Wandering in the Online Wilderness - From Classroom to Online and Back Again - Some Observations

A few years ago I developed online versions of two of my courses that I had previously taught in the classroom (Introduction to Hebrew Bible and Introduction to Religious Studies and Theology). I am back in the classroom due to a reduction in online offerings but I would be willing to teach online given the opportunity. In this paper I will on my experiences and relevant literature to reflect on the logistics of teaching online, strategies for student engagement, and some of the benefits and challenges of both online and classroom instruction. Online teaching provides flexibility for both instructors and students but it raises new challenges not experienced in the classroom. Getting to know students, making sure that they understand instructions, and keeping them on task become more challenging without regular face-to-face interactions. Procrastination can be a problem for in-class courses, but it can be an even bigger challenge online. Teaching online challenges instructors to change or adapt their teaching strategies for a new environment. For instance classroom discussions can engage students and measure students’ understanding of course material, but these interactions become complicated in an online environment. Online discussions can be made interactive by posting topics to which students must give their own response along with replies to their classmates’ responses. These discussions and other graded activities, surveys, and quizzes can be used to monitor students’ progress. The primary difference I found is that while such monitoring can be done informally in class, these progress checks need to be more intentional for online classes. Further, it can be helpful to include such activities in the overall grade so that online students will be encouraged to complete them. Discussions and other assignments can be managed through various course management systems, but for institutions without such systems there are other options. I will briefly discuss alternatives such as Google apps, blogging platforms, and survey software. I was initially skeptical of online teaching but came to appreciate the flexibility it offered. There are still some drawbacks such as maintaining interactions and keeping students on task, but there are ways to address these concerns. I found that the failure and dropout rates were higher for online teaching than in the classroom. My fellow online instructors and I are still working on this, but effective advisement and communication at the beginning of the course may help. On the other hand, I was pleasantly surprised by the amount of effort online students put into the course compared to my in-class students who sit in the back of the room and do as little work as possible. I’m convinced that my online students realized that their grade was directly related to the amount of work they did thus they chose to work harder than their classroom counterparts. I will conclude with a few examples of how I have changed my in-class teaching strategies as a result of this experience.