Category: Education

Online Teachers

The rise in online courses over the past ten years has found its way into all levels of education from K-12 to graduate school. Massive open online courses (MOOC) bring knowledge to students around the world. The technology to make this happen continues to evolve and create new opportunities. Changing at a slower pace are the teaching habits of instructors as they work to master the challenges of moving away from the physical classroom to the virtual classroom.

The modern online teacher has the same goals as other teachers: to present a standard curriculum to students in a way that allows them to comprehend and make use of the information. Online students must show their comprehension by passing standardized testing, just like other students.

These teachers also have the same challenges as other teachers. They must gauge how well the students are understanding the material and make adjustments in their lesson plans as needed. They need to give some students more attention to get through a class while others may need to be challenged more to prevent boredom.

Technological Separation

In addition to the benefits of more accessible education has come a limitation – the teacher and students are separated. Teachers have to work harder to get and stay connected with the students. As a student, you must work harder to get your high school diploma online because the teacher is not at the front of the room answering questions.

Pat Kossan and Anne Ryman writing for AZ Central note that some of the things a classroom teacher takes for granted require new skills for the online teacher. The teacher can’t see the faces of students who are bored or confused. They have to rely on email, phone calls or audio/video conferencing to help the students.

Teachers are also distanced from the parents, too. Much of an online teacher’s time can be consumed doing emails and responding to phone calls. The teacher must rely more on input from parents on how their child is doing in school.

Online Teaching Requires a New Set of Skills

In an article in Time, Nick Pandolfo writes that most online teachers never meet their students face-to-face. The may have to spend time tracking down students who haven’t logged in for a while or submitted homework. While more of the burden of the high school experience is placed on the student and their parents, some of the same expectations of a traditional classroom teacher are still applied to the online educator, such as looking for signs of cheating on exams.

Teaching programs are slow to incorporate the new skills that have become required by online instructors. Many teachers rely on special workshops or classes from software manufacturers to gain their skills. The National Education Association has released some virtual education guidelines, but until new standards are established and taught, teachers must do their best with their current skills.

Developing the Art of Online Teaching

Moving from the physical to the virtual classroom may be a challenging option for many teachers. Those with the right set of skills and the personality will find virtual teaching satisfying.

There are no physical papers or textbooks to deal with. Everything is online. Lectures and Q&A sessions can be recorded so students who missed a class or need to review the material can replay them. Audio and video software allows the teacher to interact with students for tutoring. Translating teaching styles from the physical classroom to the virtual one will take time, training, but will likely create new, efficient ways of teaching.

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Experimentation is a roller coaster. San Jose State University suspended its controversial experiment in online courses last spring after disappointing results. But the university and its platform partner, Udacity, bounced back on their second try, improving students’ outcomes in four of five summer courses, compared to their traditional online counterparts.

SJSU’s pilot with Massively Open Online Courses (MOOCs) is supposed to usher in an era of super-low-cost courses for the masses – without sacrificing quality of instruction. In fact, the theory is that the self-paced learning style of online video lectures is more tailored to individual needs than a one-size-fits-all classroom. Students consult with tutors and their peers whenever they desire, and they can listen to lectures as many times as they need to in order to master the material.

SJSU was the first to offer college credit, which caused a torrent of online higher education experiments all over the country. So, when SJSU’s Spring semester fell short of expectations, it was potentially a huge setback. Turns out, the failure was premature.

According to SJSU Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs Ellen Junn, they ramped up orientation efforts for new students, improved email communications during the course, and added ways to encourage students to finish the course. “Everyone needs a little encouragement to stay on track. So we’ve added tools that help students gauge their progress and we’re checking in with individual students more often,” Junn said a statement.

One major issue plaguing the experiment is that Udacity and SJSU have opened up the course to high schoolers and part-time college students. According to the Wall Street Journal, “20% were high school students, 62% of students in the pilot were not regular San Jose students, and all of the matriculated ones had failed a remedial math class before.” In other words, students with sub-par performance dominated the class, driving down the scores.

I should note that there’s an additional level of complexity to the story. The problem of different student populations between online and offline is compounded by poor reporting methods used by SJSU. Both during the Spring and Summer classes, SJSU reported simple percentages of student outcomes. Contemporary education researchers, however, usually group students by age, gender, race, socioeconomic status, IQ, and/or educational experience. Instead, SJSU just releases the average scores of all the students (the graph above), even though the average MOOC student is much different from the average on-campus student.

Using modern techniques, instead of simple percentages, we’d likely see that the MOOC was both less of a failure in the Spring and less of a home-run in the Summer-saving everyone a big headache.

Update: Udacity spokesperson tells me that they will be releasing more sophisticated statistical analyses of the courses on September 4th, which is good, because The Chronicle Of Higher Education found out the online student population over the Summer was much different than in the Spring, which further complicates the issue.

Regardless of the outcomes (and the methods of assessment), this is all one big experiment, so we’ll have to patient with the outcome. I maintain, however, that SJSU will fundamentally change higher education as we know it.

[Image Credit: Flickr user roarofthefour]

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