Online Seminars

This is our second guest post by Dr Karen Cullen. Karen is part of the L+T team in the School of Media and Communication at RMIT, Melbourne. A new arrival in Melbourne, she was previously a research active historian teaching in Scottish universities primarily utilising online and blended learning techniques.

Image by: gruntzooki

I’ve had a bit of a hate-love attitude towards online teaching. It is hard, really hard, to do well, especially when you are inexperienced. You often don’t get to see the students or hear their voices, there are no body language cues, often just cold, hard words on a screen. So why do it? Students who learn online are frequently exceedingly well motivated, committed to learning online because of distance, finance, health or other reasons, and they often interact with their tutor much more than standard face-to-face students. Over time I have come to realise the positives of online teaching and now really enjoy it, but my first experience was awful!

One year out of postgrad studies I found myself teaching an online course to a group of 30 first year students. The course material was new to me and so was online teaching. I was told that I had to include a weekly online chat session for the students (if you are unfamiliar with this think MS Messenger or the chat function on Facebook on a large scale), but that since many were in full-time employment the attendance would probably not be very high. Thankfully this proved correct, only eight students attended. A colleague had advised me to keep the focus of the first session open (big mistake!), allow students time to discuss any problems they were experiencing with the course etc. That worked well for about the first ten minutes or so. I introduced myself, so did the students. We then engaged in some Q+A about how they were getting on. Now, I rate myself as a pretty decent touch-typer, but even with outstanding typing skills there was no way I – or the students – could have kept up with the flurry of random questions, answers and comments that were flying up my screen. As I answered one student’s question another two appeared on the screen and the answers then came out of sequence. It was a mess. By the time I ended the session I had managed to answer the students’ questions, but I was exhausted – my fingers ached and my eyes felt like they were bleeding. Not a welcome introduction to online teaching.

Determined to do better the second time, I did a bit of research and came across some simple, but very effective means of structuring a group chat session (some useful general ideas). I posted several ‘room layouts’ on Blackboard (the Learning Management System) before the session and explained to students that they needed to have a copy of these on hand for the next session. Each student was allocated a seat in each of the rooms – one was classroom style in which the tutor was at the front doing the talking while students listened. The next was small group style, a third was in a circle for open discussion. I explained to the students that when we entered the chat session I would identify which ‘room’ we were in and this would set the tone for how we would conduct our discussion. The next class was so much more relaxed, I switched room styles several times to enable time for discussion and to permit me to address bigger issues. Other rules of ‘chatiquette’  helped me to control the session and its tempo, avoid chaos and provide a much more structured and useful session.

In the years since, I have taught a range of online courses but I have done very few online chat sessions. Instead, I have found many more productive means of teaching online (Skype, which also has its difficulties – video-conference –  my preferred choice, not without its own technical and teaching-related challenges), but what that first experience taught me is that online teaching takes much, much more preparation than many face-to-face teaching scenarios. Considering the technical and practical aspects of online teaching can often be as time-consuming as academic issues. I can honestly say that I really enjoying teaching online now, but perhaps some better understanding of online teaching and learning might have helped me to reach this point a lot sooner!

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