respond to
If you tend to be compulsive and obsessive, it can be difficult to limit your
               time in the classroom (I sometimes lurk and don’t respond because I don’t
               want them to think I will be there 24/7).
It is not the environment for every student – they must be self-disciplined
Technology, technology, technology

PROMISES

 Extending education to those whose lives won’t let them attend traditional class hours
Making education a two-way street – the instructor is no longer solely responsible for learning
Allowing instructors to spend time with students rather than on other tasks
Makes learning and teaching exciting
Easier access to information
Expands the possibilities even in the traditional classroom
Can include truly diverse students and so have a real international experience

            

MY HINTS FOR SUCCESS  (or what has worked for me)

Encourage students to seek technical help from the College personnel as soon as
        any problem occurs (this is especially crucial in the first week).

Respond to each student autobiography or introduction with a warm welcome – it sets the tone
Make sure the syllabus and assignments are up the day the course begins
            and that they are clear. Be sure to open conferences or post other assignments
            by the date which you promise. Many students are on tight schedules.

Always respond to questions promptly. I recommend responding within 48 hours.
Let students know if you will be off-line for ANY length of time.
Create an announcement area where you will post weekly (or more frequently if needed)
            updates and information that comes up. Try to include information about the discipline
            there as well as the nuts and bolts.

Maintain the same rigor as in a face-to-face situation.
Be a little flexible – technical glitches do happen – but maintain deadlines.
Give feedback on a regular basis – students like to know how they are doing.
Keep a sense of humor!

 

Resources about online teaching and learning

Boaz,M., Elliott, B., Foshee, D., Hardy, D., Jarmon, C, & Olcott, D. (1999).
Teaching at a distance: A handbook for instructors. Mission Viejo, CA:
League for Innovation in the Community College.  

Boettcher, J.V & Conrad, R. (1999).  Faculty guide for moving teaching and learning to the web. 
Mission Viejo CA: League for Innovation in the Community College.

Going the distance:A handbook for developing distance degree programs.   (1992).
Washington DC: Annenberg/CPB Project  

Hara, N. & Kling, R. (2000). Students’ distress with a web-based distance education course (CSI Working Paper No. WP 00-01-B1). Bloomington IN: Indiana University, Center for Social Informatics. http://www.slis.indiana.edu/CSI/wp00-01.html  

Horton, S. (2000) Web teaching guide. New Haven: Yale University Press

Kearsley, G. (2000). Online education: Learning and teaching in cyberspace. Belmont CA: Wadsworth Publishing

Norton, P. & Wiburg, K.M. (1998). Teaching with technology. Fort Worth, TX: Harcourt, Brace Publishers.

Schweizer,H. (1999).  Designing and teaching an on-line course. Boston: Allyn and Bacon

Syllabus Magazine www.syllabus.com  - info@syllabus.com  (free subscription)

 Verduin, J.R. & Clark, T.A. (1991). Distance education: The foundations of effective practice. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass

Wegerif, R. (1998). The social dimension of asynchronous learning networks. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, 3(2). Nashville, TN: Vanderbilt University [Online) http://www.aln.org/alnweb/journal/Vol2_issue1/wegerif.htm  

White, K. W. & Weight, B. H. (2000). The online teaching guide. Boston: Allyn & Bacon

http://ils.unc.edu/disted/resources.htm

http://www.umuc.edu/virtualteaching

http://www.center.rpi/PewSym/mono2.html