January 2010

The Age of Uncertainty: Reflections of a new online teacher

As I came to my office today and read 30+posts by my students in my online course, checked their blogs (I still cannot figure out how to post comments on some of them), commented on their WIKI posts, went through SOME of their paper reviews, I realized that ONLINE COURSES MIGHT BE OVERWHELMING AT TIMES. I sometimes feel guilty, but I physically CANNOT respond to all the e-mails, and to be honest, the students often help each other and they do not need me.

I keep thinking that I have to account for the fact that I am new to online teaching, I have never used blogs and wikis before, I have never taught this specific course before as well, so IT IS UNFAIR to compare this course to my other physics courses where I had lots of past experiences. Yet, I think the issue is not just that the course is new. It is easy to learn how to create a blog and how to comment on wiki – thanks to very clear instructions and to the software which is very user friendly (plus I am so lucky to have very helpful technical-support experts here at UBC). In addition, I inherited the course, so I did not need to invest the endless amounts of time in its design. The people who designed it did an excellent job and I was lucky to come on board when the course already has a very successful history.

I think the reason for me being overwhelmed is different. In my previous face-to-face course experience, I knew that I had 4 hours a week of class time, 2 hours a week of office hours, a few hours on preparation. Moreover, I  had a relatively limited amount of material I would like my students to learn and very specific skills to mater: specific book chapters, problems, labs and tutorials, problem solving skills, etc. In the current course I am teaching,  (and I have ONLY 20 graduate students who are very motivated and knowledgeable adult learners), I feel that it is hard for me to keep abreast with everything that is happening. The amount of information that the students can potential delve into is unlimited since the students bring all their teaching experiences to the table, pointing to various online and other resources.

In other words, the learning outcomes will depend on the student as they have various interests, life experiences, goals. The objectives are also broad and can encompass various outcomes. So I have to learn to live with this openness and as a result with uncertainty about what my students will get out of this experience. May be it is also related to the fact that I moved from the science field to education and the structures of these two fields and what learning and learning outcomes mean are different as well.

So to make it short, I have to get used to live with uncertainty: INCOMPLETE KNOWLEDGE of everything that is going on in MY Course (may be I should have used OUR), INCOMPLETE INVOLVEMENT, INCOMPLETE CONTROL, INCOMPLETE VISION OF STUDENT SPECIFIC LEARNING OUTCOMES. So may be what is happening is that I have to let my students take more control of the situation and not feel guilty about it. My prior experiences with large or small high school undergraduate science and mathematics courses built in me this false feeling of always  being in control, being in charge, being there for my students on every step of the road (they could come to my office any time and discuss with me various questions). Here, I should let off this control notion and accept that I am a facilitator of student learning. I will be thinking more about it, but I am very happy about this experience. As much as I am overwhelmed, I feel that it is a transformative experience for me as a teacher and a teacher educator. And living with uncertainty – may be it is part of the 21st century’s new reality…

2 Responses to The Age of Uncertainty: Reflections of a new online teacher

  1. Kathleen

    The transition to online learning is a wonderful one, but definitely a big learning experience too. The feelings of uncertainty are rampant–the fact that we are so far away from our students means that we must work harder to make connections.
    In my course for example, an Egyptian student was foreign to much of the content of the course but letting go, and letting the student re-frame the experience so that she could make it relevant (contextualized in MET speak) helped to make the learning experience more customized and satisfying for her.
    All of the individual needs of learners may be overwhelming because at distance, they do not gather in the coffee shop to chat, though in my LMS, we do have a virtual one. I have a 65:1 ratio this term. This is the largest class ever, and I am assigned to read 3 term papers for each quizzes….
    I think your comments hit the nail on the head. Tracking students’ learning goals as you mention above, is only possible by asking them to each submit their goals and tracking progress via their self assessment through the course.

  2. Marina Milner-Bolotin


    I cannot imagine a 65:1 ratio in an online course. You must be a guru at online teaching to be able to do it. I am learning to do it now and I have to say that I do miss a face-to-face interaction, but I think the engagement in an online class is much more genuine than in the face-to-face one. I wish you all the best with you class and of course with your MET courses.

    Regards, M.

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