– Jeanne M. Slattery
In the interest of full disclosure, I have never taken a class online (except for our teaching online course). I recently taught online for the first time. With that in mind, I have been thinking about online teaching, and how it can be done well.
What should an online course do in order to attempt to meet my expectations for a quality college education? Certainly, we want students to learn the facts and theories of the field, but we also want students to acquire the field’s skills (e.g., psychology students should be able to think critically, write well, work effectively with others, and more).
To do so, we need to offer students opportunities to learn the theories and findings of our field, but we also need to offer the social and material resources that facilitate and further that learning (C. Green, personal communication, September 30, 2014). Students need support from their professors, fellow students, university staff, and family. In a brick and mortar university, faculty create this support through interactions inside and out of the classroom, laboratories (groups of people, not just places), and informal “after hours” interactions. Physical materials facilitating learning include lab equipment, computers, technological innovations, and classroom spaces. Green argued that until we are able to compensate for these social and material deficits, online degrees will continue to be at a disadvantage.
Given my concerns, I have always been interested in the perspectives of my colleagues teaching solely or frequently online. Rhonda Clark, Library Science, is one such person. When I’ve heard her talk about her teaching, she has always been clearly passionate about her subject, creative in her pedagogical approaches, and committed to her students.
Rhonda let me “sit in” on the first week of her course, LS 573: Integrated Technologies in Libraries, in Summer 2015. Doing so was enlightening and offered me some perspectives on how Rhonda builds the needed cognitive resources and skills and provides the social and material resources that help her students succeed in her course and beyond.
I entered her course and did a quick tour through the course: reading her syllabus, reviewing her assignments, exploring the readings, and finding the Discussion Boards. Then I watched the first of the two videos she posted for that week (the first was 61 minutes long). Her video was a screencast made with Camtasia and posted on a site that she pays for and maintains. During this video she walked her students through the D2L site, syllabus, and assignments.
I must admit that I was overwhelmed reviewing Rhonda’s course and expectations, but she reassured her students that this was normal and that they could do the work and be successful; in fact, she told them that they would both feel “frantic” and “proud” of themselves at the end of this course. She did not show herself in the video; instead, she talked rapidly, fluently, and personably, self-disclosing appropriately, but also anticipated and responded to her students’ questions. She did not need to show herself to create a warm, supportive presence in her course.
I was impressed by the amount of work that Rhonda puts into this course. Making a video is a time-consuming task (for me), so I was surprised that this video was new for this particular term, despite her having taught this course during previous terms. In addition, she requires all 50 (!) students to send her a request to Skype during the first week. Finally, her students must complete six technical application assignments and respond to two Discussion Boards – in addition to reading the 6 chapters and 14 readings assigned – during the first week. She also allows her students to resubmit their technical tasks for a better grade: “In the end, I want you to learn how to do these things. It’s not just a grade.”
Clearly Rhonda offers plenty of options to learn and apply technology skills as well as learn about many different technologies. More importantly, she offers her students numerous opportunities to obtain social support – from her, from their peers, and from technical resources. Arguably, she creates a level of social support that is greater than that which my face-to-face students experience. She also provides the material resources for her students in the form of screenshots and videos demonstrating what they should do, as well as websites linking them to help. If I were a student looking for a graduate program in library science, listening to her video and reading her syllabus would sell me on this program.
Online teaching is still evolving, but Rhonda’s course is an excellent example of how online teaching can meet and sometimes even exceed that offered in a traditional classroom. Well done, Rhonda!
Jeanne M. Slattery is a professor of psychology at Clarion University. She is interested in thinking about what makes teaching and learning successful, and generally describes herself as a learner-centered teacher. She has written two books, Counseling diverse clients: Bringing context into therapy, an Empathic counseling: Meaning, context, ethics, and skill (with C. Park), and is writing Trauma, meaning, and spirituality: Research and clinical perspectives. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org