by Lynn Clement
Last week was the start of my 2020 spring semester and although much of it was very familiar, it will be unique because it’s the first time I will be teaching entirely online. I first started teaching online courses 6 years ago after the birth of my daughter and thus it was an experience borne (pun intended) of necessity. Back then I was hesitant to accept the appointment, even though I knew teaching online would provide an income while also allowing me to remaining home with my child, because of the preconceived notions I had. I had doubt in the effectiveness of the medium, the caliber of the students, and my ability to find the same enjoyment or innovation in comparison to the traditional face-to-face class.
I’m happy to report that I was wrong on all counts and just as my effectiveness in the classroom has evolved over time, my effectiveness as an online instructor has gown with experience and experimentation.
Like in a traditional classroom setting, I begin my online semester with introductions. Not only does this allow students to get to know each other, it gives me a chance to learn a little more about who I’ll be working with, and vice versa. I was struck, particularly this semester, by what I read in these autobiographies: so many of my students where taking my courses online for reasons similar to why I was teaching them. People with full time families, with full time jobs, with illnesses, without transportation. People working on second degrees, people with GEDs, people in high school, or home school. Motivated, intelligent people with so many varied circumstances of life coming together in one online forum to explore art and its history together.
Continuing this sympathetic attitude and open communication beyond the first week has been a key to success in teaching a quality online course. In addition to being very clear about my time constraints, I am also very clear that during the week I am open to questions, open to suggestions, and available for guidance. I once had a student tell me that she’d never had an online instructor be so “present”. I was pleased by this, but also surprised. Since then, I’ve tried to be “there” even more for my online students.
Clarity in requirements and expectations is also a necessity. This means a lot of writing and revising of assignments and syllabi and it means being realistic about expectations. After my first semester teaching online, and deciding that it was something that I wanted to continue, I took an online teaching certification course that made a huge difference in this regard. The biggest lesson I learned was to avoid overloading my online course with too many assignments. There can be a tendency to over-compensate with an online course and increase the academic rigor to make up for the bad rap it gets. However, this can make the course overwhelming for both student and professor. Instead, I was advised to think of creative assignments that would enhance student experience and activities that didn’t compete or recreate a face to face class, but that enhance what the online format can offer. I have papers that center around experiencing, analyzing, and critiquing how art is experienced online. Students seem to enjoy these exercises, and many are even inspired to travel to see things in person.
I’ve learned that teaching an online class means fine-tuning every semester, not only in terms of content, but also in my use of technology. In just 6 years, things have already changed so much. Innovating classes can be impossible to do during the year, but I try to use my summers “off” to implement and experiment with the new advancements in online learning. 2020 will bring my attempts at creating my own “podcast” for students to listen to lectures, incorporating voice recording over my power points to walk students through visual analysis, interactive, jeopardy style quizzes that allow students to work together, or battle each other, and skype “office hours”.
I’ve got an amazing set of students this semester and I can’t wait to get started.