Jennifer Macaulay, who really just has to stop writing such insightful pieces or I will never get anything done, wrote a piece on her experiences as a distance learner a couple of weeks ago. And if I didn’t know better, I would have thought that I had written the entire thing myself, so much did her experiences mirror my own. You should really take a look at it, but I will relate some of the salient points:
- Too many programs have tried to just take regular courses and stick them online without different thinking about evaluation, teaching, etc.
- Faculty can really make or break a class.
- Other than discussion boards, there really aren’t many opportunities to build a sense of community among the distance learners.
- It is hard to feel connected to the school, to be mentored or even to know how to get help.
Oh, Jennifer, I wish I could say it was only SCSU that had this problem, but Florida State University was exactly the same. I remember writing about my frustrations with distance learning when I was still in the program. I found that the quality of the online courses was so variable, with the majority of them landing on the negative side of things. If you had a really dedicated professor, who was always available, really made an effort to get students engaged in the subject and understood the differences between teaching online and teaching an in-person class, you’d have a great experience. I had a bunch of very excellent experiences like that. Then I had teachers who didn’t understand that an online course required a different approach. They would actually try to do a lecture through a chat interface, making all 40-50 of us answer a question just to make sure we were still there. Wouldn’t it have made more sense to offer the lecture through a screencast or voice-over PPT or something like that and then use the class time for discussion and questions? So many of the faculty gave us quizzes and other assessments that made it clear that they just wanted to make sure we were paying attention, not that we were actually learning. Then I had teachers who clearly didn’t care. I had one professor who showed up for two of the lectures during the entire semester. He didn’t teach in any way, shape or form, and unfortunately it was the class with the most difficult material. I had another one who took forever to grade things and when he finally did, you’d just get a grade with no comments whatsoever. I even one time had to tell a professor that a classmate of mine was trying to plagiarize material from the Web in our group project and the professor did nothing about it (at least as far as I know; I know the student did not get in trouble). I actually ended up rewriting his part of the project because I didn’t want to get in trouble for someone else’s actions. I and others would make all these things known in our end-of-semester evaluations, but we never felt like our comments really had an impact.
Then the community aspect. I remember they made some half-hearted attempts to build a sense of connection in our online orientation. We had a discussion board and submitted profiles, but after that, there really wasn’t any sort of community-building at all. We’d have to write up an “about us” thing for most of our classes, but that was about it. And we were assigned an adviser, but I know mine didn’t advise me in any way. We had to write up a plan on how we were going to fulfill our course requirements, and I sent it to my adviser and then waited two months for her to approve it. There was no discussion about what I wanted to do, my interests, etc. It was just, get this form approved and you’re done. I would have loved to have someone I could talk to about my interests, which were rapidly changing at the time. The only socialization we would have with our classmates came from our own initiative — setting up meetings with people in our local area, e-mailing with people with similar interests. It would have been lovely to have had something a little more formal to get us “talking” to one another. You just feel so isolated sometimes as a distance learner.
I guess that’s why I work so hard to make myself as available as possible and to provide as much documentation as possible to the online students. At FSU, the library did not make an effort to provide outreach to the distance learners in my program. I didn’t know the name of the distance learning librarian or the liaison to our area or whoever was supposed to be helping us. There weren’t tutorials designed to help us. And I didn’t know the most direct way to get help. There was nothing about the library in our courseware. At Norwich, in every single classroom in WebCT, there is a link to the library portal for distance learners. Yes, there is a space designed just for them with all the information a distance learner will usually need to use the library resources and learn about library services. And on the front page of that portal is now a MeeboMe interface, which hopefully will make us appear even more available to them. I want to make absolutely sure they know that a librarian is here to help them when they need it. And, in March, I will be doing a pilot project where I will actually be embedded in some of the Military History classes. My own experiences are constantly on my mind when I think about how to answer a student’s question, how to create a tutorial and how to improve our services.
