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Survivor!: When The Next Reality Show Is You Teaching Your First Internet Course

M Louise Ripley, M.B.A., Ph.D.
Professor of Marketing, Women’s Studies, and in Environmental Studies
School of Administrative Studies
Joseph E. Atkinson Faculty of Liberal and Professional Studies
York University
Toronto, Ontario

Presented at:
Conference on Emerging Issues in Business and Technology
Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, October 24-26, 2002

Published in Journal of Contemporary Business Issues (Fall 2002) 10:2, p. 1-7.


This paper is dedicated to my colleague and good friend, Professor Diane Jurkowski of York University, from whom I have learned a lot about teaching and a whole huge lot about survival with one’s sense of humour still intact.


Abstract

Numerous other articles will tell you what to do when teaching an Internet course; this one tells you what not to do, particularly when teaching one for the first time. It is a personal and frank account of how a middle-aged university professor tackled the challenge of teaching for the first time in a new technology, including general philosophies, words to the wise, costs and benefits, joys and sorrows, innovative ideas on bridging the gap between total ignorance of the web and mastery of enough of it to believe you could do it again, and details ranging from issues of technical advice (how much programming to learn) to fashion (what to wear to an Internet exam room?). 

[The pictures accompanying each section are the overheads I used when presenting the paper.] 

Introduction

There are literally thousands of academic articles, magazine stories, newspaper items, handbooks, texts, workshops, entire courses and degrees on the subject of teaching online. Just a small sampling of what is available both in print and online about teaching on the Internet reveals items that inform on general issues (Henderson 1999, Hicks Reid and George 2001, Jolliffe Ritter and Stevens 2001, Kaiden 2002, Kouki and Wright 1999, Peterson and Savenye 2001), address specific problems of technology and design (Aggarwal 2000, Goldman and Kaufman 2001, Hailey et. Al. 2001, Schweizer 1999, Sen and Al-Hawamdeh 2001, Spicer and Huang 2002, Toohey and Watson 2001) and present pedagogical models (Bradley and Oliver 2002, Coppola Hiltz and Rotter 2002, Henderson 1999, Miller 2002, Taylor 2002). Savenya Zane and Niemczyk (2001) provide an excellent review of the literature in this area. Research in online teaching addresses such varied topics as role playing (Bell 2001), tutoring (Barker 2002), teaching internationally (Alexander 2002), teaching tertiary students (Schrum and Hong 2002), teaching in the corporate university (Prestoungrange et al 2000), and teaching in specific disciplines such as Marketing (Eastman and Swift 2001), Nursing (Fonteyn 2002), and even in the theological seminary (Byer et al 2002). New journal titles reflect an increased interest in Internet teaching (Journal of Interactive Learning Research, Journal of Research on Technology in Education, Teaching Business Ethics). These sources will all tell you what to do to survive teaching an Internet course. What I want to tell you is what not to do.

I teach Marketing in the undergraduate business programme of a liberal arts college of a large urban university whose students are mainly commuters. For many years I had resisted Internet teaching. The term “resist” is perhaps too polite. As head of the Marketing Area, veteran of a quarter century of teaching experience, and holder of a treasured teaching award from the College alums, I had steadfastly refused to condescend to teach on the Internet. I cited among my many reasons the fact that while a straightforward numbers course like Accounting might possibly be transferred to web pages, surely a Marketing course would need the teamwork and interpersonal interaction that is part of a traditional classroom in order to continue to be the exciting worthwhile phenomenon that we want our students to experience and I questioned how that could possibly be accomplished online.

I owed a favour to a Dean, however, and in a moment of appreciative weakness, when pressed to teach the introductory Marketing course on the Internet so we could then promise our students the possibility of taking the entirety of their business degree online, I agreed to teach in an upcoming winter term not one but two new Internet courses. Not only had I never taken or taught courses on the Internet, but neither of these courses had ever been taught outside a traditional classroom by anyone in our university. There were fellow pioneers in other disciplines, and I began to talk to anyone anywhere who had taught anything on the Internet. I went to every workshop I could find, read dozens of books, journals, and magazines, searched the Internet and read online, and experienced increasingly serious attacks of panic wondering into what bottomless abyss I had unwittingly stumbled.

