The more things change: teaching in an online classroom

Leo wrote a desperate note, again, explaining why his assignment was late. Laura wanted another shot at the quiz. Phuong wouldn't stop contributing to the discussion, but I had to keep inviting Janie to participate, reminding her it was part of her grade.

Sound like a normal class? Well, yes and no.

In my first year teaching online, I have been amused to discover that class dynamics remain the same, whether in a conventional classroom or in a virtual one, to which students can log on and weigh in from all over the country - and the world.

Because of a nationwide teacher shortage, educators interested in professional development are now seeking alternatives to going back to school full time. Teaching and learning online seems one cost-effective solution. So when I was asked to instruct a course for teachers preparing to teach advanced-placement English literature and composition, I accepted, mostly out of curiosity.

I have taught high school students and teachers for decades, but always the old-fashioned way: I go somewhere to meet people who come from somewhere so we can all look at one another and discuss literature. I can tell if my students are engaged or sleepy; when they are unprepared, I can look them in the eye and ask them why. They can't hide.

So I approached my first online group - 12 practicing teachers from all over the country - with some skepticism. Our class was asynchronous, which means that we did not meet in a chat room, nor did we all have to be online at the same time. At the beginning of each of the course's eight weeks, I initiated a discussion. Then, throughout the week, my teacher-students would respond to me and to one another.

When discussion got out of hand - and it did online just as it does on the ground - I intervened with a comment that steered us back to poetry or prose or writing. Our discussions were open to everyone's views, but while Phoung's virtual hand seemed to shoot into the virtual air before I could click "submit," some people goofed off. Others posted careless or ungrammatical comments.

Just as a good teacher does not humiliate a student in a regular class, I could not chide these adult learners publicly for their slip-ups.

So I contacted them personally over e-mail. "You might want to proofread your entries before submitting them," I would suggest, or, "Your brief comment about 'Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead' hints at a deeper insight. Perhaps you'd like to explore that further?"

Sometimes it worked, and sometimes it didn't.

For one teacher, it was clearly a boon. He worked for days on the year-long syllabus that was the final assignment. Would he have felt comfortable asking as many questions if we had been meeting face to face? If we had a conventional class, could he have contacted me privately at 9 at night, and would I have answered him encouragingly at 10 or 11 p.m., or early the next morning? Of course not. Though he ultimately expressed disappointment in his own syllabus, he had a dozen other syllabi from his fellow teacher-students, accompanied by my comments, to download and examine.

Nora, a 22-year-old, poorly educated teacher from an urban school, also made me less skeptical about the whole enterprise. After a week in the course, she wrote me a private e-mail, worrying that she was in over her head, and wondering whether she should drop out. Over e-mail, I was able to give her extra help preparing to teach AP English, a course she had not taken herself.

As the course progressed, I became more concerned about her lack of preparation.

She wrote in sentence fragments. She was not pretentious, but like several others in the course, she was shockingly ignorant. For example, she and a few of her classmates admitted to never having read "Hamlet," which certainly made it difficult for them to examine Tom Stoppard's "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead," a play written from the point of view of some minor characters in "Hamlet." Most of those who hadn't previously read "Hamlet" seemed pleased to tackle it, and, not surprisingly, they were blown away.

Still, I knew that, prepared or not, Nora would soon be teaching AP English students. I also knew that she would not have had time to enroll in a course that required her to attend in person.

So, is online teaching a good idea? Maybe. I can't imagine its being effective with the majority of high school students. But for Susan in Alaska, and Teresa teaching full time with a new baby, and Aden far from an urban center, an online course can provide a forum for intellectual exchange and practical ideas. And Nora, whose school wouldn't pay her $500 course tuition, knows she needs help. An online course just might give her the chance to begin to pursue the education she never got.

Ellen Greenblatt is a College Board advanced placement consultant, teacher at San Francisco University High School, and online instructor for UCLA Extension.

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