Sunday, 27 February 2011

Virtual teaching

Nobody is impressed by virtual teaching and learning nowadays, but I was early, teaching my first online course in 1999. I was in California, my students in Finland. The platform was primitive, but back then I was versed in html-writing and invented all the links and jumps that modern platforms do for you. What I realised soon, long before I started attending workshops, was that an online course must be as interactive as possible, that you must anticipate students' reactions, lead them into discussions you'd otherwise have in a classroom. Because if they just read texts on screen instead of in a book, there is not much point in it. Anyone who teaches online knows it, but I had no models to follow.

Very soon I started using Blackboard for my classroom courses, uploading materials, links, surveys, giving and grading quizzes, offering students to compensate for missed classes by writing a short response. Blackboard had a variety of quizzes, and I learned from a workshop that there must be variation in quizzes: multiple choice, True/False, matching. I learned a lot from workshops, elementary things such as setting goals, asking for self-evaluations, and other things that we do automatically in the classroom, but that have to be emulated in a virtual course. I also learned, from a very fruitful collaboration with a librarian, that you should not offer students web links, but ask them to search and evaluate. Sounds elementary, but at the beginning I was too eager to fill my course site with links.

What I learned from experience rather than workshops is how certain students benefit from online learning. Those students who sit in the back of the classroom and never open their mouth, but in a virtual classroom they have to talk, and they do. I've heard many happy comments on that.

I designed two courses in Finland and taught each of them twice before I handed them over to my PhD students. As far as I know they are still running, hopefully updated and modified. I also taught a hybrid course, “The Origins of Harry Potter”, with ten online sessions and an intensive week in the end.

I designed a course in Sweden and taught it several times. I've lost count of all platforms I have used. This is a big problem in online teaching. You spend weeks designing a course, using all the fancy features the platform has, compiling glossaries and indices and elaborate self-tests, and next term the university has changed the platform, and it is absolutely impossible to transfer your materials to the new one. Because each platform, or even each version of a platform, has its own features, and since the platforms compete, the features are incompatible. People who have never taught online think that you simply upload your course notes. It's a bit more sophisticated than that.

The masters course I taught last year at the Autonomous University of Barcelona used a platform that lacked some of the features I find helpful, and it was a bit clumsy to build, but it worked fine for teaching. When I agreed to teach the course again, it was my understanding that I had it all ready, but see, they have changed the platform. The new one is much more intricate, but I am not investing too much energy in it, since I am not sure I will teach it again, and if I will, that they will not change once more.

You may ask why I bother to teach online at all, as if I have nothing else to keep me busy. I like it because it's similar to guest lectures: you get new and unexpected reactions from students. Last year I had students from Spain, Argentina and Venezuela. I promise they had a different view of children's literature as compared to Swedish, Finnish or British students. And I feel rewarded when I hear from a virtual student, whom I may never meet in real life: “I never dare to speak in the classroom. This course gave me a chance to speak up”.

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