Reaching Students Who Would Never Be Able to Go to College if it Were Not Online: Q&A with Dr. Tara Ross

Here’s the next in my series of Q&As with online professors who are members of the great networking group I’m in ExclusiveEDU. Through these interviews, I’m learning a great deal about this profession as I enter it myself. I’ll bet you’ll learn a lot, too.

office photo 1Tara Ross bio in her own words: I am a former college administrator and current college professor. I have taught political-science courses since 1999, in both face-to-face and online delivery formats. I have led accreditation projects, developed new programs, and designed curriculum and online courses. With my PhD in educational leadership and my MA in international affairs, my goal is to expand into teaching education courses, work in international education, and pursue my research interests. I am passionate about the transformative power of education in the lives of vulnerable populations, especially refugees, which has been the focus of my research. I am also passionate about travel and exploration, which I enjoy doing with my husband and two teenage boys. I live in Sarasota, FL, and when I’m not teaching or traveling I’m probably out on the water, taking photos of my kids waterskiing for the Sarasota Ski-a-Rees (see bottom of this post).

Q&A with Dr. Tara Ross

When did you become an online instructor, and what inspired you to do so?

I first taught online in May of 2000 when an opening became available at the college where I taught political science. The school began its online program the year before, and it took me a year to get a position teaching online because it was so new that enrollment needed to grow to justify an adjunct teaching another section of American government. I’ve been teaching online there ever since.

I think I was inspired by online because of the convenience factor, but also because of its democratizing effect on education. Like the Internet before it, online learning had the potential to reach people who would never have otherwise had the opportunity to explore beyond their borders. I remember the year I started teaching online, I was talking with a good friend of my mother’s who had been living in the Sudan. She and her husband worked with USAID (US Agency for International Development) on disease eradication in Africa. She asked about this new technology in which students were taking classes online, and never seeing their teacher or their other classmates. “But students need that interaction … that social presence with their teacher and their classmates, Tara!” she said in her soft, Southern drawl. I replied in a way that I knew she could appreciate. “We are interacting, and I get to know these students better than the ones I teach face to face. Plus, I’m reaching students who would never be able to go to college at all if it were not online – working parents, adult caregivers, students who were in the military and living abroad. I’ve expanded access to education for them.”

So, I find that aspect of online education inspirational … that I can reach those students who would not have had opportunity otherwise. I also find that teaching students around the world is personally fulfilling for me. I just finished teaching a course in logic as a volunteer professor for Jesuit Commons: Higher Education at the Margins (JC:HEM), a consortium of Catholic Universities and other interested institutions that offers online courses for no cost to adult students in refugee camps in Kenya, Malawi, and the Middle East. At one point I was on a Skype conference call with the student coordinator in Amman, Jordan, when I was having a very difficult time hearing what he was saying because of some music in the background. He explained that it was the call to prayer from the mosque nearby. I was humbled by the reality of what I was doing – teaching a logic course from my office in Sarasota, FL, to a group of students who had likely fled the violence in Syria. Online education has tremendous potential to change people’s lives.

What’s your favorite aspect of being an online instructor?

I have personal aspects that are favorites and professional aspects that are favorites.

Professionally, online education is an equalizing force in the classroom. I explain to people who are interested in the dynamics that in my online classroom I get students when they are ready to learn each day. This is the heart of andragogical theory (the adult version of pedagogy) – that adult students approach education from their life experiences and existing reality, and as instructors, we have to make the course relevant to their lives. When I taught face-to-face classes, my students would come in after a long day at work, and would be hungry, tired, and missing their kids they had not seen since 7 a.m. that morning. We would work through the material – and I’m blessed to teach such a fun subject in which we would have great discussions – but the truth was that they really just wanted to be home.

In the online class, that same adult student now has gone home, had dinner, spent time with his or her family, dealt with any major issues, and then entered the classroom when ready. Students tell more about their lives and their experiences as it relates to what we are studying than I ever got in the face-to-face classroom. I also like to say that in the online classroom there are no “wallflowers.” Every student participates because they don’t have to be afraid of public speaking. They can take their time writing their post because there is no rush to say the right thing, and they are not put on the spot. I have very few students who dominate the discussion, unlike the face-to-face classroom in which there would always be two or three students who knew a lot about politics and were excited to talk about it. Now they can do that, but online I make them substantiate their opinions with background information that they must cite and reference in their post. That gets them serious real quick!

Personally, I love online education for its convenience. I can come to the classroom ready to  EdJourneysparticipate. I can be at home with all of my books for references and without the distractions of the office. I am working from my favorite tech toy: my iMac. However, the biggest benefit to me is the freedom it gives my family and me to travel. My husband has an online business, and thus we are able to be quite flexible in our ability to travel. I never, ever get a vacation from my classroom, however, so all vacations are working vacations. I’m dragging along my laptop, my unlocked cell phone if I’m in another country, perhaps a textbook or two, and my air card or other means of getting online without wifi. In fact, I started my blog EdJourneys, about teaching online while traveling abroad, to share these experiences.

