TYING TEACHING AND LEARNING TO THE CAMPUS WITHOUT BEING THERE
Distance education is often marketed to students as a way of providing flexibility and freedom, but some faculty dont recognize the freedom they have as well. However, that freedom comes with a price, just as it does for the student.
I began teaching distance education courses in the summer of 1998 and discovered that I enjoyed not only teaching in that mode, but also learning how to prepare for my classes using discussion boards and web pages. Until that time, I was rather ignorant about the delivery of on-line online courses. The only one with which I had any experience was one that I had attempted personally to take was carried strictly via e-mail, so it felt a lot like a traditional correspondence course. Since I could read my e-mail from only my computer at work, I was tied to that one specific place. At that point, the only advantage I could see to distance education was the time flexibility.
When I taught my third distance education course, English Composition 101, in the summer of 1999, I was in rather a dilemma: my daughter wanted me to go with her to France for three weeks so that I could help her care for her two year old son (my grandson) while we visited the family with whom she stayed when she had been a foreign exchange student. The three weeks fell at the same time as the final three weeks of the course.
After I visited with the dean of my college about trying to adjust the course, we came to the conclusion that with some serious preparation and several back-up plans, my travel would not conflict with my teaching.
At Dakota State University each distance education instructor has the services of a student assistant, often a student that we are able to personally select. My student assistant was an education major who was also a tutor for English courses. She was my primary back up plan. My secondary back up arrangement was my office partner and good friend who also taught English courses.
For those three weeks, my students worked on their final project, a research paper, and were told to direct their questions to both me and my student assistant. The family with whom we stayed in France had a computer with Internet access, but access costs were astronomical for them at that time and they gently discouraged me from using it very often, even just to download e-mail messages. I hadnt known of this problem before arriving there. I also didnt realize that our hostess had made extensive travel arrangements that would take us away from their home for two of the three weeks. Consequently, my ability to check in with my students became very limited, and I was extremely glad that I had made my back up plans.
Ultimately, my students questions were answered by either my student assistant or by my office partner, but I still had to read rough drafts, make comments, and grade the final paper. I was able to get to a computer often enough to download the drafts, but our hosts computer broke down when I was to get the final drafts of the paper. At that point, we took advantage of another distance technology: the fax machine. Luckily, I only had twelve students in class and I had already decided that their final papers needed to be no more than ten pages, excluding the title page and outline.
Consequently, I received well over 120 pages of faxes, all of which needed to be graded, but during the day I was able to sit on the beach at St. Giles and grade them, and I was able to finish them while enjoying the gentle late afternoon atmosphere of a formal French garden. I also had the pleasure of spending time with my daughter, my grandson, and our delightful French host and hostess.
Since this distance education course workedeven with flawsI agreed again to teach a summer distance education course, again English Composition 101, even though I was scheduled to lead a university sponsored trip to England. The group that I was leading was small, so I knew that Id have rather more freedom and flexibility for teaching the course. However, I knew that the hotels in which we were staying did not have Internet hook-up and the only computer available belonged to the hotel management, and therefore was not one that I could use. I knew about cyber cafés and was confident that I would be able to use them in the evenings.
The year before, my trip conflicted with the end of my course. I had had plenty of time to get to know my students and to prepare them for the fact that I was going to be difficult to reach. I also had made certain that my student assistant was available and competent to deal with general issues. This time, however, my trip began only five days after my class started. I had only enough time to collect and grade one set of papers before it was time to leave the country.
Fortunately, at Dakota State University, we have a fantastic library staff who are dedicated, cooperative, and interested in providing a high quality library experience to our distance education students. Because of their work in developing library usage tutorials for distance studentsand their willingness to grade those tutorialsI was able to provide my class with assignments that were useful and necessary to their research, while I spent the first days in London overcoming jet lag and helping my group become accustomed to their new surroundings. It also gave me time to find cyber cafés and learn how they operated.
As before, my freedom to travel necessitated lots of up-front preparation. I decided not to plan on having any kind of access to a web page editor while I was gone, so all of my web pages were completed long before my trip, but my student assistant was given author rights to make any necessary changes. Also, as a requirement of the class, students had to have access to and the ability to use web page editors to create their own web pages.
During the two weeks that I was gone, my class spent most of the first week with the librarians carrying out lots of on-line online library tutorials. The tutorials teach the students how to access a variety of information through the Karl Mundt Library as well as how to effectively search for their specific topics. Information literacy is an important component in our general education requirements, and the work the students do through their library searches adds to that particular literacyand ties them to the library.
In the second week, they drafted two short papers which were first peer-reviewed (I had set up the peer review arrangements before I left) and then reviewed by my student assistant. By the time the students made their revisions and submitted their final drafts, I was nearing the end of my trip. I was able to download and print the papers; thus I spent my plane trip home grading papers. Unfortunately, all of the corrections then had to be transferred back to the electronic copy upon my return, but it seemed a small price to pay for the freedom to travel to England for several weeks.
My last trip was to China where I spent five weeks first traveling and then teaching English and pedagogy to Chinese teachers of English. Like my trip to France, this trip (which had come up quite unexpectedly) fell during the last weeks of my course. The university that hosted us arranged for us to travel during our first weeka schedule change that was unanticipated since our initial itinerary stated that our travel would be at the end of our teaching. We also had been told that we would have access to computers and the Internet while we were teachingwhich was true, but we did NOT have such access during our travel time.
At this time, and for the first time, I needed to use Plan B for my distance education course: my office partner. Fortunately for me, she was able to step in for the week that I was gone and "teach" my on-line online course. Before I left, she and I had discussed such a situation and as before, I spent a lot of time in preparation to make sure that my web pages were complete and the schedule for the students was carefully and clearly laid out. During our travel week, our hotel in Beijing had a computer lab, but unfortunately all three computers available to the customers locked up when e-mail messages were sent, and even getting to web pages and discussion boards proved to be impossible. Because of a typhoon, we stayed an extra night in Beijing at different hotel which had a much better cyber bar. Therefore, I was able to spend several hours working with my class.
Once our travel in China was completed, we were given access to computers, printers, and the Internet so that I was able to finish my class quite uneventfully. As before, my class submitted their final papers on a web page with their citations being hyperlinks. The ultimate advantage of that was the fact that I could incorporate the writing my American students did with the classes that I was teaching in China. That really felt like distance education.
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