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On-line courses were a still a new phenomenon when I was teaching full-time. Our school was pretty gung-ho about on-line education but many instructors were skeptical, some were still lamenting having to learn how to use a computer and losing the services that used to be provided by departmental secretaries. Other instructors simply distrusted the entire idea, seeing distance learning as the equivalent of an educational scam, a kind of “get rich quick scheme” that would allow the school to collect more tuition dollars without paying instructors.

I never did teach an on-line course during my years as a tenured faculty member but I did take an on-line class in on-line teaching.

In retrospect, I suppose taking the course was a good thing, although it made me decide for a long time that on-line teaching wasn’t worth the effort. Our college signed up with a company called Embanet to teach us their system. The first instructor quit two weeks into the course and it took another two weeks before anyone told us. This was before the days of broad-band and internet movies. The streaming video was so painfully slow and impossible to follow, that the second instructor gave up and provided us with typed copies of his notes. There were so many folders where notes and materials were kept that most of the students got completely lost, they never seemed to know where to find the lecture notes or upload completed assignments. I wasn’t impressed.

So, when a friend asked me last year to teach an on-line course for her community college, it was a surprise to hear my voice saying “yes” and agreeing to give it a try. During the darkest winter months this year, I ended up teaching an on-line course in using bioinformatics tools to do biology. Our focus was on metagenomics. We had several files of chromatogram data from bacterial samples, gathered from different locations, and we identified, counted, and explored different aspects of the data to see what we could learn.

Teaching an on-line course turned out to be as much a learning experience for me as it was for my students. Now, it’s time to step back and reflect on what was learned.

What did I learn about on-line teaching?
Four things presented the greatest surprises and challenges.
1. Technology: course management software (Blackboard) and other software
2. Communication
3. Discipline
4. Personal rewards

I’ll write about all four things in this series, starting with the challenges of technology.

Technology is not your friend
Someone advised me in a comment on a previous post to avoid relying too heavily on Blackboard. Wow! That was such very, very good advice!

Blackboard had a database corruption problem during the week of final exams and had to rolled back about four days to an uncorrupted version. This meant that four days worth of assignments, test scores, discussion answers and grades were gone, plus no one could access Blackboard from Friday afternoon until mid-Monday morning. Luckily, I keep a copy of my grade book in Excel and I was able to e-mail my students and have them send me assignments via e-mail, but I’m sure this was a rough time for many students and instructors. I can’t imagine a worse time for the courseware to go off-line.

I also found problems with software bugs and different interfaces. My students were stumped by a bug that only appeared in Windows versions of Excel and I spent quite a bit of time trying to find out what was going on and why the students couldn’t seem to do the assignment correctly. It was a challenge to identify the problem and I’m still working on alternative solutions but now, I’m really committed to using Google docs and common interfaces whenever I can.

Other software issues are going to get lumped into the next post since they belong best with the challenges of communication.

Until then….


  1. #1 Mike Haubrich, FCD
    May 31, 2008

    This is interesting to me, because there are several schools which offer the opportunity to audit course through on-line learning and I want to take the opportunity. It looks to me like your experiences illustrate the problem with the over-reliance on MS Office applications.

    I have been moving my way over to the Openoffice.org suite because the software and the files are portable to a large variety of operating systems. I wonder if it would be practical to move the students and the teachers towards an open-source suite of products (seeing as the software is a no-charge open-source license.)

    What challenges would you face, and what challenges do you think the students would face with such a move? Is it something you would require or recommend?

  2. #2 Ashwin Baindur
    June 10, 2008

    Did the change of medium (real-world and students present to virtual, students not at real time) hamper your individual process of instructing what seems to be an advanced scientific course? Were the students able to comprehend the issues and concepts as easily as they would in the conventional classroom. I think that the delay and distantness would probably have resulted in your getting the main issues across while lesser issues or additional thoughts get left out; with the students similarly getting their main doubts clarified but with some smaller issues being left unaddressed by them. Real classrooms often give rise to interesting conversations which give colour to the instruction by raising issues and points of view not there in the lecture notes or script. Did you face any of this?

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