Why Online Teaching Turned Me Off

By Susan Sharpe
Sunday, April 3, 2005

My adventures in distance education began in the mid-1980s, when I designed and taught a children's literature course for teachers and other time-pressed adults, using the most advanced technology available at the time: the U.S. Postal Service. Then, in 1991, I had another idea. What about offering creative writing as a correspondence course? My administrators at Northern Virginia Community College were enthusiastic, but they wanted me to try a more modern version of distance teaching. Look, they said, here's this online thing you can do.

I was, by then, quite familiar with word processing, but only beginning to use e-mail. I went to a workshop at our Extended Learning Institute. On a big screen, a technician showed us a section from a colleague's psychology course, in which a dialogue scrolled down the page. The class was having a discussion. Wow! I signed up to teach my own course. We could all share poems and talk about them.

That first online creative writing course was the best one I ever had. I didn't even own a modem; I did my teaching in the English Department office on campus, with passing teachers looking over my shoulder.

"Susan, what are you doing?" some would ask.

"Teaching," I would respond, smugly.

The students and I poured a lot of pioneer energy into that online class. We all felt that we were doing something on the frontier. They did read one another's stories and poems, and they did talk to one another about them.

It was so exciting that at the end of the class I invited all the students to my house. The doorbell would ring, and a stranger would be standing there. "Hi, I'm Sara, are you . . . ?"

"Sara! Yes, with the wonderful poems about New Mexico." I think nearly a dozen came, and we all had this weird sensation of meeting a stranger whom we knew curiously well. And then one young woman and one young man gave each other a long, curious look. It turned out they had done some extracurricular e-mailing. Well, by jove, there's even flirting in the online class!

Encouraged by this experience, I set out to improve the course syllabus and to incorporate online discussion into my children's literature course. But a funny thing happened along the way, and it happened in such small increments of disillusionment that I can hardly recall them one by one.

At first, I took note that not everybody in creative writing had participated much in the online discussions and that some of the comments were disappointing. "I liked your story." That's not exactly illuminating. So I built more requirements into the syllabus: You have to respond three times in this unit; your response must be at least 100 words long; and it must refer to some specific sentence in the story, or, perhaps, give the writer feedback as to whether you can "see" his character.

Sometimes these requirements would produce a lively discussion about a single story, but other pieces would be ignored.

So I had to find rules for that, and I had to define the topic of each discussion so that people wouldn't go off on meaningless tangents. As my colleague Laura said, "You have to turn your syllabus into sound bites." I knew exactly what she meant. Unlike in a regular classroom, I was teaching in such tiny, prearranged steps that it was almost impossible to explain a complicated idea and sustain any discussion of it.

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