“All I Wanted to Do Was Teach Online:” Q&A with Leslie Bowman
In my continuing quest to establish myself as an online instructor, I’m doing as much as I can to learn about the nuances of this mode of teaching. Since January, I’ve belonged to a terrific networking group, ExclusiveEDU, based on Facebook. To further educate myself, I’m conducting occasional Q&As with members of the group, some of whom are highly experienced in online teaching. The first is Leslie Bowman.
Leslie is a career educator whose experience includes public schools and college teaching, instructional design, as well as training and professional development for online faculty. She is the author of Online Learning: A User Friendly Approach for High School and College Students and has presented topics in online teaching and learning at state and national conferences. She designs and teaches online courses in Criminal Justice, English, Educational Technology, Communications, and Writing. Leslie’s business, Academic Success and Writing Center, provides services for students (proofreading, editing, and writing instruction) and mentoring services for new online faculty.
Q&A with Leslie Bowman
When did you become an online instructor, and what inspired you to do so?
I started teaching online about 14 years ago. I was teaching at a local for-profit college campus and had to get a master’s degree and didn’t want to go to class. It was really hard finding inexpensive (as in state schools) master’s degrees online back then. I found one at Cal State. I got my master’s in 8 months by doubling and tripling up on classes (which we weren’t supposed to do, but no one was checking) and decided during that time that all I wanted to do was teach online. The rest is history.)
What’s your favorite aspect of being an online instructor?
Flexibility. I have mobility disabilities, and teaching online has allowed me to continue doing what I love for the past decade – teach! I also hate driving in work-day traffic, so I don’t have to do that. I can travel (and I do a lot of that). I don’t have to maintain a “work” wardrobe (except for a few conference presentation outfits for cold and warm weather that I wear maybe four times a year) and that’s great on the wallet.
What’s the most challenging aspect of being an online instructor?
This is a tough one because, honestly, I don’t find anything about teaching online unduly challenging. The job is challenging, as is any teaching job (I’ve taught in public schools and on college/university campuses). But there’s nothing any more challenging than any other teaching job. The challenges may be different, but they are good challenges that keep the career interesting and rewarding. I’m thinking primarily of helping students succeed in their learning. In a face-to-face setting, you meet with students in your office. Online, you talk on the phone or use computer-mediated communication. Some people find phone, chat, and email to be barriers to effective communication. For me, it’s just always been my preference. I connect with so many more students on an individual basis via computer-mediated communication than when I was on campus and only had a few minutes between classes or a few office hours by appointment. I love the infinite time and space for personalized communication in online teaching.
Back to the point, I would have to say that, for me, the biggest barrier, for me, is having to be stuck teaching in lock-step with pre-designed (canned) classes that are written and developed by instructional designers who have never taught a single online class. I much prefer teaching at schools that encourage instructors to write and design their own class material.
What’s the one thing you wish you’d known before becoming an online instructor – a piece of wisdom that would benefit someone just now getting into the field?
I’ve taught for a long time, more than 30 years, so nothing surprises me. I was prepared for computer-mediated communication in online teaching simply because I got my own graduate degree online, and I had participated in teaching and health online communities for years prior to embarking in an online degree program. I knew what to expect. And I knew what NOT to do based on some of my own online instructors. My very first ever online class was taught by Dr. Jason Baker, who is now at Regent University. He was an awesome role model and is directly responsible for my own beginning and current online-teaching practices. True, all my other subsequent instructors had some high expectations to reach and, sadly, while a couple came close, none of my own online instructors were as perfect as Jason. What everyone should be prepared for is the immediacy required by online students and also new online faculty need to be well-versed and practiced in using andragogy instead of pedagogy (most never even heard of andragogy, much less know how it works or use it in practice).
Name a few of your favorite tools and resources for your work in online teaching.
First let me address what I do NOT do. I don’t call students or talk to them on the phone unless it is totally unavoidable. And if I do talk to a student on the phone, I arrange for my supervisor or lead faculty to also be on the call. I am a huge believer in documentation, and too often phone calls get personal (they love to talk about themselves, and I’m not a trained advisor or counselor, so I steer clear of that sort of conversation). When an appointment is made to discuss an issue on the phone, and a supervisor is included, the student will stay on topic, and we get a lot done through the dialogue. Obviously this cannot happen often; so I just don’t do phone calls.