What’s the most challenging aspect of being an online instructor?

I don’t find anything too challenging in online education. Actually, I’ve been surprised at how ineffective some instructors can be online because to me it seems very intuitive. When I made the jump to online learning in 2000, I had no training, no knowledge of what an LMS (Learning Management System) was, and I started on a Tuesday after the class had begun on a Monday. But the essentials seemed pretty basic: keep in touch daily with your students by being present in the online classroom in some way. Follow up on emails as soon as possible, but no longer than 24 hours. Ask follow up questions in the discussions to encourage students to draw conclusions and use critical thinking.

However, I realized that while I love to write, and I enjoy engaging with the students, online learning was something that was natural for me but not to every instructor. At one point, I was the director of continuing and professional education at my university, and I was taking our continuing-education classes to the online realm. The instructors for the billing and coding class really struggled with the concept of a 24/7 class, weeklong discussions, and interacting online. So, online is not for everybody.

Perhaps the most difficult aspect of online education is when the technology does not work or Travel2something goes wrong. I have back up plans to my back up plans but I had the experience of leading a conference call through Elluminate for 150 faculty, and the Internet at my house went out 5 minutes before the call was to start. I immediately shifted to my laptop, plugged in my air card, and tried to get a cell-phone signal. I could not get one from my office that was strong enough to stream Elluminate. So, I ended up taking my laptop to my dining room next to a large window to gain enough of a signal to get online. My husband, my kids, and the black lab were all quiet, thankfully, as I led this mammoth call for an hour in the middle of the house. It was nuts. Then there was the time my husband and I were mugged in Barcelona, and I had to get forceful with the guy that was trying to steal my laptop from my hands. (Story of that adventure here.)  Having to work online in a situation like that is very challenging but I did not use it as an excuse to miss out engaging with my students online.

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?

Remember that there are real people behind the names on your screen. They are real people, with real challenges in their lives, who for the most part are struggling with a lot, and need understanding. My refugee students had literally been through war, exile, personal violence, and the death of loved ones. Not all students are struggling with such enormous challenges, but challenges are personal to whoever has them.

I taught for years before one of my family members was diagnosed with dyslexia and dysgraphia while also being classified as gifted. Learning about his learning disability made me understand how difficult it is for some students to organize their thoughts and their written work. If I had received his written work as an online instructor before going through this personal experience, I would have assumed he was lazy or not smart. Nothing could have been further from the truth. So now, when I am frustrated by the quality of the work I receive from my students I try to remember my own personal scenario. I will work all day with students who want to learn and work hard. The students who plagiarize or who turn in work with no substantive information frustrate me.

Name a few of your favorite tools and resources for your work in online teaching.

KeyboardMaestroI’m a Mac user so I love Mac apps, and one of the best is Keyboard Maestro. It’s a macros program that will essentially perform any function that you do repetitively. I save my announcements, my favorite posts, my feedback I find that I use repeatedly, and my research paper comments in Keyboard Maestro. It keeps track of how many hours the program has saved you since you started using it, and I’m at 101 hours. It can do a great deal more than insert text, but I just haven’t figured it out yet!

JingI also love Jing. Jing is a free program that allows me to create 5-minute webcasts for my students. I recently had some students who were having difficulty with using the university’s online library (which I require they use almost exclusively). I created a quick 90-second Jing webcast of me searching for the terms they were struggling with, showing them what they needed to do, and I inserted it into their gradebook feedback. What’s great about this is that they can access this any time, they can watch it over and over, and I have documented my interaction with them – a very important aspect of online teaching.

What advice would you give someone just starting out in online teaching?

Don’t expect to take virtual vacations from the job. You are always “on” as an online instructor. I may be traveling, but I’m emailing my students, holding live Elluminate sessions in the evenings from the hotel or B&B, and responding daily in the online discussions. I never, ever go MIA in my online classes.

Share some time-management tips for those juggling multiple classes.

Whether or not one is teaching multiple classes, time management for online instructors is critical. First, you have to be very self-directed. Procrastinators do not do well in the online environment. Second, you have to be organized.

My time-management tip is to create weekly, instead of daily, calendars. Within a week, I can see where I might have a block of time where I can grade research papers or work on some administrative issue for online faculty. Thus, I will plug in 2 hours on Tuesday and/or 5 hours on Saturday to get the work done. I also don’t work a set number of hours per day. Some days I spend mostly grading and those are long days. Other days I may check in and post in the discussion board. All days are not created equal for the online instructor, so finding blocks of time and getting into that ritual each week of using blocks of time is important.

Share some of your favorite grading tips.

