Almost 6 months!

I know I’ve been a very bad cyber prof and have seriously neglected this space.  I suppose I have a good reason, or two.  first, my Dad had been suffering from poor health for about 6 months, and passed away on Thanksgiving.  Also, this has been one of my busiest terms ever.  The bad economy has kept business booming and I have had a lot of work.  So yes, I’ve been slammed, but honestly, I’m grateful for the bounty. All of this has meant that I have kept a rather low profile, but I hope that will change in 2010.

Just a quickie on course design

Wow, it’s been busy here. Given that we’ve basically moved twice in 6 months, it shouldn’t be too surprising that I’ve had little time for blogging, or anything else, really.

I just wanted to make a quick note and state once again that design is everything. This term I have takes a couple of my course shells and worked to make them modular. In fact, I’m trying to go this way with all my classes. In short, organize the content not by weeks, but by topic. Put the due dates in the syllabus, not in the course content. This way, you can easily adapt the course shell to different length terms.

That’s all for now folks.

Work/life balance

Being an Academic Mercenary isn’t just about teaching, it’s about life.  When I chose this career path, I made a very conscious decision to create the life that I wanted to have. This was no accident! I did not want to have a traditional academic job in a traditional academic department. I prefer working from home, and I wanted the freedom to live where I want and work from where I want. I have created that life, and it is a wonderful thing, but there are a few drawbacks, and it’s worth addressing them here.

For instance, I don’t remember the last time I had two days in a row where I had no teaching duties whatsoever. If I am away on vacation, or doing research, I am teaching and grading. I taught when I got married, I taught on my honeymoon, I teach when I go skiing, I teach all the time. Yes I have freedom of location, but the truth of the matter is, I really need a break! I don’t ever take a few days off, go camping, go somewhere where I am without my work. This is a big problem, and it’s one that I need to address, because if I’m not well rested if I don’t get away from the job, I’m not giving my students what they need from me. I feel grumpy and overburdened, and I think this is very common.

The other thing about working from home is that it’s very easy for work to intrude on my home life. I can always just answer one more e-mail, do another discussion post, or grade a couple more papers. Sometimes I’ll find myself doing that at midnight, just because I’m a bit bored. This is not healthy.

I know that to remedy this I need to work more on setting boundaries, and sticking to them. I need to have designated times where do my work, and then I need to stop. I need to set performance targets, and then feel okay about stepping away from the computer once I have set them, even if there is more work to be done. The fact of the matter is, there is always more work to be done, and that applies to me and everybody else. Students tend to be very demanding in an online environment, they expect you to respond to their e-mail 30 seconds after they send it. That isn’t fair, and just because I want to please them doesn’t mean that I should be cheating myself on the time that I need to recharge.

Been enjoying reading the work of Jonathan Fields at www.jonathanfields.com and www.careerrenegade.com. Both those sites have useful tips about how to stay sane and how to stay directed when working from home, and while carving your own niche in the world. It’s important to remember that if you choose to build a career as a Cyber Prof, that you may have less in common on a day-to-day basis with your fellow academics, and more in common with entrepreneurial types. I’m hoping to learn more from others who have chosen the roads less traveled to help me manage my work/life balance so that I can get the most from everything I do. One thing I’m going to do with the reduced workload this summer is make rest and recreation a priority.

More on discussion

It’s hard to write too much about the role of discussion in online pedagogy.  Since I’m in the middle of tweaking my courses for Summer terms, I’ve been looking at the courses from Spring and wondering what worked and what didn’t.  I have found, without a doubt, that if you want lively discussion in your courses you MUST make it mandatory that they have original posts of minimum 100 words and that they respond to a classmate.  You also need to make discussion a huge part of the overall grade.   Last term I was beta testing a group designed course that didn’t have a word minimum on the discussion posts and no matter how hard I begged, e-mailed and cajoled the students I could not get them to beef up the posts.  This term in the same class I upped the word count and the different is like night and day. I am proud, not frustrated.  Hooray!  I see the learning!

Adjuncting is A-ok!

When I go to professional meetings and tell colleagues what it is that I do for a living, I sort of get an impression from some of them that they rather feel sorry for me. I did at one point have a traditional academic job, and now I am apparently “reduced” to adjuncting online.  I also hear academic colleagues of mine who are underemployed, or unemployed talk about adjuncting with disdain as they are looking for what they call a “real” job. I have to admit, I take a bit of offense at this. I work hard, and my bank account certainly is real, so go ahead and judge away.

The sad fact is, however, in the hierarchy of the academic world, being an adjunct just does not hold the same sort of gravitas or legitimacy. It is not a traditional “academic” path, and it is certainly not where you go if you want the privileges and perks of the ivory tower. And if you have an ego, making a living this way is really not the best way to get it stroked. In many ways, being an adjunct completely sucks. I am not treated with the same sort of respect as most of my academic colleagues at the institutions for which I teach.  At some of them, only full-time staff are allowed to contribute news of their research to campus publications.  Only recently has one of my schools allowed for adjunct staff to have any representation on the faculty organization. Furthermore, at some schools adjuncts are subject to more teaching scrutiny than their full-time peers.  This is clearly ridiculous. Just because one is an adjunct does not mean that they are in any way less qualified than their full-time peers. Everyone should know in this day and age, that for the most part getting an academic position is a matter of being in the right place at the right time, or having friends higher up the departmental foodchain. It is certainly not any kind of marker of quality or potential. Also, I get no sabbaticals, I do not get any kind of travel grants, only one of my schools has a provision for insurance for adjuncts, and only one school recognizes my research and development record with an academic ranking system.   I have to teach a very high courseload in order to continue living in the style to which I have become accustomed, and I can only do that because I’m teaching online.

