Last summer I began a journey into On-line learning. I took the very class that you are taking now. It was revolutionary in my teaching life. Since I am an outgoing and talkative person face to face, I wondered if it would be possible to dialogue with other students without really being able to see them. Could I learn information without the traditional lecture? The questions plagued me. However, after finishing the course, I was convinced. On-line learning is the future of education and I wanted to be a part of that future. The following fall semester my supervisor, Tracey Smith, suggested that I "shadow" a few of her classes to see how the our particular subject area "Speech" adapted to the on-line classroom. I had access to the lectures, assignments, and discussions, but not the private forums. I felt enlightened and liberated (and extremely arrogant). I was ready to be an on-line facilitator. It couldn't really be that difficult, could it?

January 2002, I began to facilitate (teach) my first on-line class. Thankfully, I did not have to create the class. Tracey had already done that for me. All I had to do was facilitate discussions and grade assignments. Here are a few of the questions that I wish I had asked before I started teaching the class:

  1. How many times a day do I really need to log on?
    I'm more than certain that Tracey told me the answer to this one and I definitely should have paid attention. My limited experience has shown me that it is best to try to log onto the class once in the morning, once at lunch, and once at night. For a while, when I still had all the warm fuzzy feelings about the class, I logged on to my class about five or six times a day. However, the warm fuzzies went away and were replaced by mild annoyance that the computer was ruling my life. In an act of defiance, I began to log on once a day (usually in the morning). While this made me feel better because I was no longer glued to the computer, it created all kinds of problems with the students.
    They posted questions and wanted responses quickly --rightfully so. They made interesting comments in the discussion. I found that I would have liked to elaborate on a point, but the discussion had already moved in a different direction. It really was not worth it to drag the students back. This specific course required that the class come to campus twice. On one occasion a student wrote me a note asking for directions to the classroom and posted it around noon. I figured that since they were coming to campus, they would probably not discuss a great deal. So I checked it in the morning and did not check it the rest of the day. The student was lost and late to class as a result. It is a difficult habit to make, but well worth the effort. Check the class at least three times a day.
  2. How long should it take you to grade assignments and hand them back?
    All instructors have different ways that they go about finding time and
    grading assignments. In a f2f class it might take one to two class periods for some people to hand back assignments, while it takes others one to two weeks. The same can be said for an on-line course. I've found that it is best to talk to two or three people who have taught on-line before and ask how long it takes them to get assignments back to the students. Then, use their knowledge and make a schedule that works for you.
    I spent the first two weeks of my on-line class grading each assignment as it was handed in (once again the crazed warm fuzzies at work). I spent the next unit not grading anything until the entire unit was finished.
    There are benefits and drawbacks to each. When I graded something as soon as it was handed in, it didn't hang over my head. It was taken care of, recorded, and forgotten. However, I did spend a few minutes each time trying to re-orient my self as to what I was looking for in each part and how I had graded the others in order to be fair and consistent. If I waited until the end of each unit, I could grade everything at once. This meant that once I had reviewed the criteria, I could simply become a grading machine. Then I didn't have to review it again. Unfortunately, though, if I waited until the end of the unit, I had an enormous amount of material to grade. What might have taken me ten minutes at lunch and fifteen minutes before bed over the course of a week, suddenly became a huge block of time that I was attached to the computer trying to finish all of the grading. Regardless of the schedule or time frame that you use, you should definitely have something in mind.
  3. Should I stay silent or should I "talk?"
    As I am sure you have discussed (or will discuss) in this class, how do you comment and still motivate that students to discuss. It didn't look overly difficult when I took this class. My facilitator, Mike McNett, made interesting observations and we all jumped on them like a pack of rabid dogs. His comments did not stop the flow of communication, they enhanced and motivated our discussions.
    However, most of us will not be facilitating a discussion for graduate level students who love to learn. Instead, we will have Community College students or four-year students. What's the difference? When a facilitator makes a comment to graduate students, they explore what the facilitator has said and try to apply it to their experiences. When a facilitator makes a comment to undergraduate students, they respond as if the final authority has spoken. There must not be anything else to say. It effectively ends the dialogue, whether it was meant to or not. Once again, I should have asked this question before I started teaching, instead of half way through the semester. Tracey had an excellent suggestion: make a comment and follow it up with a question. Hopefully, this will cause the students to respond to your question and the discussion will move forward.
Now you know the truth, about one facilitator's experience with her first on-line class. Did it make me crazy at times? Obviously! Was it worth it? Absolutely! Even though I've shown you many of my problems, there were even more benefits. My students were forced to engage in their learning instead of being passive recipients. Unlike the one or two people who answer questions in a f2f class, everyone had to join in the discussion. However, by far, the most amazing benefit of on-line learning that I did not anticipate was the level of empathy and support that the students extended to each other. My speech students wrote each other notes of encouragement before their speeches were due. I had students write things like, "I'm sure you'll all do great," "I'll be smiling at you from the back row to remind you to relax," or even "You have such an interesting topic, I'm sure you're speech will be great." I taught an interpersonal and public speaking class where we did a weekly assignment on-line. In class the students talked to each other, but never about anything serious or personal. However, on-line, they bared their hurts and life experiences with each other. One student, when discussing her self-concept, told everyone how people made her feel when she was sixteen and pregnant. It was heart wrenching. One of the other students wrote her back and told her that he was in high school with her. He remembered seeing her walk around school and he thought she shouldn't be there. He wondered why she bothered. Then he went on to tell her how impressed he has been in her level of commitment to her child and her education. He even apologized for his judgmental attitude. With a couple of web-enhanced courses and one on-line course under my belt, I no longer have warm fuzzies about on-line learning. I know the truth: it is time consuming, difficult, and worth the effort.

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