Motivations for Learning & Teaching Online

Post by: David Rice, Associate Professor of English and participant in the Learning Community on Online Teaching & Learning

When the topic of online teaching comes up among faculty, inevitably some colleagues question the wisdom of delivering their content online. Though many teachers find the idea of online teaching intriguing or even inspiring, the question “why teach online” is a very good one.

Of course, the answer varies depending on the teacher and the discipline. Some disciplines, like computer science, have courses that already require enough digital content to make offering them online relatively easy. Other courses, such as upper-level English seminars, might suffer greatly by being offered online. However, online courses are an increasing reality in academia; faculty and institutions must seriously consider both the potential pedagogical and retentive benefits of online instruction as well as the risks to academic rigor and student/teacher interaction.

An equally important question for institutions is “why do students choose to take online courses?” The response depends upon the student population. Students straight out of high school might well prefer in-person instruction as part of the overall “college experience.” Returning students, working students, or those caring for young children or other family members might find the online experience a more workable option. As Tom Rosenberger pointed out at our gathering this month, this latter population is no longer a non-traditional population; they’re the norm. According to his research, the average student in an online program is a female, returning adult with children.

Our small but energetic group this month was led by Tom, Lily Shafer-Lahnum, and Abi Johnson from Online Learning Services. Our discussion was focused on the questions above and informed by the month’s readings and videos (Disabled in Grad School: Flexibility, The Conversion of a Skeptic: My Journey into Online Teaching, Part I, Part 2, and Part 3, and Can Online Teaching Work at Liberal-Arts Colleges? Study Explores the Pros and Cons).

Early in the discussion, Dr. Ann Neilson, Assistant Professor of Physical Education, asked about the differences between hybrid and web-enhanced courses. Tom clarified that hybrid courses have some portion of their credit hours online, whereas web-enhanced courses have online material, but do meet in person for all credit hours. This is an important distinction, as faculty considering teaching hybrid courses will need to factor in issues such as time-on-task in an online environment. Another issue regarding hybrid classes came up later in our discussion. Tom and I noted that sometimes students struggle with expectations of hybrid classes. They often perform well in the face-to-face portion of the class, but then neglect to do the online part of the course, and their grade plummets as a result. I mentioned that I recently stopped teaching hybrid courses for this very reason. I feel that students understand face-to-face instruction and online courses, but the expectations of hybrid courses confuse them. Going forward, better articulating the nature and expectations of hybrid courses as an institution will be important.

By and large, our discussion was dominated by the two entwined subjects of student motivation to take online classes and faculty motivation to teach them. Regarding the former, I talked about my experience teaching summer courses online, where students are primarily motivated by the fact that they can take the course without having to be on campus or figure out local housing. Most go home, work their summer jobs, and take the class on their laptops.

As a side note, I also noted that students sometimes assume an online class will be easier and/or less rigorously scheduled. I take great pains to disabuse them of this notion. My summer classes are in the immersion session, which means that students absolutely must stay on top of the work and have to schedule their work time diligently in order to keep up.

I wondered if we might consider online classes as an opportunity to recapture the adult returning student population we used to have years ago with our evening classes. Maybe such a frame would encourage some faculty to see online classes as more of an opportunity than a threat.

Others in the group added to the reasons students choose online courses. Abi noted how online courses can serve students with either temporary or permanent disabilities who may not be able to easily get to campus. Lily added that even our 18-21 year-old student cohort on campus usually work 20-30 hours a week, and the flexibility of scheduling online courses is appealing to them.

Regarding faculty motivation to teach online, Tom noted the that the institution needs to have a discussion about integrating online instruction into our curriculum. The reasons for teaching online or not are varied, but the increasing student demand for online courses requires us to consider how they might work at Saint Rose. I wondered if we might consider online classes as an opportunity to recapture the adult returning student population we used to have years ago with our evening classes. Maybe such a frame would encourage some faculty to see online classes as more of an opportunity than a threat. We concluded our discussion with the idea that online courses could be a valuable part of the college’s process of developing new programs and revising or rebranding the liberal education requirements.

Though our discussion diverged from the readings, it was informed by their rethinking of assumptions regarding online courses. In the readings and in our discussion, it was clear that online environments can be used to develop courses attractive to and useful for the “traditional” students of the 21st century.