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Lessons Learned from a Bad Online Teaching Experience

A few years ago, our university started accelerating its distance learning program. Some professors designed courses that worked well, while others found that 100 percent Web delivery wasn’t effective for them.

Initially, when our speech department was asked by our dean to put our basic course online, we resisted. In fact, our course was the last required general education course to go online. When we finally agreed to a Web-enhanced course, it was a disaster. It felt like our content took a backseat to the technology platform. Student feedback was mostly negative. Faculty members were frustrated. And one point the department recommended dropping the online course entirely.

Making the Switch to Hybrid Courses
As a last resort, we attempted to restructure the course by creating a hybrid offering that was half online and half on campus. The results were amazing. Student feedback was much more positive, and retention and assessment scores both shot up. Student retention improved 8 percent the first semester we switched to the hybrid course, while post-test scores jumped an average 20.5 percent. There was also a clear decrease in student and professor frustration.

Having found a delivery method that seemed to work well, we began to look seriously at strategies, tips, and techniques for using WebCT that would simplify and enhance the teaching experience. We frequently discovered we were “overworking” the course management system. There were so many tools at our disposal that we were tempted to use them all. Frankly, that just confused everyone—professors and students.

We decided to look for ways to make the presentation less busy, falling back on a lesson that all teachers learned a long time ago: sometimes less is more. At the same time, however, we didn’t want to simplify so much that we excluded useful techniques. Eventually, by trial and error, we found the right balance.
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Using Technology to Enhance Teaching, Not Get in the Way
We also discovered that working in the electronic venue required that we constantly be several steps ahead of our students, who often are extremely computer savvy and quite likely to discover ways to plagiarize. Without engaging in cynicism, we adapted the Reagan philosophy of “trust but verify” by using readily available software such as student tracking and TurnItIn.

In the process we also learned how to use feedback mechanisms to enhance teaching. For instance, we discovered that a threaded electronic discussion on a subject like plagiarism puts students on record as knowing what it is. After that, the standard excuses for plagiarism pretty much went away. Similarly, a quick personal email is a handy way to find out what gaps there might be in student learning.

These are only a couple of effective ways in which judicious use of software enhances teaching without getting in the way. The trick, we found, was to use the software without becoming slaves to it.

Lori Norin is an assistant professor of speech communication at the University of Arkansas-Fort Smith. Tim Wall is an instructor in the English/Rhetoric department.

Excerpted from Trial by Fire: Online Teaching Tips That Work, October 2007, Online Classroom.