I am very impressed with the way Norwich (my place of work) does distance learning. They have a unique model, and while I don’t agree with all of it, I can’t help but admit that it works. There are two things that impress me most. The first is the way they supervise their instructors. Those instructors are under near constant surveillance. If they don’t get back to a student within 24 hours or return a paper within 72 hours, they are in hot water. They are expected to contribute to discussions in a productive way and always provide useful comments on a student’s paper. They actually CALL each student personally before the start of the class (of course the classes are small with only 10-14 students to an instructor). The Program Directors are very committed to ensuring quality control, and they rightly realize that the faculty member can make or break the students’ experience.
The second thing they do is work really hard to build a sense of community. In addition to the regular discussion boards, they have a community space for the distance learners and offer new profiles of students every other week. They work hard to make them feel a part of the Norwich tradition. They try to humanize the experience as much as possible. The separate programs have even set up Google, Yahoo! and MSN groups for their students to build a sense of community and keep it going after the students have graduated and no longer have access to WebCT. When the students come to campus to graduate (they have a week of Residency with graduation as the finale), you can tell that they feel a deep sense of connection to Norwich and to the students they have studied with. And that is impressive since up until then, all of their interactions have been virtual (there is no residency component before they finish their coursework). Their efforts to create a sense of connection in the online world is really to be commended.
Jennifer wonders if the problems she (and I) had are inherent to distance learning in general. Looking at what I’ve learned from Norwich and hearing comments like those that Paul made on Jennifer’s post, it’s obvious to me that there are schools working hard to make online education more than a face-to-face class on the Web and to help make students feel connected to the University and to each other. I know that online learning will never be just like face-to-face, but it can be a lot better.
I’m glad to see this posting, especially since I’ve just started teaching an online reference course as an adjunct. Luckily, my wife has already been teaching some online classes at the same school (via Blackboard), so she has helped me figure out how to operate the system. It’s a bit more work than I’m used to since I already work 40 hours per week as a regular librarian, but I can honestly say that I am finding the endeavor rewarding.
I probably won’t use all the suggestions listed here since they might not work for my class, but they’re certainly worth considering. Things seem to be going well so far in my class, aside from the usual technical problems. Some students have mentioned that they appreciate my honest, irreverent, and/or humorous responses to their introductory postings (usually directed towards crazy stuff in librarianship, or my own foibles). Their introductory postings have also generated discussion of commonalities among themselves, which should help build some sense of community. So far, so good, but this is only the beginning of the semester…
Ironically, I have quite a few reservations about distance learning. I think it’s mainly because I have fond memories of many in-person classes with interesting topics and dynamic professors, and I fear that such senses of connection will be lost in purely online environments. However, maybe my experiences with this class will help me change my mind. As another bit of irony, I feel that I can “be myself” with the students online in a way I could not in a regular classroom. I have developed the persona mentioned above, which I hope makes the class easier to handle. Of course, I still expect them to do excellent work (which I distinguish from “hard work”). It’s just finding that balance between maintaining high standards but remaining “approachable.”
As for tests or quizzes… I have never even considered imposing such scourges on my students. I’m content with assignments that show understanding and application of the material covered.
I can’t promise to be less insightful, but I may be too busy to write as much now that classes have started again 🙂
It is good to know that I’m not alone in my experiences with distance education. Of course, your comments tend to confirm my belief that there needs to be some serious attention paid to improving online classes. I have found the biggest disconnect to be the fact that I don’t know how to get such a discussion started – especially at SCSU. As a student who isn’t on campus, I have no idea of what the current issues are or even if concerns that have been expressed get any air time.
Thanks for sharing your experiences at Norwich. I find such information to be extremely helpful. I hope that you will post about your involvement in the pilot program for the military history classes. I would love to here how it goes.
Jason, as a distance education student, I have reservations about the format. In some ways, I see distance programs as being not quite ready for prime time. It sounds like you are doing quite a bit to give your students a great experience. Good luck with the classes!!
I think there are plenty of problems with online learning. Watching my wife’s own experiences as a professor has made me aware of them, on top of my own warm and fuzzy memories of in-person classes (with an emphasis on “fuzzy”). It would be neat to do something like the Jedi Council holograms, but I think we’re a long way from that.