One of the things that finally convinced me I might be able to teach a course on the Internet was the enormous success of a colleague whose dynamic, personal and caring in-class teaching style I had admired for twenty years. Diane Jurkowski teaches Organizational Behaviour, which is as teamwork-oriented and interaction-dependent as Marketing, and she appeared to have mastered the challenge of bringing to the distant monitor screen the same enthusiasm and witty personal touch that enlivens her classrooms. Given that I had admired and learned from this woman’s teaching for decades, it is not surprising that when I set out to prepare to teach my first Internet courses I would talk to her. What is surprising, given how much I valued her advice, is that I did not listen to her. And that was the inspiration for this paper: to give you some tips about what not to do when teaching on the Internet, especially if it is your first time, and to do it at a conference where you may be more likely to listen to the words of a relative stranger than those of a close colleague. Here are ten major mistakes to avoid when teaching an Internet course.

Ten Things Not To Do When Teaching An Internet Course

1. Don’t Ignore The Advice Of People Who Went Before You 

This one is self-referential given the topic of the paper, but it bears repeating. Talk to people who have taught Internet courses and listen to what they tell you. Why would they lie to you? I refer here to genuine advice from colleagues whom you respect and who care about you; beyond the mire of pride-laden university political battles that led either Woody Allen or Henry Kissinger, depending on how you heard the story, to quip that the reason university politics are so vicious is that the stakes are so small, most colleagues have no reason to lie to you about Internet teaching, and the odds are slim that problems they have faced in each of seven different courses are things that will not also be a problem for you. Hearing the advice of colleagues who had taught on the Internet, my problem was not that I mistrusted their judgment or doubted their stories. It is just that Internet teaching is so very different from traditional classroom teaching that even when someone tells us directly that something will be a problem, as professors without Internet teaching experience we tend to convert their problems into ones we know from the classroom and assume that we will be able to handle it. The problems are not the same and neither are the solutions. Listen to the advice of experienced colleagues.

2. Don’t Expect To Hear Consistent Advice  

Realize that you will rarely hear consistent advice from any two people you consult. One colleague will tell you that a particular piece of software is superb while another will insist it is useless. One will recommend doing all your own programming while another will recommend leaving it to the computer experts. Some professors and students favour the idea of setting a time when everyone in the class will sit down together at their computers and have a live online chat. This may work for some classes, especially smaller ones, but in classes of seventy-five and more, I prefer to recognize that most people take an Internet course because they do not have to be in a particular place at a particular time. Teaching is an individual art and different things will work for different people. Listen to anyone who has advice to give you, but ultimately you will need to choose what works for you.   

3. Don’t Leave Preparation Until The Last Minute   

This rule accompanies practically every piece of advice ever given anywhere but most of us ignore it, especially those of us who thrive on deadlines, claiming we are more powerfully creative at the eleventh hour. We have all experienced times when we had to prepare at the last minute. I had always thought the concept of a teacher staying a week ahead of her students a pathetic joke until in my first university teaching job I was hired as a last-minute replacement to teach an esoteric area of a subject I had not worked with for more than five years. When I first agreed to teach the new Internet courses in that upcoming winter term, I had planned my schedule so I would be teaching only those two courses, envisioning cozy hours in my northern winter office working out all the details with nothing else to distract me. It was some seven months prior to the start of that winter course that I suddenly realized, with a lurch in the stomach familiar to first-time teachers and bungee jumpers, that in order to teach a course on the Internet starting in January, I was going to have to have everything ready to upload to the web in December. What had stretched before me as a long leisurely summer suddenly became a mad rush of preparation of materials for something I had never done before.

