I taught my first “online” class 17 years ago—yes, 17! This is what my teaching world was like:
Computers were largely desktops, with relatively small screens. Someone I knew had a new-fangled piece of hardware: a laptop—I wondered what it was and how one used it, to say nothing of wondering whether my lap was large enough to accommodate it.
- I was still getting used to using a mouse.
- I had a wired connection to the Internet in my office, which mostly worked—slowly.
- At home I prayed—hard—every time I tried to use a dial-up connection to access the Internet, and when I was using that, no one else in the house could use the phone and we obviously couldn’t receive any calls (and had no voicemail!).
- I had no Learning Management System, so I conducted my course mainly using email; a major accomplishment was learning how to attach a document (in God-knows-what format, since there were tons of them around and good luck if someone sent you a document in a format different from what you were using).
- As you may have surmised from the above, there was really no multimedia to speak of (my course featured documents, not images or videos), and no social media, either.
- By the way: although I didn’t have a mobile computer, I had a “mobile” phone. It was permanently installed in my car, I considered it a security feature since I drove alone at night fairly often, and all it could do was make/receive phone calls!
- My students’ learning world mirrored my own. They too struggled with dicey, dial-up connections at home, if they even had them. Most students had computers and decent Internet access only at their workplaces, which meant they relied on benevolent employers to let them use their companies’ resources to complete their assignments.
Gradually online environments began to improve. I remember how excited I was when instant messaging was created. I also remember very clearly using it for the first time when I noticed one of my students was online and I messaged her. She didn’t answer, and later she told me that she practically fell off her chair at work when the message came through—the long arm of her professor, reaching out to tap her on the shoulder when she least expected it! She was too flustered to respond. For the record I think what I said was “hi.”
Once Learning Management Systems were created, then the pace of improvements picked up dramatically. Being able to have a method of storing all course materials in one place for students’ easy access, coupled with the array of online learning resources (Images! Films! Music!) readily available, translated into an environment so dramatically changed that it’s stunning, really, to think that only 17 years have passed.
Here at Ursuline College, where we value collaboration so highly, advances in technology that support social interaction online are particularly important. When I taught years ago, interaction was exclusively a dialogue between the individual student and me. There were no tools at all to enable my students to work with each other online. If they wanted to submit a research paper on which they had all worked, they could either get together face to face to write the paper (which somewhat defeated the purpose of taking an online class), or, if they all had the same word-processing program, they could send around the file and then get together to discuss the changes.
Currently, the various types of social media, coupled with ubiquitous mobile devices, make online collaboration easy and fun, too. Students can readily work in teams, either in real time or not, just as many of them are already accustomed to doing on the job.
For professors, the major problem these days is selecting which technology will enhance learning the most—which one, out of so many choices, will enable their online courses to be truly excellent. For students, knowing which resources to use in doing their research or completing their assignments is enormously difficult because of the vast arsenal of information they are able to access—not all of which is high quality, to say the least.
In reflecting back on nearly two decades of online teaching, I feel much as I imagine people who grew up with horse and buggies must have felt on switching to automobiles—the environment is that much altered and that much better!
JoAnne Podis, Ph.D. is the Vice President for Academic Affairs at Ursuline College.