I grade a lot of written work in political science. Therefore, I find that I repeat myself often in the feedback I give the students. Having Keyboard Maestro made my work so much faster because now I could type in a few letters and my long explanation to a student for making their title page in APA format would instantly appear. Of course, I still have to do the content feedback, which is all individual and personal based on what the student has written. It helps that I love teaching what I do, because talking about the content is an important part of the feedback.

I also tend to overwhelm students with my grammar feedback. I’ve tried to stop doing that. First, students are not going to read 30 comment bubbles on one page. Second, if they did, they would feel bad about their writing ability. I have started to use a new technique I learned from Leslie Bowman, a published author and good friend from my online networking group ExclusiveEDU. She writes that comment bubbles are distracting to students, and thus a better way is just to make the comments right in the paragraphs using track changes. I do some of that but think I will adopt this approach going forward. She also recommends editing grammar on only the first page or first few paragraphs of the paper so that the student is then responsible for finding those errors throughout the rest of their paper. When I read that, it was like an “Aha!” moment for me. Why was I spending hours grading papers when the student would only have to do a few clicks to “accept changes” and not really do any heavy lifting themselves?

How has online teaching changed since you entered the field?

The fundamentals have not changed. We are still working with students globally by interacting with them over a distance. Oh sure . . . we can bring in glamorous technologies like Second Life or try to wow students with our Animoto videos, but ultimately, if we are not getting the student immersed in the material, then it’s not really any better than the old-style lecture hall of 500 students and one professor in the front talking about photosynthesis with the students sleeping in their seats. (Can you tell I’ve had personal experience here?) I was at a Sloan-C conference several years ago where one of the seminar speakers said that online institutions need to avoid “techno-lust.” I loved that. We can use all the gizmos and gadgets in the world, but if the students are not problem solving or using critical thinking, what is the point?

Maybe what has changed is the industry that has been built up around online learning. There was next to nothing in 2000 when I started. People were still using dial-up modems and figuring out how to use email. Now we have e-Learning consultants and e-books and online learning networking groups for online professors. We also have Open Educational Resources that are free articles, texts, lesson plans, and even courses. MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) promise to upend higher education as we know it (I have serious doubts about this claim), and some politicians are talking about the $10,000 bachelor’s degree, as if it wasn’t just a number they pulled out of thin air. Sometimes all of this can be a distraction. What’s important is that the student is engaged with the content, that the instructor is using sound techniques to teach the material, and the school provides the resources to make these things come together.

Headshot2What characteristics do you think an online instructor needs to possess?

Online instructors need things that face-to-face instructors need: dedication to their discipline, a belief in continuous improvement for themselves, and patience in working with students. What’s a bit trickier online is that you cannot see the student in front of you, so you need be savvier in detecting fake excuses or determining which students really are in crisis and which students are trying to take advantage of distance to get extra time. Unlike many of my colleagues, I’m likely to give a student extra time, because the student in crisis will get the work done and the student faking it will keep procrastinating and not get the work done, anyway.

What advice do you have for students considering online classes?

My advice is to consider your motive. Are you taking online classes because you need a “break” from school and you think online classes are easier? The truth is that online classes tend to be harder because you do not have the instructor in front of you, providing daily lectures of the material that you should have read about in the text. They are harder because they require greater self-discipline.

What’s the most misunderstood aspect of online teaching? What are the myths?

The most misunderstood aspect, in my view, is that online education is of lower quality. Many traditional or state universities have resisted online education for this very reason. They do so at their own peril. Cost realities will change how land-grand universities function. The media has also spread this myth that online degrees have less value, but all they would have to do is be a freshman at the University of Florida for one semester and attend the auditorium classes. UF is my alma mater, and I had many great experiences there, but I was appalled as a 19 year old sitting in science classes with 300 other people and a professor up front lecturing without a microphone. I learned almost nothing, especially since science was just hard for me to understand. The only reason I passed my cellular biology class, in which I had earned an F on every test, was because our professor announced at the end of the course (to half the auditorium because the other half had dropped the class) that the final exam would comprise questions from our old tests. He then told the room that our old tests were in the back of the hall, and the answer keys were included. Thus, all I had to do was to memorize the answers. I made a 100 on the exam and a C in the class. How is that quality education??

Quality education immerses students in the content as it relates to their lives. This is the essence of andragogy, and this is the essence of Bloom’s Taxonomy. At my university, students have to write…a lot. They have to create projects and use peer-reviewed journal articles and learn how to do scholarly research. If I’m not satisfied with the quality of their work, their grade will reflect that. In one of our online programs, Fire Science students are exploring local buildings in their town to determine fire safety and create evacuation plans. In another program, doctoral students are interviewing educational leaders in their field to learn strategic planning and crisis management principles. These activities fall at the highest levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy: analyzing, evaluating, and creating.


Interact with Tara at these coordinates: Website/blog • Facebook page • LinkedIn • Twitter: follow for tweets about traveling while teaching online) • Twitter: (follow for tweets about online teaching and instructional design)



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