Preparing for an Internet course is not the same as preparing classroom lecture notes or exercises. It requires much more advanced planning than anything else you may ever have done and it requires a different conceptualization of course materials, moving from the linear model of printed material to the non-linear model of the web. Recognize from the moment you are first asked to mount an Internet course that it will take dozens if not hundreds of hours of preparation before the course even starts. One of the beauties of the web, particularly for a professor of Marketing, is its highly visual nature, but that nature also implies that while it will be possible to some extent to post some new material during a course, for the most part an Internet student can expect to see the course at the start and be able to work through the material at their own pace in the order they find most useful. It may be perfectly acceptable in an on-campus classroom to bring new materials with you to class each week, to surprise students with exercises not in the textbooks, to change the topic for the day if something happens in the news that relates to the course. Good teaching in fact demands such spontaneity even if it is meticulously planned ahead of time. But in an Internet course, you simply cannot leave things until the last minute and what you post to the web must be right the first time. In the words of our Associate Dean of Academic Affairs, “Prepare everything in advance, including scripting if you are taping lectures, then check and double-check that you have included everything and that everything is consistent; zero errors is the only acceptable level of errors.” (Spraakman, Interview 2002).

Timely presentation is also important because a course website serves as its own marketing tool, promoting what it offers. Many students find my courses and even my university through casual access to one of my course websites and for this reason I use no passwords. This is an area where you will hear conflicting advice, but my argument is that my university is not selling knowledge, but rather validating through the issuance of a degree the student’s acquisition of knowledge. If we are to accomplish that, the website must be there on time.

4. Don't Let The Course Take Over Your Whole Life 

Many experienced Internet professors tried to impress on me how easily an Internet course can take up every spare minute of your day, but this advice did not faze me because as a teacher who cares about my students I knew that one must often put in extra time to meet their needs. Marketing colleagues particularly, speaking in the jargon, advised me to be wary of setting early in the course expectations of service levels that I would then begin to feel overwhelmed in trying to meet. In a traditional class, we have some moderate amount of control over the appearing of our students; we see them in class and we set our office hours. On the Internet, you don’t see your students, but they still need your help, and you can control only when you respond to them, not when they approach you.

In the first week of an Internet course, it seems simple enough, and kind, to answer a student’s desperate plea for help when you happen to check your email on a Sunday afternoon. You may not feel so sympathetic when later in the course a student writes you on Sunday evening curtly demanding to know why she has not yet heard back from you regarding the message she posted that Sunday afternoon. Don’t plan to work twenty-four hours a day seven days a week. Recognizing that there will be times you will need to make yourself available in “off-hours” as all teachers do, try to set specific days and times when you will work on the course, or you may find yourself feeling that you never do anything but your Internet course. Don’t plan to do everything yourself. If you are entitled to help, ask for it. If there are funds or time-release available for preparation, equipment, or tutors, if there is technical help available, use it. Don’t spend time learning full details of new technologies unless you are interested; most universities now have excellent staff trained in these areas. 

5. Don't Make Extra Work For Yourself

The preparation and teaching of an Internet course itself will take care of providing you with far more work than you can imagine, especially the first time through. Do not make more work for yourself by trying to do too much or taking on responsibilities that belong to someone else. The fact that an Internet course may easily take up to three times as much work as an on-campus course is now a concern for many faculty unions in negotiations on workload. There are few easy answers, but there are some. The first is to try if at all possible to ensure that in your first Internet teaching experience, you are converting an already existing course rather than trying to invent a course and simultaneously create it for the web.

