More on misunderstanding online learning

It has been quite a while since I’ve been able to post here. In the middle of February we made a rather quick move to the San Jose area from Florida. I admit I’m absolutely thrilled to be here, and I’m enjoying being a Californian again. It has been extremely busy getting settled in, and we are having a great deal of fun exploring the area.

In being here, I’ve been thinking about my work structure, and wondering if maybe I shouldn’t try to pick up a California school. Although it is not a necessity for me, it is something that I am considering.  To that end, I thought I might feel out a couple of schools here to see if they had any need or interest in offering more online courses. Since I do a lot of Humanities already, I want to flex my muscles by developing and teaching more Anthropology courses. I did some looking around, and found what appeared to be a nice community college in the Sacramento area. I wanted to approach community colleges first because they tend to be supportive of online programs, and I still really believe in the community college mission. This school seemed to have a more robust anthropology program than many community colleges offer, and they had some online courses already so I figured I would drop them a line.

I got a response that was not only somewhat rude (the person didn’t even bother to sign it),  it demonstrated once again that there are fundamental misunderstandings about the nature of online teaching and the capacity of online courses to build and maintain community. The department chair wrote:

“Our professors teach on ground for us as well as online. Our department has a policy of not hiring people who cannot teach in person for us since we are a community college. It is important for all of our instructors to be an active part of our community.”


First off, I teach exclusively for four year colleges and community colleges and not one of them is in my immediate locality. Why? Because it really doesn’t matter. Students take online courses because <b>they can’t be at a campus!</b>!! It is my job as an online instructor to foster community and cohesiveness with a group of people who are going to be geographically disparate. That is the point of online learning! We can’t be together in space or time, so we do it this way, providing an exchange of ideas, getting to know one another, and learning together.  As I am also a subject matter specialist, I bring my experience as a professional into the classroom, just like any other professor.

Clearly this person has a very limited understanding of what “community” means, and I see that as unfortunate and regressive. I have taught for one of my schools now for seven years, exclusively online. I know my colleagues, they know me. We know our strengths and weaknesses as faculty members. I know about important things going on in the locality of the school, as I do of all of my schools. The important thing in my job is to build a learning community in the classroom, because that’s where it counts. I think she also doesn’t fully grasp that classroom teaching and online teaching are fundamentally different skill sets.

Her comments, however, echo concerns I was hearing when I did a face-to-face workshop on online pedagogy several months ago.  People who do not spend time online simply do not understand the nature of online relationships, and they are skeptical that they really exist. The problems come in when these people start to make assumptions about the overall effectiveness of online learning based on their personal lack of understanding of the medium. Given the fact that online learning is happening, and its growth is inevitable, I think there needs to be training about online learning for all educational professionals, regardless of their personal interest in teaching in this way.  If educational professionals do not understand what online learning is about and how it is done, they are not going to be in any sort of position to support it, and they’re going to be less likely to do so.  This will only be to their detriment, especially as our economy shifts, because the numbers indicate that things are only going to get better for people in my field, and worse for the departments who refuse to embrace it.

2 Responses to “More on misunderstanding online learning”

  1. Beth Coale Says:

    Wow. I feel honored (especially after reading this blog) to be taking a course with you this summer!!

    I live in Cape May, NJ and work at the main branch of our county library. Originally from Maryland and a self-professed ‘computer literate’ person, University of Maryland’s online program was the first to come to mind when I decided to return to college to complete my degree.

    I have experienced the same unfounded predjudices based upon lack of knowledge that you spoke of. Many friends and acquaintences tried to discourage me but I knew it was the only thing that would work for me and I had no qualms about it.
    This summer will be my 5th session online and aside from some personal difficulties this past spring, everything is going extraordinarily well! In fact, I have had such success that three of my co-workers have now returned to school – one is completely online and the other two wanted to test the water first with just one online class. Both who were hesitant last semester are going entirely online this semester!! I am proud of them for their success.

    Additionally, you spoke of a ‘disbelief’ of the existence of a community atmosphere and of online relationships – just this past February I was introduced to Facebook… overnight my life transformed from a VERY limited social life because of work and school to something almost indescribable! Not only do I have my immediate family and co-workers and a handful of parents from my children’s school in my life, but now I am keeping in touch with childhood and college friends, relatives in other states, acquaintences whose company I have enjoyed in the past but never see … and all in just 5-10 minutes here and there (more if my schedule permits) with no commitment to an hour long phone conversation or two – three hours for drinks and dinner, etc. I can see pictures of their families, read funny antecdotes, make plans for future get-togethers, I could go on forever!
    Unfortunately, so many people just don’t understand. A few people at work are now on Facebook as well and love it, but most refuse saying they don’t have time and yet they are usually the ones that say they haven’t heard from their grown children in ages or they don’t have recent pictures of grandchildren that live across the country. Again, I could go on but I will leave it at that!

    Good luck with your new abode and I look forward to working with you this summer!

    Best wishes,

  2. Terri Smith Says:


    I searched you and, found you doing something creative with your academic career and am so not surprised. I hope you remember me as we — well, I– fell out of touch to my great regret. I have been busy these past few years with work — unfortunately spending most of my time doing administrative tasks but I am soon stepping down as chair and will have my life back, and, I hope, a bit of my brain. I fear that years of meetings and forms have sucked parts of my soul out permanently, though. Ivory tower, my ass — more like an overcrowded kennel sometimes. Your independence in teaching is really appealing, I must say. I was thinking of you as I am taking a class to Britain next wk and we’ll be making some stops in Cornwall and I’ll be seeing some old friends. Congrats on your mercenary status and thanks for the blog. As always — you make sense.


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Online Educational Specialist