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Why I Teach Online

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While distance learning is not for everyone, the flexible education alternative provides teachers and students with many advantages.

A colleague once asked me why I teach online. After several seconds of thought, I realized how that answer has changed over the last 10 years. I first began teaching online because it allowed the students to use the current technology to their advantage and have a little flexibility in their schedule. In 1991 that flexibility was limited, and compared to now, the technology was even more limited.

My first class had four students, and we meet in class once a week and online three times a week. I needed information online to help the students understand the assignments, so I taped my class lectures and reduced them to the primary points. Then I wrote those points into ASCII text files, which I set into a scrolling file that the students could read from their computer screens. Of course, the students could only go forward - no jumping around or going backward. As the semester progressed, we learned ways to perfect the information and add some uniqueness to the class presentation. By the end of the third semester of offering online classes, I had found ways for my students to communicate with each other and with me through a discussion board within the bulletin board. I also discovered hypertext that allowed the students to move around in the assignments area with a greater amount of ease. Links could be made between subjects, and concepts could be associated with a variety of topics. The power of technology began to become more apparent to me as I played with ways for the students to learn what they did not know and bypass that information which they did not need to learn.

Much of the information I covered in the physical class was necessary for some but not for all; however, everyone was exposed to the information because I rarely gave a lecture to small groups within the class. Online, I could build a series of lecture-styled information for everyone, and each student could assess his or her needs and learn the material appropriate to fulfill individual needs. Individualized learning had always been a desire of mine; now I was beginning to see ways to make it happen. Upgrades to the bulletin board system provided more speed and a prettier appearance, but added few options for presentation. Students could hand in their papers, leave a comment for peers or for me, and read assignments. However, graphics were not possible and file postings were slow to load.

Dealing With Student Identity and Plagiarism

By about 1996, we moved to the Internet with Web-based software. The first classroom setup was via free software called Nicenet. It allowed for discussion, interlinked assignment information (i.e., students could read a document that had links to other documents or definitions), links to other Web sites, and a dated calendar that organized the material for students. Images were still not possible with this Web site, but the growth of technology was very helpful to the students. At this point, student numbers had grown to about 70 per semester in my three sections of composition. Because some students were not on campus (prior to this time about 90% of the students were enrolled for convenience), I began to have concerns for such things as identity of the students and plagiarism.

Identity is established through e-mail, discussion and papers written. As I get to know students in a physical class, I also get to know students in the virtual class. The odd problem associated with this is that when a student walks into the office, I do not know that student until I hear the name. Then, the two of us have a history of discussion and communication. Fortunately, later software versions allowed for the posting of images, which lets students post pictures and permits me to use images to aid them in the writing of certain papers.

Plagiarism, my other growing concern, is the same issue in a virtual class that it is in a physical class. Part of what we as English teachers have always done is pay attention to the voice and tone of the writer. It d'es not take long to learn the tone of individual writers. That voice comes through whether the writer is in the classroom or in their living room. When that voice changes, I begin to look for reasons for that change. I am also aware of tone and voice in the discussion area of the Web site and in the voice that comes from the e-mails of individual students. It is really no harder to keep up with the online students than it is to keep up with the in-class students. The disadvantage of finding plagiarism in online writing is that you cannot see who is doing the writing like you can when a student is sitting in a desk in your physical classroom. I have always worked under the assumption that if a student was paying someone to do the work, they would hire someone who was a good writer, not just a mediocre writer.

Online students do not have higher averages, better work or greater levels of eloquence. The advantage of finding plagiarism in online writing is that there are online tests for plagiarism. You can take a sentence or phrase from the paper and do a search, which will tell you if an equivalent line or sentence is found. One more factor is that my assignments have specific characteristics that students must meet in order to complete the assignment: an essay strategy and specific assignment requirements. These characteristics are not met in the common Web site offering online essays. One last factor in insuring against plagiarism is the requirement of proctored testing; thus, the final essay in my composition class must be written with a proctor. This requires students to show a picture ID in order to write the final. Once submitted, each essay is checked for its consistency with the work done by the student during the semester.