Don’t give students a trout; teach them to fish. Wherever possible, download responsibility for their success to them. When they email to ask about something, encourage them to go find the answer rather than just writing it out for them. It is easier for you to write “See Course Kit” than to write three paragraphs that you have already written but they did not read. Don’t try to keep too much track of student assignments and enrolment. They are adults and we owe it to them to let them take responsibility for their own participation; when there are many of them and only one of you, you owe it to yourself to give them as much responsibility as possible. Don’t back down on rules you had decided were important; every rule you allow a student to break is guaranteed to cost you time. When I first taught my marketing course with group work, I established the rule that after handing in the first assignment, people could leave a group but everyone kept the same first mark. Later, feeling sorry for people who had worked with difficult groups, I allowed a number of students to rewrite the first part. Not only did I then have extra papers to grade, but I lost the aspect of group work which I had most wanted to impress upon them, the fact that group members are responsible for making a group work. Decide on your rules and stick to them. Don’t spend a lot of time defending your policies. Internet students seem to feel freer to write and ask for justification of rules and procedures, perhaps because of the relative ease and seeming anonymity of email, but they rarely appear to actually want an explanation. I have created Policy Pages with full explanations of just about everything I do in my courses. If a student writes asking why they have to do something, I can then just email back a short note giving them the link to the Policy Page. For those who truly want to know why, it is all there in full detail and it is in the same place for all courses I teach, so I only have to write it once. For those who may just be blowing off steam, it is a lot easier response for me than writing out several paragraphs of explanation that they really did not want to begin with.

Don’t encourage private correspondence. If a student writes a private question the answer to which should be open, post it on the common Discussion Group, just as you would request of a student who asks such a question during a classroom break that they ask it in class. It might be something to do with an upcoming test where to speak only to one student would be unfair, or it might be a problem from the student’s project work that you feel would make a good example for explaining a difficult concept. Make use of automated responses; keep “boilerplate” replies in an email file. Post grades and examples of full-credit answers on the web site using numbers to stand for different comments, and then post only the numbers for each student and a common list of what they stand for. Don’t accept the computer-age equivalent of “my-dog-ate-it.” Broken printers, non-functioning email, the net being down, are all problems a university student should be able to cope with, and every excuse you accept not only creates more work for you but is usually unfair to students who handed in their work on time.  

Don’t try too hard to be helpful to those you may not be able to help. The 80/20 rule kicks in quickly in Internet courses; a small percentage of students can devour your time with endless problems they ought to be able to figure out on their own, leaving you with no time for the fun part of Internet teaching, which is interacting with students who are keen to learn. Remember also that few of us are trained psychologists and more serious problems are better referred to a Counselling Centre.

6. Don’t Try to Create An Internet Course By 
Just Uploading Current Course Materials

Don’t ever think of an Internet course as just like an on-campus one except the lectures are on the computer screen. Creation of a successful Internet course starts at its conceptualization. From the moment you start designing, think “web” and consider all that is available to you that would not be feasible in a traditional class. One benefit of designing an Internet course is that it can breathe new life into courses that may have become stale over years of teaching. Think of it as a chance to change things in your current teaching that you would like to do differently. Why send an audio/video stream of you standing lecturing in front of an in-class course when you never liked lecturing in the first place and we all know it is not an effective way for students to learn. The web provides exciting and different new ways to teach. Make use of them.

Copyright laws allow for duplication of materials at no cost for use in the classroom and for replication of such things as advertisements for projection on an overhead screen, but you may not post such writing or images on the web without specific and often costly copyright permission. Check with your textbook publishers who are usually involved in Internet course production and have material already cleared for copyright often at no additional cost. Provide links to other web sites. If you are talking about the mission statement of Coca-Cola, provide a link to their web page where students can read the statement for themselves. You do not generally have to ask permission to link to a commercial site. If you want a simplified explanation of a concept, check out links to pages designed by public school teachers. In my Marketing Research pages, I use a wonderful explanation of the scientific method provided by a junior high school teacher. Students will go look at a link you provide; they would be insulted if you were to suggest they go to the library and borrow a seventh grade textbook. If you want to take something from the web into your own site, you must ask permission, but most people who produce web sites are delighted if you want to use something from their site. Always ask; something to the effect of, “Unless I hear from you to the contrary, I will be posting it here” with a link to your site, reduces required correspondence. I have always heard back and no one has ever said no, and usually I receive back an email bubbling over with excitement that someone noticed the site. Give assignments that require students to search for and evaluate web information. Book companies often provide online Study Guides and self-study quizzes that you can arrange to have electronically marked and returned, either for credit or not. Companies provide online facilities for creating crossword puzzles and other games incorporating your course material.

