To: ISP Curriculum Committee

From: Moti Nissani

Date: December 22, 1998

Subject: Online Classes


Marsha Richmond asked me to share in writing a few of the lessons I've learned from teaching online.

First of all, I plan to leave all class materials online, so if anyone is curious, s/he can simply visit and explore the various links.

The course I taught was GIS 3510: Intermediate Reading and Writing. I got the inspiration to do so from David Bowen's colloquium during the preceding term. From the start I set myself the goal (in part to meet the needs of two out-of-state students; in part for the challenge) to teach this class 100% online. So, I don't even know how some of my students look. There was no hardcover text; all the literature pertaining to this course--lectures, assignments, readings-- was available online.

Did I break copyright laws? I don't believe so. There is by now a vast library online of some of the best literature of all time. Students appreciate the savings and convenience of having everything online. Do you like Shakespeare? Arthur Conan Doyle? H. G. Wells? They are all there.

All through the course, I had serious computer difficulties, which at times stretched my patience to the breaking point. At the beginning I had no computer. Right now, during Christmas vacation, the webmaster unilaterally shut off access to the CLL server. At some point or another, I couldn't create links, couldn't connect to the internet, couldn't send e-mail . . . you get the picture, I am sure. In reality, this course was team-taught--by Tom Moeller and me. And this leads me to:

Recommendation #1: Before deciding to teach a strictly online course, make sure that a computer support person is available, and that s/he is willing (as Tom has been, many times) to come to your home at 10:00 p.m. to deal with this week's emergency. Make sure as well that the webmaster consults with you before introducing changes that affect your class.

For a while, I was on the verge of giving it up, in part for pedagogical reasons. I felt that something important was missing in this cyberspace business, and that the tremendous amount of time I was spending with the computer could be better spent, one-on-one, with my students. A couple of students were sounding that way too. Moreover, editing everything online is far more time-consuming than doing so on paper. But then things turned around. They turned around because most students were progressing faster than they might have in a traditional class. They turned around because most of the students were actually comfortable with this format. And they turned around because I was able to give each student far more individualized attention than I could in a traditional class. So overall, it was a great experience for me.

The student administrator of the teaching evaluations, David Nied, will send, under separate cover, all written comments of the teaching evaluations. I shall later send a copy (after the grades have been submitted), along with the relevant statistics. I think both will confirm my impression that students, overall, were happy.

Bear in mind that my comments are confined, for the most part, to the teaching of reading and writing. Most of our students are better speakers and listeners than they are writers and readers. In a traditional class, they can make up for reading deficiencies by listening; for writing deficiencies, but speaking. But in an online class, they can’t. For instance, all instructions in my course were given only in writing. So, online instruction presented them with a sink or read challenge. Thus, the medium itself—the need to rely on the written word, and only on the written word—tends by itself to improve students’ reading and writing skills.

One of Janet Schofding's papers in this class addressed similar issues:

All that said, one cannot ignore the biggest problem in this class. Because it never actually met, and because weak students are sometimes at a loss following written instructions, attrition rate was higher than usual (the grades tell the story: 6 As, 2 Bs, 1 C, 3 Is, 5 Xs). A couple of students, as well, were often frustrated and confused about what was going on. This leads me to:

Recommendation #2: Online instruction should be optional throughout the term. Let me illustrate this point with GIS 3510. Two sessions were offered this past term; one with me, the other with another instructor. Only 2 students signed up for his class, so it was cancelled. I would suggest, instead, a catalog listing of two sections with the same instructor, both at the same time and place ( a computer lab with ready access to the internet), but one online and the other offline. Students can register for only one section, but, at any time throughout the term, they can move back and forth from one section to another, according to their needs, abilities, or predilections. I am sure there is an equitable way of working out the workload problems this raises.

This last recommendation would address another problem. Some of the people who registered for this class lacked the requisite computer skills. In some cases, I was able to salvage the situation by teaching them how to access the internet and send e-mail. In other cases, they simply vanished.

And here is, of course, another advantage of an online class: besides teaching the subject matter, it sharpens students' computer skills.

I tried to get students involved in the computer conference, but they kept getting lost and confused, so I gave it up. They were also not terribly interested in this format, and had other means of inter-communication. Anyway, I showed Tom more user-friendly formats, which should be fairly easy to install in the future. So:

Recommendation #3: Establish a more user-friendly student conferencing format.

Will I do it again? Yes, with pleasure and with the conviction that reading and writing lend themselves well to online instruction. Would I recommend that we develop online instruction across the board? In the unlikely event that my recommendation #2 above is followed, if students have at all times a fallback option of traditional instruction with the same professor, my answer is yes.

Will providing online instruction help our recruitment? Again, if Recommendation #2 is adhered to, the answer is almost certainly yes. Many students enjoy the idea of not having to come to Detroit, or anywhere else for that matter, for their schooling. It's something new, exciting, different. They enjoy the feeling of taking courses online. If we follow my recommendation #2, the two formats are not in competition, but nicely complement each other. The fact that most students this past term chose the online section suggests that this optional format will increase the popularity of our program. Who knows? A recruitment genius out there might be able to bring in many students from outside the Detroit area!

Will all this computer business hasten the coming of "The Machine Stops" or "Brave New World"? I don’t think anyone knows the answer to this troubling question yet. So far, I see more freedom, not less. My students were free from paying hefty tithes to the publishing, oil, and car industries. They saved money and helped the environment. They were able to spend more time studying and reading, instead of worrying about parking and crime. As for me, I can now send editors a self-censored version of a paper, but can also put the real paper on the web. At the moment then, the legitimate philosophical concern about the computer age does not warrant, in my view, rejection of computer-aided instruction.

Perhaps the most important element in this complex equation is students' impressions. I would like to suggest that the committee invite online students (David's, Lisa's, and mine) to its deliberations. To that end, here are the names and e-mail addresses of former students of GIS 3510 (you don't need to copy this list: Marsha has the file!):

Audrey Gaither

LaDeanna Guy

Jeffrey R. Heyer

Michelle R. James

Aasit Kheperu

Debesh Lohani (Kathmandu, Nepal)

Carolyn Mills

David Nied

Prajna Pathak (Washington, DC)

Norah Reilly

Janet R. Schofding

Farah D. Udegbunam

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