Online Teaching and Learning: Mentoring is the key component.
Online and hybrid writing and literature courses are a great boon to literacy enthusiasts and to those who bemoan the loss of critical thinking skills in today's college student. While online students may believe that they will have an easier time in an online course; in reality, they must read and write more than they would in a traditional in-person course. They also have to more often rely on their ability to reason, interpret and respond to the requirements of the online course. This situation is true for all online courses.
However, while students are called to do more in an online environment, so are their instructors. Teachers cannot view teaching an online course as an opportunity to sit back and let the students do all of the work. We have a great responsibility to place ourselves in reach of the online student, and to find methods to extend our care and interest for each student through the online realm. One of the most creative experiences I have encountered as a teacher is to design and teach an online course.
I am currently teaching an online World Literature course: Contemporary Arab Writers. Students began the course by reading Cities of Salt, an excellent contemporary Arab novel by Abdelrahman Munif that depicts the discovery of oil in a fictional kingdom similar to Saudi Arabia. The book contains references to characters by their formal Arab names and sometimes by nickname. This is a confusing dilemma for a reader who is unfamiliar with Arab culture. My solution was to create an audio podcast of my intentions for the course in order to alleviate fears of my expectations. I let students know that they are learning together and that we should each contribute what we know or understand about unfamiliar terms and references. I would not quiz them on the terms. I also created a separate space on the course discussion board devoted to clarifying confusing terms in the book. So far, all students have been able to successfully complete their reading response assignments.
I also have kept the course design simple. My students have an extensive amount of reading to complete each week and they are encountering new concepts as they read. I decided I did not want to create a varied set of assignments in different parts of the course site. Therefore, each week they read 100 pages of text. Then they write a summary of their readings and an interpretive paragraph based on sections of the text. They also have a separate assignment that directly addresses course goals, such as learning about the concepts of plot and irony and schools of literary critics. There is quite a bit to think about in order to develop their responses. All of their responses must be posted on the discussion board in clearly designated weekly units. I decided to not create multiple paths within the course. Navigating multiple paths can be frustrating when they are not necessary to the course learning goals. We must remember that in online course design, sometimes less is more.
Finally, I am careful to be equitable in how I devote my time to my courses. I spend a couple of hours a week outside of my in-person courses grading work and prepping for our in-class discussions. To compensate in my online courses, I create a phone schedule for my students where I commit to speak with each of them by phone at least once before midterm, if for no other reason than to establish a more personal communication channel with each of them. I create audio and video podcasts where they can hear my voice or see me as I comment on a section of text. Online courses are wonderful for students who need flexibility, but teaching is about mentoring and care for the success of each student. That is still best accomplished through personal attention to their diverse learning styles and to their varied perspectives on the course topic.
I cannot write about online courses without mentioning MOOCs, Massive Open Online Courses. MOOCs are being piloted by several universities and other institutions. Three of the best known institutions who offer MOOCs are Harvard, MIT and a company named Coursera. MOOCs, are wonderful non-credit learning opportunities for the experienced, self-directed student. However, students who need a teacher-mentor may not do well in a MOOC. The typical online course still requires a significant mentoring component. The course designer must also be the teacher, and we must continue to develop new ways to mentor and support our students as they grow in their subject knowledge, literacy skills and critical thinking skills.