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Online Teaching: Summer Wrap Up

August 11, 2008

It’s over. Late last night, I finished grading student work and posting final grades. There was something mildly cathartic about it. Normally, I feel a mixture of relief and sadness: relief because the semester is finally over, which typically means a bit of a breather, and sadness for nearly the exact same reason. As frustrated as I get with teaching, the fact is, I’m doing what I chose to do, and I do mostly feel lucky for that reason. And anybody who knows me really well knows that I have no faith catharsis; if I can wax philosophical for a few lines, I gave up on the possibility of letting go a long time ago. True to form, I refuse to completely let go of the hope that it might happen – but I expect it with the same level of optimism that I have about winning the lottery.

Posting the grades for my two online sections, however, produced a sensation that is as close to catharsis as I have probably ever come. Out of the two sections, I only actually met one student face to face, and I responded to some 200 + emails. I read and graded approximately 152 essays, 190 quizzes, and 380 summaries. I have next to no memory of any of these assignments, and, to be honest, there have been times in the past when I have read more papers than this. I only point out the numbers to remind myself of the work that is completed; as an educator, it’s difficult to know when we are being effective, and it’s next to impossible to gauge our progress in any meaningful way. So, I suppose numbers are as good a marker as any — though they are still woefully inadequate in terms of representing the level of work, both mine and my students.

Here at the end, my thoughts regarding digital education are still as reserved as when I began. I recognize the growth and influence of online courses as an inevitable shift in modern education. And sometimes, in the face of such inevitabilities, people panic. It is not enough to simply accept the changes that technology brings; we must be better, or we risk making ourselves irrelevant to the future. It is crucial that we put as much effort into creating digital space as we do into creating f2f space so that writing can happen.

Not seeing our students does not relieve us of the obligation to attempt to communicate with them, even though they will assume that we are sitting in front of our computer screen with bated breath, waiting to answer emails whenever they feel like sending them. We run the risk of being thought of as inaccessible because every student believes that sending 10 emails in 5 minutes at 2 in the morning, and receiving no reply means we are ignoring them — not that we are sleeping.

If I have learned anything — if I could sum up this experience into a neat sound bite — it would be this: we have as much to learn as our students do in coming to terms with what it means to teach and learn in a digital environment. And it is our responsibility to ensure that we are still teaching, and to ensure that students have the option to learn.

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