By Hallie Jordan, Ph.D. Student, The University of Southern Mississippi
As a doctoral student with the primary goal of building a teaching-focused career, I have eagerly sought out teaching-related experiences. My first summer as a graduate student, I was invited to teach for the first time an online course. The continual increase in online-based higher education highlighted an important career preparation opportunity (Kim & Bonk, 2006; Seaman, Allen, & Seaman, 2018) and gaining online teaching experience seemed like a marketable skill for someone interested in academia.
I have now taught both online and in-person and have gained some insights to the pros and cons of each instructional medium. Reflecting on these experiences provides a rich opportunity to evaluate the affordances and challenges of teaching online. A general utility of online education is increased accessibility. It is immensely important that we make higher education accessible for those who are interested in it. Online courses allow higher education to be more easily accessed by all, including nontraditional students who may not otherwise be able or willing to pursue higher education (Tallent-Runnels et al., 2006). Online courses also allow students to work at their own pace, which provides opportunities to spend extended time on more challenging material, e.g., by re-watching or re-listening to lectures.
Albeit very different from in-person instructing (as I later learned), teaching online was a nice segue because it was less intimidating than immediately lecturing in front of a live audience. For the online course, I narrated lecture content over PowerPoint slides, and could consult my materials more frequently than I would have if physically in front of students. The asynchronous nature of online courses provided ample practice for me to develop, organize, and execute lectures prior to ever doing so in front of a classroom. Given my first in-person teaching course was a large general psychology course, I felt the online experience provided appropriate and helpful scaffolding to practice lectures in a less overwhelming and intimidating setting.
One concern I had going into the course related to the quality of student/instructor interactions. Fostering a space in which students felt they had an opportunity to connect with the instructor was important to me given the data on how relevant student/instructor relationships are to student success (e.g., Komarraju, Musulkin, & Bhattacharya, 2010). While it may be initially more challenging, I learned there are indeed ways to connect with students online. So how does an instructor go about establishing rapport with students in an online course? First and foremost, maintaining regular communication with the class (e.g., emailing reminders) keeps the course on the students’ radar. Also, assignments can be manipulated to serve purposes of both supporting student learning and increasing engagement with the instructor. I utilized an assignment called Lecture Reviews (i.e. students submitted three comments and three questions in response to each narrated lecture; I subsequently replied to comments and answered questions). Lecture Reviews seemed to provide a catalyst for perhaps even more thorough one-on-one student/instructor interaction than what is possible in a large in-person course.
Although online courses do have many affordances, certain challenges exist that are not present in an in-person classroom. For one, there may be decreased opportunities for direct engagement. However, I tried to combat issues that arose from the lack of synchronous communication (i.e. not attending class in person) by holding regular online office hours. Essentially, I established a set date and time each week that students were guaranteed to find me logged-in to the online classroom management chatroom. While this was minimally utilized by students, I believe it is important to include as an option for synchronous communication. Moving forward, I might consider providing more of an incentive to engage in this synchronous dialogue (e.g., offer extra credit or require students to engage in office hours at least once per semester).
Another challenge arose with regards to maintaining discussion board involvement. In this particular course, there were multiple discussion boards per week that students were required to respond to (including an additional response to one of their classmates’ responses). The point of this activity was to stimulate a class discussion and had the beginnings of cultivating richer class communication. As an instructor though, I struggled to respond meaningfully to each student’s points on the discussion boards in a way that facilitated continued discussions because of the sheer volume. Another issue was uncertainty on the part of students in terms of what these discussion boards should look like. Being more intentional about the number of discussion boards, along with setting clearer expectations for instructor involvement in the discussion boards (Mandernach, Gonzales, & Garrett, 2006), could be a way to enhance online classroom discussions.
Finally, online courses do present a challenge to peer learning. One benefit of in-person courses is the opportunity to actively learn from others’ questions and shared insights. The self-driven and independent nature of online courses minimizes these peer learning opportunities. In retrospect, one such way to potentially combat this could have been a group project. Alternatively, including a peer review assignment in which students are asked to review one classmate’s writing assignment could have fostered peer learning opportunities as well as help build a virtual classroom community.
Ultimately, gaining experience as a graduate student in teaching online honed my teaching skill set for a rapidly changing higher educational landscape. Online courses present not only some similar challenges to teaching in-person but also additional challenges. Overall though, the means to promote the benefits of online learning are manageable and provide a unique, and perhaps more accessible, learning experience for students interested in pursuing higher education.
Kim, K. J., & Bonk, C. J. (2006). The future of online teaching and learning in higher education. Educause Quarterly, 29, 22-30.
Mandernach, B. J., Gonzales, R. M., & Garrett, A. L. (2006). An examination of online instructor presence via threaded discussion participation. Journal of Online Learning and Teaching, 2, 248-260.
Seaman, J. E., Allen, I. E., & Seaman, J. (2018). Grade increase: Tracking distance education in the United States. Babson Survey Research Group.
Tallent-Runnels, M. K., Thomas, J. A., Lan, W. Y., Cooper, S., Ahern, T. C., Shaw, S. M., & Liu, X. (2006). Teaching courses online: A review of the research. Review of Educational Research, 76, 93-135. doi: 10.3102/003456543076001093
Hallie Jordan is a second-year counseling psychology doctoral student at The University of Southern Mississippi. As a member of the Behavior and Alcohol Research Lab, she researches contextual and social factors related to college student drinking. Additionally, Hallie is interested in undergraduate psychology education with experiences teaching general psychology and counseling theory courses.