What the Family Learned this Week

Sunday, February 15, 2015

What I Have Learned from Teaching Online

For a little over a year now I have been teaching an online course. Teaching might be stretching the truth a bit - more like a glorified teaching assistant with very little power over the curriculum, assignments, or design of the course. But after looking for about 3 years for some sort of part time job that was related to my degree and not too disruptive to family life, it's worked well. I would prefer to teach in a real classroom and teach my own course, but if wishes and buts were candies and nuts we'd all have a Merry Christmas. I'll take what I can get. 

Here are some observations about the non-stop thrill ride that is online teaching. 

Students who Struggle Just Keep on Struggling

Although I wish in my heart of hearts it wasn't true, and as much as I try to help them, students who are struggling at the beginning are still struggling by the end (or they have dropped the course). And for some reason it's never the high achieving students who have their computers die, or their apartments flood, or their kid get sick, or who lose internet access. I'm not sure if it's poor planning, or bad luck, or an unfair universe, but students who fail tend to fail on multiple levels. This was also true when I taught in a real classroom, so it may be a truism of life. 

Students Think the Past is Simple

On the discussion boards and writing assignments, most students are very fond of blanket simplistic statements that by themselves have utterly no meaning whatsoever. For example - "The colonists wanted freedom." No, not exactly. Which colonies or colonists are you talking about? One-third wanted to stay loyal to the British Crown. What type of freedom? What about African slavery? Or this one - "The North hated slavery." Most Northerners hated the spread of slavery into the western territories, but the immorality of slavery itself, unless you were part of the abolitionist minority, was not a pressing concern. "We should follow the Constitution." Okay - which part? How do you interpret it? Who gets to decide what an amendment means? 
My mantra for the class is "the past is as complex as the present." Of course some of them don't think the present is complex, so maybe that's part of the problem. If my students are more confused leaving the class than they were when they entered, I've done my job. 

Some Students Don't Understand Technology or Email Etiquette

My all time favorite email was from an older student. The email read - "May? Are you there?" I'm not sure if this student was under the impression they were texting, or if I could read their thoughts. Other students write emails as if they are texting - without any formality or editing or clear objectives. I try to model back the way I think they should be composing their emails. And they respond with uncapitalized sentences and hard to read messages. Yikes.  And there are always problems with technology. I shouldn't judge, since at the beginning of this adventure I was asking Tim all the time for help. But I keep thinking that these younger people should be more tech savvy. 

Poor, Poor International Students

Here's a big surprise - students from other countries don't know a lot about American history or institutions. But they are required to take this class. They are at a distinct disadvantage in two ways - usually a language barrier, and often the utter lack of background in the subject matter. Although sometimes, through perseverance and Google, they manage to do just fine (sadly often better than my American high school graduates. I weep for the future.) 

Despite the challenges, I still think talking about and teaching about American history is the best! I still remain a very large history nerd. And I keep slowly and steadily changing the course in tricky small ways to make it more like how I would teach if given the opportunity.