ESSENTIAL RELEASE TIME AND ASSISTANCE FOR ONLINE TEACHING
As a professor who has taught online courses since 1990, and as a college dean who has encouraged and supervised online teaching, I believe that two factors are essential for good online teaching. First, faculty must receive release time from other teaching duties. The three parts of teaching (preparation, presentation, and assessment) all require more time and trouble for an online course. The minimum release time seems to be about the same as the credit for an online course -- that is, a minimum of three credits of release time for teaching a three-credit online course. Second, faculty must have assistance available. The most essential is technical assistance -- for example, keeping servers operating. Depending on the nature of the online course and the number of students enrolled, additional assistance may be necessary -- for example, clerical assistance to record assignments received by email.
Starting in 1990, I have taught at least one online course almost every year. All of my courses were about computing for the humanities -- with a focus on text processing. Some of them were programming courses. One was a non-credit course. Enrollments in all of my course offerings have been small -- the largest had 15 students. I have had a total of 120 online students in 12 classes. The syllabus for the course that I am currently teaching is on the web: http://www.dsu.edu/~johnsone/chum.html
I have published articles about my online teaching, and two of these articles are on the web:
Since I enjoyed teaching online, and I thought it was worthwhile, I encouraged my colleagues to teach courses via Internet. (I realize that since I am a dean, some faculty might have thought that I was insisting on their teaching online -- rather than simply encouraging.) Between the spring of 1992 and the fall of 2000, fifteen faculty members in my college have taught 49 sections of classes online (in addition to my teaching). By far, the greatest numbers have been in English -- 11 DSU English faculty members have taught 33 sections of first-year composition, advanced composition, introduction to literature, American literature, and technical writing. In addition, a faculty member has regularly taught an online music appreciation course. A professor of physical education taught a course about aspects of aging via Internet. Two sociology faculty members have taught several courses online.
All of the courses offered via Internet in my college have been taught in a similar way. First, a web site is created for the course -- in order to provide information about the class and to distribute the materials needed to start the course. (In my earliest online teaching efforts, I used a mainframe listserv to distribute programs, files, and texts to students, but in more recent years, I too use the web.)
Most of the time students must obtain a textbook prior to the start of the course. Our bookstore allows students to purchase new or used books online. Naturally students can buy their books from any bookstore -- online or snail store. Once in a while, a professor will write a textbook or other necessary materials that replace a textbook, and these can be provided online free of cost. I have done that for both my programming class and my course about computing and the humanities. An online textbook or other materials are often password protected so that only enrolled students can access them, but sometimes they are ordinary web files that anyone who knows the URL can access.
An ambitious music professor attempted to provide elaborate electronic materials for his students enrolled in a music appreciation course. He created a series of web pages with sound files that could be downloaded for study along with text-based lectures. His listening exams were also online -- students were asked to click on a musical sample, listen to it, and then identify (by completing a form ) the composer, period of composition, and musical style. Unfortunately, there were all kinds of technical problems, and the course now uses a traditional textbook with a CD of music.
Faculty use email frequently to communicate with students throughout the course. Sometimes students are also asked to make postings to a web discussion board, but there is always significant exchange of email.
Assessment of student progress in online courses is usually wholly electronic, but sometimes it follows more traditional methods. In my courses and in all writing courses, students submit exercises and essays via email to the teacher who grades them and sends comments and the grade back to the student by email. (Students are strongly encouraged, or required, to send assignments as the content of email messages rather than as attached files that can pose problems when received.) Occasionally a teacher arranges for a proctor at a distant site who supervises the test taking and returns the completed test -- usually by snail mail.
When I had only two or three years of experience teaching online, I published an article about the subject. I commented on the amount of time required to teach via Internet.
I found that teaching a course on a network for the first time multiplies the amount of time required from the teacher almost tenfold as compared with teaching a similar class on campus. The single necessity of formally writing out all lectures is exceedingly time consuming -- it is like writing a textbook. Moreover, care must be taken to make these electronic lectures as well organized and clear as possible since students do not have a teacher at hand who can be asked questions. Subsequent offerings of the course are, naturally, not as time consuming as the initial offering, but they require at least double the amount of time needed for an on-campus class. ("Teaching on International Computer Networks" )When I saw my article in print, I wondered if I would be criticized for exaggerating the amount of time required to teach online courses. I received no such criticism. As I continued to teach online (and to observe colleagues teaching via Internet), I realized that I probably understated the time necessary to teach online. In the first place, my calculations mentioned above are for only the course preparation. The body of the course presentation and the assessment take more time as well. To cite only one example, the instructor must write detailed answers to student questions and must write comments about student exercises. (At the start, when I composed a reply to a student, I saved it in a file and indexed it -- I assumed that I would be asked similar questions by other students -- however, as time went on, I found that I rarely reused these canned comments.)
Like other colleagues, I taught online courses as a labor of love without any release time. I enjoyed using technology and working on the cutting edge. Although I continue to enjoy teaching online courses, many of my colleagues quickly became frustrated and tired. Often the best online teachers now refuse to teach via Internet.
The point is this -- the preparation, presentation, and assessment for online courses take significantly more time for the teacher than for traditional on-campus courses. If faculty are to teach well via Internet, they must receive release time. Since online courses require at least double the traditional amount of instructor's time, they should be counted at least double in faculty loads.
There are methods of giving faculty assistance for teaching online, but even with the best assistance, faculty will still require release time.
Any school that attempts to teach courses via Internet should have good support personnel. Such support falls into two categories -- system support and course support.
System support personnel perform technical tasks such as maintaining the servers and connections for on-campus and off-campus electronic communication. If servers do not work properly or if they are down significant amounts of time, it does not matter what else is done -- there will be little online teaching and learning. When system support is good, teachers and students will give little thought to the system, and that is as it should be.
Course support usually includes teaching faculty to use several kinds of email and showing faculty how to make web pages. It seems that some faculty almost immediately enjoy creating web pages, and they continue to make increasingly-sophisticated pages after the instruction is concluded. Other faculty do not do so. Only the first kind of faculty should be teaching via Internet.
It is sometimes said that course support can be given to faculty so that they can teach online without knowing how to create web pages. There has been discussion of "content experts" and "delivery experts." Well, I am suspicious of the quality of online teachers who do not know how to set up the necessary web pages for a course. If the teacher does not understand Internet delivery well enough to create the materials, I frankly doubt that such a teacher will teach the content effectively via Internet.
Nevertheless, for a good teacher who understands how to create web pages, some kinds of assistance can be extremely helpful. Much Internet work is drudgery -- adding student names, linking files, making graphics, and updating web pages. Such tasks can be performed by assistants (sometimes student assistants) thus saving teachers a good deal of time and effort. In addition, clerical assistants can record assignments, organize email, and put contributions to lists in order.
Faculty should be able to select assistants. Based on differences in courses and differences in faculty interests and needs, an excellent assistant for one faculty member may be a poor assistant for another. An online composition teacher probably will most appreciate a clerical assistant to record the steady stream of assignments, while a social science teacher might have more need for a graphics assistant to create maps and other images.
Questions about the success and future of teaching via Internet remain -- the jury is still out. I have discussed only teaching using the web and email because I have not used Internet video -- however teaching using video looks like teaching via television, and we have tried that.
I am sure of two things. First, teaching with web pages and email requires more time and effort from the teacher, and it will not be successful if release time is not given. Second, all such online teachers require technical assistance to provide continuous operation of servers -- other kinds of assistance (preparation of graphics or recording of papers) may also be necessary.
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