My favorite tools are text chat, and I’ll do voice chat only in group settings where instruction (remediation or extra challenges) are offered to all who wish to attend.
I like using prezi and livebinders as different ways to present information. I will also use voice recordings for announcements, specific clarification of assignments (from canned courses – I include necessary details in the course assignments I design myself).
What advice would you give someone just starting out in online teaching?
Design and teach a course privately (there are a lot of ways to do this that I’ve talked about on my blog). Perhaps arrange to TA or apprentice with an experienced online instructor. I strongly advise against jumping in with both feet first without some kind of online teaching experience.
Share some time-management tips for those juggling multiple classes.
Actually I’ve written a couple of blog posts about this – here they are :
- Managing multiple courses / schools / schedules
- Instructional Tasks and Responsibilities
- Course load: how much is too much?
Share some of your favorite grading tips.
Another topic I’ve written a lot about on my blog. I’ve also published a Kindle book Grading Made Fast and Easy.
Here are some more of my tips:
Every school has different requirements for faculty when it comes to grading turnaround. They also have different requirements in regard to exactly what kind of feedback faculty need to include on graded work.
I have taken part in training (notice I did not say I had taught for) schools that required 24-hour turnaround on grades. Along with an unreasonable turnaround, some of these schools also required individual, comprehensive, DIFFERENT, comments for each student.
Now I always provide individualized feedback on students’ work. I will duplicate writing and APA comments because there are some errors that most students will make; why write it a different way for each student? I have macro express set up to type those comments when I need them. These would be comments about title page, reference list, page headers, capital letters, commas, and the list goes on and on.
Content comments, however, I write “on the spot” as I’m reading the work, so these are different for each student.
My main pet peeve is with discussion feedback requirements. Some schools required individualized comments for each discussion grade. I don’t do that. Why? Because I’ve made comments throughout the week in the discussion area, and all students have received multiple individualized comments.
I asked about that in a couple of trainings. The answer: write another individualized comment in the gradebook with the grade because not all students read everything in the discussion. I strongly object to that way of thinking.
Students MUST read everything the instructor posts in the discussions, gradebook, and graded work. If they don’t, then as far as I’m concerned, that’s on them – not my problem. I’m not dealing with elementary kids here; I’m dealing with adults. And if they can’t read what they are supposed to read, then they need to suffer the natural consequences for those choices and actions.
I won’t teach for schools that have unreasonable assessment practices. I teach writing, and so my practices in assessment and feedback are set in stone and I will NOT change how I grade. My students receive all work back within 48 hours (discussion grades within 24). And every student receives personalized feedback with suggestions about how to improve in the areas that need improvement. I can do that for approximately 150 students easily in two 8-hour days. This means that on Monday and Tuesday every week, I am grading papers for 8 hours on both days.
How has online teaching changed since you entered the field?
I believe that expectations for students have decreased in the past decade. When I first started teaching online, we expected reading, writing, and participation – a lot of all three. We also expected due dates to be adhered to, and late work was a rarity. All of this has changed. Students receive more passes on late work and are not held to high standards, such as supporting discussion posts or written assignments with proven evidence in their work. In too many places, I’ve seen grade inflation taken way too far, and instructors have been asked to change grades at some schools. This phenomenon never happened when I first started teaching online.
What characteristics do you think an online instructor needs to possess?
The ability to work independently; the ability to read and type faster than the “norm”; excellent written communication skills; critical-thinking skills; Web-design and/or course-design experience; excellent discussion facilitation skills; the ability to provide substantive and personalized feedback on every assignment for each student – all this without spending 100 hours a week working.
Take a free online class to find out what it’s like, and make sure you have excellent time-management skills. Set academic goals and figure out how you will fit in 9-12 (and sometimes more) hours per week of school work in with and around work and family responsibilities. And most important of all, you have to be willing to make sacrifices at times (such as get up earlier in the morning to do school work, stay up later at night, skip that party at the bar with friends on Saturday night, and so forth).
What’s the most misunderstood aspect of online teaching? What are the myths?
The most misunderstood aspect of online teaching is the same as the most misunderstood aspect of online learning – that it is easier than face-to-face classes. Fact? Quite the opposite is true. Why? Very simply be cause reading and writing take far more time than listening and talking. What you can do in 10 hours in a face-to-face class (going to class and doing homework assignments) will take easily double that time in an online class. For instructors, 6 hours a week in class plus a couple of office hours plus grading time is easily doubled in an online class.