Week 2 of my first semester of online teaching at OTC ended at 11:55 last night, so I thought I might answer the question everyone keeps asking me: How’s it going?
The quick-and-dirty answer: Classes are going well.
The sorry-I-asked answer: Every time I read my email, it takes a concentrated effort not to let my blood pressure get so high that my eyeballs come flying out of my head.
OK. That’s a little much.
Truth be told, there is a learning curve for online teaching and learning. Since this is my first semester teaching, I am developing these course materials for the first time, so there are kinks that have to be worked out in my assignments, activities, and technologies. (Actually, Linden and I are developing these course materials together. She’s also teaching ENG 101 this semester. Our teamwork has kept my head above water.) Likewise, for some of my students, this is their first semester in online classes, too, and there’s a big difference between seated and online classes.
Communication seems to be the biggest difference. In a seated class, students ask questions in person before, during, and after class. In person is the key here. When we communicate with someone in person, we’re communicating with more than words. We’re also communicating with our tone of voice, facial expressions, and body language. And there’s usually a mutual respect between student and teacher–a sort of etiquette in place.
In an online class, students ask questions via Q & A discussion board forums (for general class questions, so everyone can benefit from the answer) and via email (for personal, confidential subjects, like grades). At least that’s how questions are supposed to be asked. Lost in translation seems to be the difference between general questions and personal questions; I’m getting a lot of general questions in my email inbox. That’s one frustration, but I’m taking it in stride, replying to the questions, and reminding students in a post script where general questions should go.
Another frustration I’m fighting is messages that are written too quickly without enough thought and with too much emotion. (This is a common problem for electronic communication; without a person in front of you, it’s very easy to write something you wouldn’t say in person. We’ve all emailed, Facebooked, texted, or tweeted something too hastily and wished we could retract it.) These messages don’t give me enough information to answer the question, so I have to ask a question in the reply, wait for a response, and answer again, which wastes my time and my brain power. Likewise, trying to sort through the meaning of messages that are written out of frustration or at a pity party also waste my time and energy because I have to decode their meaning and reply diplomatically.
The biggest frustration I’m fighting is questions that are not questions or questions that can be answered by reading course materials. If I were a participant in a public discussion board forum, the answers to these questions would be simple. For I’m having trouble finding X–a question that is not a question–the answer would be That’s too bad. Good luck finding it. For What is the access code for our online reference guide?–information that can be found inside our course–the answer would be RTFM: read the frickin’ material. Much to my chagrin (and a challenge to my own desire to shoot back a “smart” response), I can’t answer questions in this manner. It’s poor form and unprofessional and not in any way teacher-like.
The benefit of online teaching is that I don’t have to answer the questions right away. I have up to 36 hours to reply to student emails, so when they catch me off guard and make my blood pressure rise, I don’t have to answer right away. I can cool off, think about my answer, and reply professionally. When I got questions that put me on the spot when teaching in seated classes, I had to answer immediately–usually in front of the entire class–and I often regretted answers that I made too hastily without enough thought. Not to mention that I usually forgot those conversations and there was no record of them later in the semester.
I face another challenge in my replies: Do I sugar coat my responses or do I just get straight to the point? Am I more concerned with making my students feel warm and fuzzy inside or with communicating an answer as effectively as I can? I’m of the opinion that if my students want to feel warm and fuzzy, they should’ve hired Mowgli (my cat) as an instructor. It’s my job to answer their questions swiftly, so they can get back to their work.
Not that I’m being a jerk with my answers; I’m keeping everything cordial by beginning emails with Hi, [student’s name], closing with Thanks! -Sarah, and including a bit of encouragement like Keep up the good work if it’s appropriate. I’m doing my best to set an example of professional communication for my students. And I’m exploring how I can train them in the fine art of asking questions and writing email. Any ideas you have are welcome!
Vote now. Brilliantly creative or gigantic idiot?