January 2010

Reflections of a Novice Online Instructor on the First Two Days of Online Learning Experience

I am thinking why online courses are more often referred to asĀ  “Online Learning” and not “Online Teaching”. May be because in those courses both the teacher and the students are undergoing a truly online learning experience as they are at the same time to a small degree teachers and to a larger degree learners…

Today is my second day of being an instructor in an online course: ETEC 533 – Educational Technology in Science and Mathematics. I know one cannot judge the course by its second day, yet I already have noticed a few interesting things that make this course distinctly different from the first and second year course I have taught in the past. I am trying to verbalize these observations, so I can come up with better strategies of making this course relevant and interesting for my students and for myself. I will keep thinking about it during the course. Luckily as I am moving offices (almost done with my move – 4 boxes with books left), I found a number of relevant books on teaching online courses on my shelves… The books were in my library for a year or so and now I have a perfect opportunity to read them.

Ok, so here are my few observations:

a) The sense of community in this class is strikingly different from the sense of community in my other courses. Partially, I think, it can be explained since the students know each other from other courses. Many of students (but not all) have taken 4+ online courses in the past. So they know how it works and they feel very comfortable with it plus they have a lot of respect for each other. I was also very happy to read that many of the students enjoyed their other online courses – so now I have a tough task to make this course as good as other online courses. I am so lucky for the support from the OLT – EPLT I am getting for it (I am still learning the names of all the offices involved).

b) Secondly, the course is taken by adult learners. In my view “adult” does not represent person’s age.To me, it means that (1) a person is motivated in taking the course and is not “pressed by the parents” to take something he or she hates. (2) Adult learner to me also means a person who can be organized and independent and can productively engaged in self-directed learning. (3) In addition, adult learners have life experience and the ability to use it to make the course much more meaningful. This is what is often missing in undergraduate courses. The students see no connection between what they learn in school and what happens in real life. In this course it feels very different as almost every post links the discussion on the course topics to the everyday life/teaching.

It seems to me that many of the students are truly motivated to learn relevant things in the course. They ask meaningful questions and answer each others’ questions. I like how friendly the discussion is and yet how deep it is. The mix of different people and different background makes is truly interesting (I just watched a simulation of hip replacement surgery – very interesting). I like how my students (adult learners) do not feel that the instructor must have all the answers. I like how they have been participating in the course – at least during the first two days.

c) Despite my fear that online environment will prevent people from participating actively in the course, it seems that if one is interested, an online environment can provide even more active participation that a traditional classroom environment.

I also would like to voice a few concerns. I am not sure what the answers are – I will be thinking about them and hopefully we will figure it out:

a) If I want to show the students demos or simulations – I would rather have a synchronous interaction. For that I need AdobeConnect or something like that. I am not sure if this course has this component, but I think something like that at least a few times during the term would be great. For example, based on our discussions, I would have loved to show some Logger Pro experiments I have done with my students. I know I could have videotapes it all and posted online, but I am now sure it is the same as a real time discussion?

b) In a regular class the instructor knows that he or she teachers for 3 hours, then the class is over, the students might ask a few questions after class and it is over. Here I feel that I go online all the time because I am worried that the students have questions and I haven’t made sure that the questions are answers. I guess – I have a real control issue. It is a problem, because I have to learn to let go of ME BEING THE AUTHORITY of what is right. Although I do not like to admit it, may be this online course will teach me as a teacher to let go and allow my students to be in control…

c) How do I ensure that each one of my students is actively involved. On one hand, as I said, it feels like many of the students are interested in the course and will be participating. However, how do I make sure everybody does? Compared to a regular class, this IS different. There we know that the students came to class, they do what they are supposed to do and then it is their responsibility. Here, it is students’ responsibility as well but I do not “see” students’ reactions right away and I do not feel immediately if they are learning. I guess, I can gauge it by their posts (if all of the students provide their feedback). May be I am having a control issue once again – they are adult learners, so they should be in control of their learning and I should help them learn. Actually I think I will be learning more than the students. The group feels so knowledgeable and diverse. What an amazing opportunity for me. I hope that by the end of the course the students will feel the same way.

d) How do you manage time while teaching online. It seems to me that it takes much more time (significantly more) to prepare online materials versus teaching a face-to-face course. Everything has to be described clearly and prepared in advance, so an online course almost by definition requires a team of people working on it (this is what is happening for this course). If I were to teach a similar course face-to-face, I would have spent much less time on course prep than what I am doing now. So the time management (for the instructor-designer team) might be an issue in online learning.

Ok, that is all for now. I will keep learning.

3 Responses to Reflections of a Novice Online Instructor on the First Two Days of Online Learning Experience

  1. Iris Chan


    That was a very powerful post and I really truly appreciate that you have made the effort to reflect in the way that you do. The worry about students not participating is a very valid one in an online course because you cannot truly “see” and you have to trust everybody to get the most out of the course. Let me share my thoughts about the course so far with you. I cannot speak for my other METers but this is just from my perspective.

    You have been a very good presence in the course since it has begun and you truly try to make a human connection with all of us whether in our posts or our comments. Reading your post just now makes me feel a certain connection to a real instructor and not just a name on the screen. Taking the past 7 courses in MET, I have never gotten a chance to know an instructor the way I do when I read your reflections about the course. This beginning of the teacher/student relationship has motivated me to get up early on a Saturday morning and turn on MET.

    I like the structure of this course. I like the way you have been very clear about your expectations and already I feel very good about the course. It feels like a positive place to learn and you have made it a very safe place. I find the instructor is the heart of online learning. Their presence and their participation is vital to encouraging others to do the same thing.


  2. Marina Milner-Bolotin

    Thank you very much Iris. It is very kind of you. I hope the experience will be beneficial for all of us.
    Enjoy your weekend! It is raining here, so I guess you are not missing much by not being in Vancouver. Hopefully for the Olympics it is going to be a little colder.
    Warm regards, M.

  3. Kathleen

    Hello Dr. M,
    My 12 wk online course opens tomorrow and like you, I feel very overwhelmed at the start. WIth 65 students to connect with, time management is pivotal. I appreciate your candid analysis. The first time I taught online, I had a co-instructor who provided a great mentorship to me and so my transition was eased.
    My strategy for sanity is to leave hanging issues but flag them and come in after student threads evolve or they get hung up on a point, or it is obvious clarification ore enrichment links etc would be helpful. I try to set limits to time online–setting a maximum per day slotted into my day timer so I can also save some time for other things.
    You have much f2f teaching experience I lack so I really look forward to soaking up your shared strategies–clickers, logger pro etc all all new to me! thanks for sharing, K

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