The Great Student Equalizer

By 2002, I found that the majority of my students were taking online classes to meet their work or life schedules. Mothers, plant workers, salesclerks at the mall, and students holding two or three part-time jobs can take a few online classes to better their job potential. They are willing to spend the time late at night or between jobs taking the distance classes because that is the only time they have to take classes.

Studying and teaching online initially takes more time than learning or teaching in a classroom. But, come to think of it, the first time I taught a "classroom" class, it also took more time than it did later. Online teaching is an evolution of ideas and processes; you do not take everything from the classroom and put it on the Web. Online teaching is made up of some lecture, some text references, some links to active sites that help students understand the intention of the course, the inclusion of images and sound (if possible), and review of ideas and basics through testing and articles posted for reading.

Probably one of the best aspects of online teaching is the ability for everyone to be an equal discussion member. In my physical classes, I always had one or two people who would dominate the conversation. This is not so in the online class. In my online classes I have more discussion by a greater percentage of students than I ever had in a classroom. I find this to be true across the curriculum. Psychology teachers say that a student is more willing to talk and that they talk more in an online class than in a physical class. The same is true for sociology teachers and theater teachers. A friend of mine who is an online math teacher has only one semester behind him, but he has noticed basically the same outcomes in the online class that he has in the campus class.

Overcoming Online Challenges

Teaching online has presented me with a number of challenges. However, students are the most helpful sources for meeting these challenges because they tell me what works and what d'es not. Among the most common issues that I face are timing and understanding. I must try to keep my virtual class as high in quality as my physical classes; therefore, I keep a number of statistics on successful completion, grade averages, student evaluation of instruction and attrition. I have kept these statistics since spring 1998, and they help me maintain quality. A specific example of timing is the returning of essays.

Students hand in their essays online, I print out the essays, then mark them as I would if they had been handed to me in a classroom. I then mail them back to the students via postal mail so that they can get a copy marked in red that looks just like the ones I carried back to class. Students receive these papers within about five days, which is also the turnaround time I had in the physical classroom.

In addition, I am in daily contact with my students to make sure that they understand what I want from them and that they understand how to get it to me. If they can learn from each other in the discussion area, I let them. When they need my intervention, I give that as well. Timing also means that I do not hold as rigid a schedule as I did in the physical classroom. Sometimes a student will tell me ahead of time that he or she cannot finish an assignment on a specific date. If that student cannot get the assignment finished early, it can come in late. If students do not tell me about an assignment coming in late, I probably will ask them why it is late. If they can come up with a good reason, I accept it. If an online teacher is not willing to do that, maybe that teacher should stay in the physical classroom.

It's important to remember that distance learning is not for everyone. But for the students who need it and who can remember that they are in a class, it has many advantages. And for the teachers who are flexible, innovative and patient, online teaching may be a good alternative format. I believe that online teaching and learning is as good as in-class teaching and learning. Like in-class teaching, online teaching requires a careful awareness of what is going on. But one format d'es not take more concern or awareness than the other. I teach online because of the challenge, because students seem to need the alternative format, and because I also like the flexibility that it allows. I have been in class while in Florida, San Diego, and Paducah, Ky. It d'esn't get any better than that.

About the Author

William Wade has a M.Ed. from the University of Virginia and master's in Arts in English from Murray State University. He has been teaching English online since 1991 when he began an online class using a bulletin board service. He has taught at West Kentucky Community and Technical College (formerly Paducah Community College) since 1970 and is currently Professor of English and Coordinator of Distance Learning there. His primary interest in teaching online is meeting student needs without the loss of quality. E-mail: william.wade@kctcs.edu

This article originally appeared in the 09/01/2004 issue of THE Journal.

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