In early 2000, I applied for a part time teaching job with UCLA Extension. I already taught full time, but this job sounded as though the classes I could teaching for UCLA would be more creative in focus and serve a vastly different population than the college I worked at. I would be able to work with more advanced writers and create classes that I wanted to teach.
After a three week training course that helped us build our classes, we were off. Starting with a class called The Essential Beginnings (an introductory creative writing class), I worked shortly into Introduction to Fiction and then into Novel writing, UCLA offering Novel 1-5 online. After being trained on Blackboard and teaching a couple of years online for UCLA, I started doing so for Diablo Valley College, despite the fact that some of my more technologically wary colleagues were worried we'd become the University of Phoenix. However, online caught on, and now every semester, I teach two online classes for DVC and one for UCLA--of course, UCLA is on quarters, so I have the great good luck of never not having something to do. Meanwhile, back on the farm, I teach "on land," trying to make sure the paramedics don't find me one day, my ass glued to the chair, my hands stuck in the keyboard.
At first, I'd always hoped that some of the issues that occur in a regular classroom would be nonexistent or mitigated in the online setting. To some extent, at UCLA where students are taking courses that they want to take, this is absolutely so (I did have one high school principal who took my course for units threaten to sue me if I didn't accept her late work, though! That doesn't often happen at the community college level). But, in general, a class seems to be a system with necessary component personalities. There are some very big differences in the two modes of teaching, but the students can truly be who they are in both settings. Sometimes, I have classes that defy my attempts to categorize them. Right now, I have an Introduction to Fiction class I'd like to bottle up and take with me to every setting. They are amazing and all participatory and engaged and talented. But that's the exception rather than the rule.
In an online class, you will still find:
- The class clown.
- The talker.
- The procrastinator.
- The diligent worker.
- The continually late.
- The "I just want to get this done and get out of here" students
- The genius.
- The angry one.
- The shy one.
- The worried one.
How all of this is communicated with posts and discussion board comments is hard to explain, but after 8 years of teaching online, I can tell you a class is a class is a class. I can look out every semester and see these people, and online, I can click on and the diligent worker has posted the first day of the week, the genius has posted an 8 page brilliant short story, the class clown has posted one minute before the due time and made a joke about it, and the students who just want to get out have posted the minimum amount in ordinary order and in good time. The talker has responded to all students about everything there is to comment on, usually with some good effect. The shy one has come out of her shell a little, commenting where she needs to, but a bit apologetically. The worried one has written to ask what his grade is--for the eighth time.
About five hours after the due time, I will get an email from the procrastinator asking me if I will take his late work, but the continually late student won't even bother to write. The angry one posts in his group that the class is ridiculous as is the teacher. He wants to form his own writing group, a rebel splinter workshop group that meets through yahoo.
The weeks go on.
What I like about the online class is the same thing I dislike about it. There is a bit of a wall of technology separating me from the students. When a student turns in something late, I can say no to her, even though she lives in Montana, and I can say it without having to see her face. And she won't be so inclined to tell me the various reasons why I should take the late assignment because it might be too much of a pain to type out.
Online teaching also helped me organize and arrange my lectures. Every piece of information about writing I used to have written or typed out on paper is now in word or PDF form. And my students get many more "handouts" online than they do on land because I don't worry about killing trees. I can easily post links and share timely information from the internet.
I also have time to collect my thoughts about their work, really able to frame what I want to say. I am more fluid with my fingers than my mouth, at times, and online, I can spend more time reading and thinking than I can in the classroom. I also end up giving students many more comments than I would if I had corrected an essay at home. Typing is easier than writing in red pen on paper.
What I don't like is that there is no clear conception of what the class time is--and in some ways this is something to like about online teaching as well. In fact, as soon as I'm done here, I will go and teach (it is convenient because I'm in my robe and drinking coffee, and I can take a break to eat oatmeal and read the paper and turn on the Olympics). But I teach constantly when online. I check my classes before bed and while on the road. According to American Airlines, I will be able to teach while on a trip, WiFi everywhere. Online teaching doesn't have clear demarcation points. It's on until the semester is over.
The other problem is that you will find yourself repeating yourself in emails. What did I say? I said you will repeat yourself in emails. In a "real" classroom, you will be in front of the students telling them relentlessly about what they are doing and what is due and what the topic is. You will remind and cajole and suggest. In the online environment, they won't want to read your 10 page syllabus or the announcements or the emails you send home. And they will ask questions about things you feel you've covered over and over again. That talking head part of the teacher isn't there. So, again, your work is never done.
So the upshot is--I like to teach online. I feel I can really dig into the student work. I think it is very convenient for them and for me, both of us able to teach and take a course from the comfort of wherever we are. Online courses aren't for every teacher or student, and there are trouble spots.
But it is a class. Make no mistake. You will recognize it when you "walk" in.
Causes Jessica Inclán Supports
Women for Women International Goodwill Industries Lindsey Wildlife Museum Freecycle.org