Many traditional classroom components can be easily adapted for an Internet course. My course websites pose numerous “Waving Hand Exercise” questions for students to think about and respond to in the Discussion Group. These are identified by an animated graphic of a waving hand, a nod of recognition to the origin of the exercise, the classroom question in response to which a student raises a hand. You can often hold a discussion on a case study online more effectively than in a classroom where few may have read it for that day. You can do group decision-making exercises. One of my favourites is “Alligator River” which challenges students to rate from least offensive to most, the ethical behaviour of six different people in a story where no one is innocent.  

Group work is not only possible on the Internet; it is actually easier. In the last many years with the sad fact of even full-time students working nearly full-time to support themselves leaving the possibilities of free meeting times outside of class reduced to Sunday afternoon or Wednesday at three in the morning, a large percentage of students have already been doing the majority of their group work by email. An Internet group assignment that gives students permission to do all their group work by email relieves guilt as well as saving time. The possibility for cross-cultural learning is an added benefit. One term a student in Egypt worked in a group with one in the wilds of northern British Columbia, while in another group a woman in Florida about to give birth worked in a group with a young full-time student in Georgia and an older executive taking courses part time in Canada.  

7. Don’t Expect More From Online Students 

While the Internet provides exciting new ways to reach students, it is important to remember that they are still at heart the same students you have known in the classroom, with the same needs and shortcomings. There is a strong tendency to think that because these brave souls are studying in a new way with new tools and new vision, they are forward-thinking advance-planners who will therefore read instructions and prepare work ahead of time. They generally won’t. A number of experienced Internet colleagues warned me that Internet students do not read instructions any more than traditional ones, and despite their universal agreement, I was certain that they must all be wrong. Clearly, to me, any student who was possessed of enough self-motivation and awareness of their own academic skills to enrol in a course taken through the Internet would obviously be the kind of student who actually prepared readings ahead of time, started assignments early, and found materials on their own, knowing as they would that they would have neither an in-class professor nor even fellow students to easily consult with when in need of help. I was eager to teach such students; I had daydreams of a class where, since there was no classroom to which to come empty-handed on a due-date, everyone would send in their work on time and come to the computer screen fully prepared for the discussions on the readings. My colleagues, again, did not lie to me. Students who take Internet courses are not much different from those in traditional courses, especially in the crucial areas of reading instructions, responding to professorial requests, and preparing ahead of time. Among the top four problems that staff listed in an informal survey of the difficulties they experience with Internet courses was the large number of inquiries they receive from students regarding information that is already provided on the website. In cases where in a traditional classroom you would demonstrate something in person, try to find ways you can do that same demonstration online, either through a video-stream, a series of PowerPoint slides, or audio instructions with still-photographs. One colleague created a step-by-step PowerPoint explanation of how to prepare a paper for submission to his Internet course (Saindon, Interview 2001).

Adjust your expectations to student behaviour. At one point when I offered an Internet course test on two different nights to accommodate schedules, I emailed a class of seventy-seven students to request that they tell me on which night they would be taking the test. Only nine wrote me in time to be of any use; ultimately only 44% wrote back at all, and 73% of those took more than a week to do so. You cannot count on quick response time and hence might as well not ask such questions. I now simply reserve a room big enough to hold the entire class on both nights I am offering a test.