In the meantime, I rely on old-fashioned writing skills to convey wit, charm, and tact (with facts) to make the online learning experience as pleasant as possible. I just stumbled onto such an approach, and it seems to work so far. I’m based in Texas, but my students are in a number of places: Virginia, Colorado, California, etc. I might meet with some of the students nearby in-person if necessary, but I’ll steer clear of the classroom. I prefer a venue like Starbucks myself.
Hmmm… Starbucks and Star Wars holograms of my far-flung students. I might be onto something…
Great topic! I am currently the de-facto distance librarian, as it is attached to our Graduate School of Education of which I am the liaison at Hamline University. I would like to play devils advocate here as I think we need to be aware of a few other things. One, not everybody who is in an online class wants a community. I know they are probably the minority, but people need to be aware of that. I do know several people who absolutely hated “group projects” in their online classes and hated the discussion for whatever reason. Next, with most graduate education classes here, there is very little lecture from a professor. It is more guidance and collaboration. Remember, most of the students are already professionals in their field. This can throw students off who look for a more directed approach. I would imagine that other subjects and especially undergraduate courses would need more teacher interaction/direction.
I do know that for some of the classes that they try to get most people to campus at least once as a group, but this is not always possible. And that is really not the point. The point is that an online class IS different from an in person class and can not transfer every type of behavior we would expect in a classroom. Even if we supplied everyone with web cameras.
As for training instructors in how to facilitate an online class that would be very difficult. You can show them how to use and make the most out of a class management system, such as Blackboard, but not everything can be transferred “nicely’ into an online class. Some classes and discussion demand real time interaction and collaboration. Hamline does have pretty good support for those professors who need help in developing their class, but I am not sure they would be the ones to say “this is how you should run your class”
If I get enough students, I will be teaching an information literacy class soon with a colleague of mine. We have created, through Blackboard, an online component, which contains the basics: intro test, readings, syllabus, discussion board (with guided questions). We expect this to be about 20% of their “class time”. Will this work? I have no idea, and it will be interesting when we have to recalibrate our expectations.
Meredith, I see you are going to be “embedded”, please let us know how that goes. The profs. I work with make sure “library stuff” is a part of their resources in Blackboard: tutorials, research guides, etc… Some of the better ones even have “library assignments” that forces them to do or look at certain things: the catalog, a flash tutorial, an e-book, etc… I have talked to several librarians in our consortium about being embedded and found that it wasn’t all that it was cracked up to be. They didn’t get a whole lot of questions. Maybe it is different with grad students? Or maybe, they need some library assignments integrated with their work?
I felt the same way when I read Jennifer’s post too! It is definitely the professor who makes or breaks the class. The class I am in now is the best developed in terms of interactivity and ISD principles, but it was not developed by the school. So while the course is great, the professor is horrible. I have not gotten a single response to any of my emails in a month! The syllabus for the class was one sentence…complete chapters 6-10. What does complete mean? What book are these chapters in? I think most schools have made a huge improvement in the quality of online courses in the past few years but it’s just like any business or organization…the leaders will make it or break it!
Thinking about Kristofer’s comment about students not wanting a sense of community… I can certainly see why students would not want it. As a bit of a lone wolf myself, I absolutely loathed group projects. I hated the fact that my grade might depend on whether others “pulled their own weight,” as well as the possibilty that one person (me) might do all the work. I am considering group work for one of the projects I have assigned, but I’ll make it optional.
As someone who’s shy and retiring, I certainly sympathize with those who might not want to participate in the course “community.” Still, I think that students should have an opportunity to build community, even if some decide that they prefer to keep to themselves. Some people have participated in my individual lesson discussion boards, while others have not. I had thought of counting such participation towards the course grade, but I decided that it would be too cumbersome to assess. Instead, I’m opting for weekly reaction papers to figure out what students are getting out of the readings, and I’m using the lesson discussion boards for those who would like to share their insights with others.
