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Amy Guptill, The College at Brockport, State University of New York
The perils and promises of online learning have been prominent themes in recent discussions of ongoing change in higher education. On the one hand, new forms of communication offer new ways to lead students through an engaging learning process (Clark-Ibanez & Scott 2008). A recent meta-analysis has shown that online learning is at least as effective as face-to-face learning, in part because it can enhance time-on-task and intensive participation (Means et al 2009). On the other, the social distance that many intuitively associate with online communications raises concerns about institutional pressures that could lead to watered-down instruction and an even more marginalized position of faculty in higher education. Feeling both these enthusiasms and concerns, I was eager to explore online teaching for myself.
In spring 2010, I taught undergraduate social statistics online; my first foray into online instruction. My experience revealed some of the opportunities and limits of the online environment, but, overall, my experience increased my enthusiasm for online education.
Statistics may seem like a poor candidate for online learning, given that it is a high-stakes course and, for many, a high-stress one as well. At Brockport, our social statistics course serves our own majors as well those from criminal justice, social work, and nursing. For the latter two, students must pass statistics before applying to the major. The pressure of a required course and the anxiety that many bring to statistics is compounded in those older students who balance college with work and family obligations. Those students are over-represented in both the sociology major and these allied professional majors and perhaps stand to benefit the most from regular face-to-face contact.
However, I found statistics to be a good choice to offer online. For one, expanding scheduling options for such a widely required course can help busy students make faster progress through a degree program. Second, it is especially amenable to individual pacing. Like many instructors, I give students in-class practice exercises for each new procedure. Invariably in my face-to-face class, a few students are quickly finished and bored, a large middle group finishes en masse soon after, and a couple students take much longer. I am often forced to move on before the slowest two or three students can complete the entire exercise. An online mode, in contrast, enables all students to complete exercises at exactly their own pace.
Developing the online course entailed translating resources I developed for face-to-face instruction. In both environments, students learn through these steps:
In both courses, students complete the first four steps in each of the 10 learning modules that are made up of one reading assignment (one or two chapters), one narrated Powerpoint presentation, between two and five ungraded exercises, and one graded lab. Students take three exams, each addressing material from three or four modules.
Obviously, this approach entails a tremendous amount of prepared material. For the online course, I drew on Powerpoint presentations, exercises, labs, and collections of exam questions and problems I had developed in teaching prior face-to-face sections. Nevertheless, translating paper resources into interactive online assessments and recording audio narrations for Powerpoint took a lot of time.
Teaching online confronts instructors with some novel issues of academic integrity, especially in courses where students often demonstrate their knowledge through closed-ended exams and lab questions. Proponents of online education are quick to point out that the relative opacity of the online environment (who is really taking this exam?) is no different than large classes (who is really taking this exam?) or any take-home work (who really wrote this paper?). All the same, some cannot shake the feeling that an online environment might make cheating more rampant.
For this class, I preempted some concerns by making the exams explicitly open-book. I initially saw this decision as a sub-optimal compromise, but it turned out to be a positive move. For one, it nudged me to develop questions and problems that directly engage conceptual understanding and quantitative reasoning, which, in turn, prompted me to revise instructional materials to better prepare students for these challenges. Because the exams were timed, students still had to prepare in advance to succeed. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that exam performance for my online students was fully in line with prior face-to-face classes. The open-book strategy certainly does not resolve all integrity issues, but it invokes one oft-repeated claim that teaching online prompts educators to productively rethink their basic pedagogy.
Many how-to articles about online teaching emphasize the importance the instructor’s visible, consistent presence (for example, Pelz, 2004). Thus, I focused on being more than the instructional designer. I frequently reminded students in both audio and writing that they should not hesitate to contact me, their professor, at any time. More generally, narrating the Powerpoint slides with my own voice also helped create a sense of human presence. Other online instructors I know use podcasts and short videos to achieve the same goal.
My first foray was a success. Grades and attrition were surprisingly similar to that of face-to-face students, and student reviews were positive. I am eager to offer online statistics again in order to refine my materials and approach. When I do, I plan to record narrations with higher audio quality and convert the Powerpoint presentations to formats that require less internet bandwidth such as Flash. Also, I plan to script the audio narrations in advance (something I did not do this time) because I could then build the text into the presentation, making these resources richer as well as immediately accessible to the hearing-impaired.
I also look forward to developing an online course that centers on creating a robust learning community. An elective like the Sociology of Food, for example, would look entirely different from statistics, relying heavily on student-to-student interaction and prompting the kind of intensive participation that we all wish to see in our face-to-face classrooms. There are certainly opportunities to harness the power of learning communities for my statistics students as well. Overall, this experience reinforced the principle that teaching is a craft constantly refined; exploring these online possibilities has re-energized the practice of my craft in face-to-face courses as well.
Clark-Ibáñez, Marisol and Linda Scott. 2008. "Learning to Teach Online." Teaching Sociology, 36: 34-41.
Frankfort-Nachmias, C. and A. Leon-Guerrero. 2009. Social Statistics for a Diverse Society (5th Ed). Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine Forge Press.
Means, Barbara, Yukie Toyama, Robert Murphy, Marianne Bakia, and Karla Jones. 2009. "Evaluation of Evidence-Based Practices in Online Learning: A Meta-Analysis and Review of Online Learning Studies." U.S. Department of Education, Office of Planning, Evaluation, and Policy Development. Washington D.C.
Pelz, Bill. 2004. "(My) Three Principles of Effective Online Pedagogy." Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, 8 (3): 33-46.Back to Top of Page