Internet students still need deadlines. One of the real challenges of Internet teaching is finding innovative ways to create deadlines while avoiding the rigidity of week-by-week work. Some professors, for example, require students to respond to specific Discussion Group topics within a two-week time frame, but this does not work in a class where I am trying to provide a truly flexible learning experience.  What I have done instead is to provide optional assignments, each consisting of an early part of the final assignment, which students may complete by a certain date and send to me for individual grade-free feedback. This was one of literally dozens of ideas I learned in the months before teaching my first Internet course by surveying my then-current students on what they liked and hated about Internet courses they had taken.

Internet students need to reach us, and in some ways, with their busy schedules, you can be more available to them through email than in a traditional classroom, particularly in classes that meet only once a week and for students who are also working. For many years I held “office hours” for my evening students but few ever came; they work all day and get to campus only for class. On the Internet, they can reach me anytime and I get back to them quickly. The timing of reaching a professor is important. A student writing a paper at eleven o’clock at night would never telephone me to ask a question but well might email me and have a reply in ten minutes if I am online, which they know I usually am.

Internet course facilities are useful to students who need extra help. If someone raises her hand in class and says that despite fifteen minutes work on an item in the classroom she still does not understand, I can keep the whole class waiting while I go over it once again or I can ask her to come see me after class and hope she does not have a train to catch. On the email in an Internet course, that student can write me and receive the individual help she needs. I can block and copy the student’s exact words and write a personalized note that says, “See, here’s where you went wrong.” If what I am explaining to her is something that others have asked about or appears to be something arising out of unclear explanations, I can post her question anonymously, with my answer, to the general email list. Students also can express themselves at greater length than would be feasible in a classroom where other students begin to roll their eyes and you feel that as the professor you must move things along. If someone wants to write a long piece on the Discussion Group, others can feel free to read the first few lines and move on. I read them all, sometimes finding gems in the later part that might have been lost if I had had to gently cut the student short in a classroom discussion.

Remember that your Internet students may still feel more comfortable with some old-fashioned printed material. Although all my course materials are online, students receive a long and detailed letter in the mail about a month before classes start, outlining the important rules and giving them links and email addresses to which to refer. Don’t leave anything unclear; lay it out in the letter and the course kit. Many years ago at a conference of the American Marketing Association, I heard award-winning teacher, scholar, textbook author, and friend Bill Perreault speak on teaching large classes. At that time my classes had swelled to sixty from thirty-five and I was feeling a little hard done by, until I learned that by “large” Bill meant eight hundred Introductory Marketing students in one class. Among the many superb suggestions Bill gave, most of which I have implemented over the years, he talked about a course kit that was in essence a legal contract. He drew it up, gave it to the students, asked them to read it, and, as a condition of staying in the course to sign and return the attached agreement form. Then when students asked, “Can I hand this in late? I’m going on a skiing trip to Vermont,” Bill would say, “Well, hey, it’s okay by me personally, I’d love to go skiing myself, but we have this agreement; let’s go see what the course kit says,” and, opening it up, poring through it, pointing finally to Article 10, Subsection 3, Paragraph 4, he’d say, “Oops! No can do. The course kit says you can’t hand it in late. Guess you’ll have to get it done BEFORE the ski trip.” The course kit, letter, and web site establish a formal agreement between you and the student. In the words of an Associate Dean responsible for overseeing Internet courses, “Be explicit on what you will deliver and deliver on your commitments.” (Spraakman, Interview March 2002)

The occasional student does not even realize there is any difference whatsoever between your Internet class and another on-campus section of the same course. A colleague recently received a telephone call just before the midterm exam from an irate student angry that everything in the course seemed to be done on computer and he did not have one. When it was pointed out to him that the course syllabus specifically states that one must either have the necessary computer equipment or make use of that provided in the on-campus computer labs, it became apparent that he was unaware he was taking an Internet course. Don’t forget that your Internet students are still students in need of guidance. 