I totally agree that some students don’t want a sense of community, but I definitely was not thinking of group projects as a way to build a sense of community online. Group projects don’t always have to suck, but the way they’re usually structured online, they are REALLY difficult to accomplish.
I don’t think community is built around required discussions and assignments. While I think it’s great to build a sense of community around a course, it’s even more important to build it around the program as a whole. Yes, lots of people are lone wolves, but when you have a problem, it’s nice to feel like there is someone (either a fellow-student, a faculty member or an administrator) whom you can contact. I had no idea whom I could contact if I was having a problem. There are ways to build online communities for programs that are not built around activities or discussion boards or requirements. Norwich has done that quite nicely (though they do require discussion postings in separate classes), and I applaud them for it.
Some of the graduate classes here do have “library assignments” and I have found them rather counter-productive. They’re usually offered right at the beginning of the class and have the students using the databases and other resources to find specific things. They also usually point the students to some of the tutorials I’ve created for the grad students. It’s great that it gives them some experience using the library resources, but it isn’t tied to a real research assignment in the class and by the time they get to that, they seem to have forgotten everything. In the classes where I have library tutorials tied to their regular assignments, I’ve found them to be much more useful because they’re offered at the point of need. It’s like teaching a very general Information Literacy class that isn’t tied to an assignment versus teaching one that is tied to an assignment and helps them to more effectively complete that assignment. In the latter, students are much more likely to learn from the class because they see an immediate application and benefit to what they’re learning. I think information literacy should be integrated seamlessly into the curriculum; it should not be an “add on” because it will be seen by students that way. Just my 2 cents and things may be different at other institutions.
Here, we get a large number of reference questions from grad students in the research intensive programs. Military History students seem to have particular trouble adjusting to doing research online. I hope that my being embedded into the course will give me the opportunity to answer many common research questions for an entire class rather than one individual, enabling the people who usually do not ask questions to benefit from their classmates questions (and my answers). The military history students are a lively, eager and curious bunch, so I think I will have my work cut out for me!
Although I went to the same school where I teach as an adjunct, and my wife currently teaches there as well, I’ve mainly thought about the “community” of my own class. This is my first in-depth experience with distance learning, so my practical experience is fairly parochial. I will say that I feel thrilled to see my students bonding and discussing relevant issues via discussion board, especially if they previously didn’t know each other. Nevertheless, especially with my slim distance learning experience, Meredith’s broader definition makes me wonder how a school can build a broader sense of community among its far-flung students. It does sound like Norwich offers a good model for that.
I do find its strict surveillance of instructors rather heavy-handed, though. While taking action against instructors who chronically neglect students sounds sensible, it seems a bit cumbersome to tick up every infraction and reprimand instructors for every incident. Like students who might not be able to turn in a paper on time, instructors might have extenuating circumstances that do not allow them to give everyone an adequate response immediately. Small class sizes would ameliorate the likelihood of such scenarios, but such standards sound problematic for universities with larger class sizes.
I would be interested in learning more about the rationale for having a 24 hour turnaround time for answering a student’s question. For instance, do professors have to give any type of response to a question within that time period? With the promise of a better follow-up answer, would a quick one- or two-sentence response suffice? Does discretionary use of an automatic “out of office” message count? Does this response time include weekends, or just the “business week?” Does a student’s “information need” have to be completely fulfilled within that time period? (Once a librarian…) Most importantly, how were these standards developed?
Come to think about it, what about the 72 hour turnaround time for grading? Depending on the assignment, that seems a bit too fast to give decent feedback.
That’s quite a few questions right there, actually. No 24 hour turnaround is necessary for those, however. I’m just thinking out loud in the form of several questions. (“Distance learning for $200, Alex.”)
