September 9th, 2008

Six Recommendations for the Physicality of Distance Learning Classrooms

By:

Engrossed in a flow of online teaching, I was suddenly aware of insistent knocking. Because teaching is interrupted only for emergencies, I paused in midsentence to open the door. A student worker handed me a document that I had already accessed online. When asked, the student worker said she was told to distribute the document to faculty. Rather than place the document in either of my mailboxes, she had brought the paper directly to me.

During our exchange, I mentioned that I was teaching. From her expression, I could tell she was dubious. After all, she had come to my office door—how could I be sitting in my office teaching? Though no one would think of knocking on the door of a traditional (physical) classroom, teaching in a virtual classroom may not be afforded the same courtesy.

That interruption caused me to wonder anew about the physicality of teaching in the virtual world. In the past, I have used the spatiotemporal aspects of my office for online teaching. My workstation, which has undergone multiple ergonomic reinventions over the years, fits my body, habits, and routines. Although teaching elsewhere is an option, my workstation helps me prevent (or slow down) what I call “professor posture,” that is, head forward and shoulders rounded. And in my office I can disappear into time, emerging hours later with completed products. For faculty who wish to use their offices as online classrooms, I provide the following recommendations:

  • Consider the end product—teaching—as similar, regardless of the process or delivery: traditional face-to-face, electronic, or integrated. Teaching, whether using a real or electronic blackboard, has physical aspects that include three-dimensional space. Virtual teaching, despite online location, originates in physical space.
  • Specify time for online courses in official schedules. Most faculty post schedules on office doors, and provide them electronically to students and to administrators. Just as traditional courses are scheduled to meet for specified blocks of time in physical classrooms, online courses need uninterrupted teaching times.
  • Enlighten administration about the realities of online teaching. Office hours are office hours: students are welcome! However, time scheduled for online teaching is not appropriate for student drop-ins, departmental meetings, or other interruptions. Be cautious about allowing displacement of time scheduled for online teaching. If diverting time that’s scheduled for an online class, make the variation a onetime event. Maintain the temporal consistency inherent in a traditional course.
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  • Utilize permanent “master” online courses, if available, rather than temporary registration-generated electronic courses. Master online courses remain in virtual space indefinitely, whereas electronic courses generated through registration systems become available just before the start of a school term and disappear after final grades. In a master course, the structure (much like the physical layout of a classroom) remains constant, providing a supporting framework (i.e., virtual room dividers) on which content is updated on an ongoing basis. Redesigning online classrooms (and copying content from an old temporary course to a newly generated distance education class) at the beginning of each school term is rather like rearranging furniture in physical classrooms before each semester starts.
  • Document any administrative pledge of assistance, prior to and during the school term, for online teaching. Send reminders if promised support (including nonteaching personnel assistance) does not materialize.
  • Put questions before faculty governance (e.g., faculty senate). Faculty who teach only traditional courses are often unaware of the nuances of electronic teaching. With the rapid rise of distance education in universities, faculty governance systems may need to revisit long-standing traditional teaching topics. Topics to deliberate include teaching load in terms of number of preparations, total number of courses, and maximum student enrollment. Discussion may be required to determine if there is disparity when teaching online classes, related to the need for traditional clerical staff and technological support. In addition, faculty may need to work with administration to discuss implementing a differential for teaching a combination of traditional and distance education courses or a blend of undergraduate and graduate online courses.

In summary, safeguard all spatiotemporal aspects of online teaching. Minimize interruptions by closing email systems, unplugging or turning off phones, and ignoring door knocks. Try posting a sign: Teaching (Online): Please Come Back Later. If all else fails, hide! Find a new virtual classroom, even one not ergonomically ideal, for teaching.

Aimee J. Luebben, EdD, OTR, FAOTA, is professor of occupational therapy at the University of Southern Indiana. Contact her at aluebben@usi.edu.