8. Don't Underestimate The Power And Problems of Technology 

Although some colleagues recommend leaving all the technical work in an Internet course to computer experts, I advise you to not shirk off too much of the technical responsibility. You learn a lot doing things yourself, and when something goes wrong you may be able to fix it instead of waiting in queue for your service ticket number to come up. You also will be better equipped to help your students with pages whose construction you understand. I am largely self-taught on the computer, including web design, and I have created an entire page called “The Idiot’s Guide To Using This Web Site” out of things I learned from my own silly mistakes. The major piece of advice I offer new designers of web sites is to not try to be Michelangelo and paint the Sistine Chapel. Keep things simple, consistent, terse; concentrate on content and but without losing sight of the importance of the visual effect of the web site.

A major rule of technology is to not assume it will work perfectly. A staff member responding to a survey of problems encountered in Internet courses cited, “Dealing with students who are not able to access their course websites or courseroom/chatrooms, and limited computing support for both students and faculty.” (Glynn, Interview 2002). Testing is still difficult in Internet courses. We require students to appear in person for a supervised test, either on campus or with an invigilator elsewhere. Technology exists for online testing but so far it is best used for optional feedback where the grade does not count. We lack reliable ways to determine exactly who is sitting at the computer or who or what may be with them while they take an online test.

Remember that things written in email can have an unexpected impact; something you might say in jest with a gentle wink can appear snide or arrogant on the screen. email does provide the possibility of a cooling-down moment. When a student says something unpleasant in class, you usually must deal with it right then and hope you do it adequately; when a student writes something nasty on the email, you can wait and calm down before you handle it; you can even call for outside help first. One writer cautions us about the potential for flaming (vicious email notes) brought on by problems in Internet courses common to students with “(a) a low frustration threshold, (b) a sense that they are victims of technology or other peoples’ lack of understanding and (c) a tendency to overstate problems, overreact to them, and lash out.” (Hailey et al 2001:389). Before posting anything, on the web or in email, re-read at least twice and ask yourself, “What are the possible consequences of this message?” (Jurkowski, Interview 2002).

9. Don't Lose Yourself or What You Stand For 

Although this paper starts out advising you to listen to anyone who has done this before, you also are advised not to try to replicate what someone else has done on the Internet. Keep your materials and organization true to your own style, and take care of yourself in the process. Do what you love doing and do not be afraid to admit that you like some of the Internet course advantages such as not having to meet students each week or be on campus late at night in the icy middle of February.

Teaching an Internet course is a good time to put into practice an ancient piece of advice that suggests we remember that in all things most people are doing the best they can. Do not waste precious time and energy getting angry with students, computer staff, your hardware, or yourself. Everyone is doing the best they can. The lack of human elements such as eye contact and gestures in Internet language can often spark annoyance where no malice was intended. I try to read every message as moderately as I can; that way, even if someone is angry with me, they do not rouse my anger. Don’t rise to the bait. You will eventually see students, usually at an in-class test, and you will feel bad if you have been angry with them. Students may write long detailed explanations of why they did poorly on a test, setting up for a potential appeal or perhaps just letting off steam. Don’t deal with it as a problem until it becomes one. Find simple answers such as, “Well, do your best on the next one.” Don’t lecture them. If someone does something really stupid, like the woman who discovered one week before the end of term that she had been using the wrong textbook despite an actual picture of the front of the book prominently displayed at the top of the course website, she does not need a lecture on reading instructions more carefully; just find a quick answer that respects her dignity and still maintains the standards of a university course.

10. Don't Forget To Have Fun. 

I have really enjoyed the experience of teaching on the Internet, so much so that I have made it a regular part of my teaching and I look forward to it. I found it an invigorating challenge in my mid-fifties when many things at my university were beginning to seem dull and repetitious. The challenge of designing and teaching with a totally new technology rejuvenated me. It was an enjoyable intellectual challenge to take more than twenty years worth of copious classroom notes, overheads, stories, cases, assignments, and tasks and convert them into web pages, an exercise that forces you to rethink content, structure, method, and order of presentation.