I agree that these requirements would be completely impossible if you were dealing with larger classes. However, when you only have between 10 and 14 students, I think it is all quite do-able and our online programs are very committed to these small class sizes. They don’t reprimand faculty for every little infraction, but the faculty do know that people are watching to make sure they are providing the quality of services they are getting paid for (and Norwich pays quite a bit more than most universities for their online instructors). They pay for quality and they expect quality. I was just at a meeting this afternoon and the thing I kept hearing people say is that the instructor makes or breaks the class. From my experiences with distance learning, I can see exactly why they are so strict. I probably wouldn’t be comfortable teaching in an environment like that, but I understand that they’re trying to control quality and they (and the students) deserve to get what they pay for. I admire the fact that, while this hasn’t happened often, they are willing to pull an instructor out of a course and replace him/her if s/he isn’t doing a good job despite repeated redirection. A lot of people see teaching online classes as an opportunity to slack off and get paid; actually it is probably more work than teaching a regular face-to-face class.
Jason: I agree, there should be the opportunity for people to make them feel a part of a community or institution. As I said before, there are people who do not want or need the “community experience”, but on the other side of the spectrum there are people who thrive in the online experience. My overall point is that people’s motivations and expectations can be different. For your class, it might not hurt to ask the students about their expectations and what they like in terms of “community building” in the online environment. Just a thought.
Meredith: first, sorry to take up so much space. 🙁
I sympathize with your bad online experience. I am not sure who you would have or could talk to. At Hamline, we have technology advisors for each school program and our IT who help students with any technical difficulties. We at the library do get a lot of those questions as well. Heck, we even get research questions. YEAH! At least the questions are not “Where is the bathroom?” LOL! As for training faculty, it is more in how to use Blackboard. The librarians also assist in helping faculty make use of online linking for their readings. I am interested in how Norwich builds their “online community”. Is there anything specific that they do? Especially with students who can never come to campus?
As for your second part on library assignments I am in total agreement. I never teach a BI the first weeks into a semester. I ask the Profs. that they wait at least 3-5 weeks before we bring their classes in for a session or two. They have to be starting their research or are working on their research questions. Good luck with being embedded and I would like to hear about some of the things you try with the students.
(In response to Kristofer’s comment)
Since everyone has different expectations, and I do not require discussion postings, individual students already have an opportunity to develop their own senses of community within the class. I hope that online conversation between and among students will flow naturally, and that people will not feel compelled to post just to get points. If someone wishes to abstain, that’s their perogative, and I don’t count it against them.
(Actually, I didn’t even think about distance learning “communities” until encountering Meredith’s posting. However, upon reading it, I started thinking about my own online class this semester.)
Just to reduce the risk of having people totally unengaged from the weekly lessons, I at least require a reaction paper. That way, I can assess how well students engage with the lessons, and more reserved students have an opportunity to express their thoughts without the fear of embarrassing themselves in front of classmates (Probably not good for “building character,” but I can sympathize with those feelings myself.)
People have brought up some great points. Building a sense of community is a tough concept – and I agree that not everyone wants to participate (I’m not even sure that the majority would want to). However, if distance education programs want to attract those who can’t physically come to campus, they really need to provide some sort of space that is specifically for distance learners – and for those at the college and university that are assigned to help, mentor and guide the students. This is especially important for programs that have no residency requirement. One of my biggest problems in my current program is trying to figure out where to go for support – my school doesn’t even have specific web pages that are geared for distance students. A better and more supportive community could help alleviate this.
As for standards, I doubt that hard line rules, such as all submitted work must be returned within 5 days, would be a good idea – nor would faculty easily accept such strictures. However, students need programs to put together some guidelines and expectations. Like Meredith and Lori, I have had some absolutely abyssmal classes in which professors ignore questions, have no discussions and return work months after the due date. I think that in the online environment there can be no excuse for not grading the first assignment well before the second is due. Policies are essential so that students understand what to expect, what is acceptable behavior and what is not. I am more than willing to be flexible – but only when the professor is also willing to be flexible and engaged about issues and problems that he/she might be having.
Jason makes a great point that everyone’s expectations are different – and I think this is part of the problem in enviroments where faculty are not clear. If a professor is unclear about the class, its content, the work involved or how the discussions should take place, the class becomes chaotic.
Sorry, I forgot to add this from my last post. Thought people might want to take a look at this…
Developing Web-based Instruction: planning, designing, managing, and evalutating for results. edited by Elizabeth A. Dupuis