I truly enjoy the pleasant hours I spend looking for pictures for the website. If this sounds shallow, realize that I teach marketing which is all about packaging and presentation, but realize too that the web makes use of a channel of knowledge highly appropriate to our visually oriented students. A solid page of prose looks pretty dreary on the web so I had to call on my creative design capabilities in a far more major way than I ever had in all my years of classroom teaching. I found it a tremendous challenge, for example, to track down a picture that would encapsulate an entire concept. I knew the words from reading books and doing research and talking for years in class, but in a web course on Marketing I needed a picture too, to break up the page, to add white space and interest and appeal, but it could not be just any picture; it had to serve a purpose. In essence, I had to have a site that would “market” itself to the reader, and it has been fun working with that.

I do not paint or sculpt or fish or hunt or do needlepoint or crafts or woodworking or build model cars or planes; designing and maintaining my web page is my creative outlet. I am enjoying being able “to be of use” as John Irving phrased it in The Cider House Rules. The fact that I am almost completely self-taught has meant that I can be helpful to my students in a way I never could in a traditional classroom, giving specific individually tailored answers to problems I have recently faced myself. It makes the students feel comfortable and I feel good having helped them. If most of what I enjoy about Internet teaching has to do with helping students, it is not selfless altruism; when my students are happy, my life is a lot easier, and in these days of such large classes, it feels good to hear from a student about how much help you were. It has replaced the personal touch that got lost in fourth-year-honours seminars of eighty students.

Conclusion

I had been teaching, and living a fairly fearless life, for a quarter of a century when I was asked to teach my first Internet course and I was scared to death. It was so different from anything I had ever done. It was perhaps finally tenure that rescued me. I realized that at the very worst, if I fell flat on my face, I would not lose my job for trying something new. Do not underestimate the fear involved in teaching a course for the first time with new technology. There may be some of you who do not experience fear, but for most of us, an Internet course is different from anything we have ever done in the classroom and it makes sense that it would be scary. Remember too what we tell our students is the single best solution for fear: be as fully prepared as you possibly can.

We go into an Internet course lacking most of our traditional tools of the trade. When we write on the Internet we appear as just the disembodied voice of authority demanding, instructing, complaining, correcting. When we do these same things in class, our facial gestures and body movements blunt some of the severity or unpleasantness of what we may have to say. We don’t even have our wardrobes to rely on. One of my students told me after the course about a comment made by the man sitting beside her on the day of the test when I had come early to meet and chat with them. He had said of me, “She doesn’t look at all like I thought she would. I thought she’d be really tough, hard, you know, all business.” I laughed and replied to the woman student, “And now you know why I wore a long skirt and soft jacket that night!” How do we appear to our students as we would like them to see us when they cannot see us? How do we encourage students to respond warmly and personally without encouraging tons of personal email? How do we strike the balance between cold and warm, between technology and humanity, between tough and approachable, all these dichotomies that are important in any classroom but crucial on the Internet? We do it by using new technology to bring into the classroom the same care and concern for our students that we have always had.

The challenge of an Internet course was how to recreate the fun, the intimacy, the spontaneity, the human element of the classroom. It is by no means impossible; it just may take a little longer and it will take thinking outside the box. The rewards are worth it. One of the things that surprised me most was how much contact I had with my Internet students, how well I got to know so many of them, and how close I felt to them. I had feared in my first Internet course that it would be a cold distant relationship without the warmth of classroom face-to-face. Surprisingly, students seemed more willing to talk, to open up, perhaps because of the distance provided by email. I felt comfortable responding to them warmly, helping them out when they were feeling lost, sharing my experience with them. And they in turn share their lives with me and with each other. This past summer we received baby pictures by email from a student who had been pregnant while taking the winter course.

It is fun teaching on the Internet; it truly is. Don’t let some shortcomings and difficulties deter you. There are always problems; the key to success is in how we deal with them.  

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York University, Toronto
M Louise Ripley, M.B.A., Ph.D.