But I don’t want a tenure-track position. Honestly, even when I started my life as an academic I have never wanted to be a classroom professor. It’s not that I’m not good at it, I am, it’s just that I honestly prefer research, and I prefer the environment of a research institute.  That’s just my personality. There are lots of other reasons though that I am not interested in that sort of work. First off, I really think that the whole procedure of tenure is corrupt, or certainly can be. I know of people who have been denied for all sorts of reasons, and when you think of all of the years spent blindly scrambling your way through a system only to be told that your time was wasted, I think it’s horrible. It’s not objective, and frequently candidates don’t even know what bar they are aiming at.  But once you get the position, the workload is completely ridiculous. Not only do you have to teach, get grants, and progress your own research, but you have all sorts of committees you have to sit on, projects to initiate, and things to supervise. In my view, the pay just doesn’t match the headache. I know people who have been tenured for years, and they still struggle to make ends meet because academic pay is just really crappy.  Additionally, once you are tenured somewhere you better hope that you like where you’re living, because you’re probably not going anywhere else for the next 20 years.   The idea of moving to the middle of nowhere, for a less than inspiring salary and a really high workload is just not appealing to me.

Honestly, I am happy to be an adjunct by choice. I really, really do not like committee meetings (been there done that), and frankly, I don’t care that I’m not supervising Master’s or Doctorate level work.  I have plenty of ways to make my mark, and my academic circumstances have not barred me from either publishing or receiving grants. I hate the office politics of academia, and I also don’t like the egos and the backbiting that you find in most academic departments. Frankly, academia is just really not that collegial, certainly not in the Humanities, where everybody thinks they are the next superstar, and nobody seems to have any perspective on their own importance. I’m also not sorry that I’m having to deal with faculty hiring procedures either. Since my return to the States in 2001 I have applied for two tenure-track positions, one of which was pulled because the department went under, and I don’t see myself applying for another one anytime soon.  I’m not saying never, because there are some projects that really do appeal to me that would be best served within an institutional environment, if I see an opportunity to foster those, I will certainly take it. So until then, I get paid to teach, nothing else. I have very few administrative duties or obligations, and I have my freedom, which is something I value greatly. This wasn’t luck, my career was entirely by design, and by not being afraid to buck the system. And to my tenured friends who feel sorry for me, I will be crying over my misfortune while teaching from a ski lodge in Tahoe, or poolside at a resort in Costa Rica.

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.”

Uh…why?

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.

Bells and Whistles in online courses: pros and cons

Since Spring terms have begun and I’ve been in the process of designing, redesigning and updating a number of courses, it has again made me think about the use of video and other media in online teaching. One of the great things about the software and learning platforms that we use, Blackboard, ANGEL, and others, is that they have the capacity to offer a student a very rich learning experience, that address a number of different learning modalities. We have the ability to do podcasts, insert video, use animations and incorporate all sorts of other fun teaching strategies. However exciting these may be, I have discovered a number of difficulties in implementation that frequently leave my online classrooms much more text oriented than I would prefer. Frequently I have noted that students come to me with difficulty in accessing the media as it is presented in the LMS. Perhaps they don’t have the right media viewer, there are system compatibility issues, they might be using a public computer, or they might have a poor internet connections.  Perhaps the student is in the military deployed in another country where for any number of reasons they are unable to take advantage of the features we want to add into our classrooms.

As a result, I currently do not base any assessments on online videos or podcasts. I make them optional. However, YouTube is providing much better opportunities for working with media in online courses. It is easy for just about everybody to access, easier for the student to handle than streaming video, and there is so much great stuff out there that instructors can incorporate for students to analyze, enjoy, and think about.  As an instructor, of course, if you desire, you can put up your own content there as well and direct students to the link.

I also really wanted to briefly address the use of Second Life in courses. For the past several years there has been a huge buzz about this virtual environment as a teaching resource. Of course it’s cool, and yes I think it would offer a number of possibilities, but the fact is we have a pretty robust set of computers here at my home, and Second Life frequently does not run well on those!  Again, I think it’s something that is good to keep in mind for an option, and something to look at for the future as more people have access to better and faster technology, but we need to keep in mind that the key to online education is accessibility. That means we need to make sure that the very basis of our courses can be accessed and enjoyed by everyone. Thus, we need to be creative with our assignments and engaging in our teaching style until we are sure that everyone can enjoy the addition of more complex media. The last thing we want to do is make any of our students feel as though they are not getting the full classroom experience. Does that mean that we may be a bit functionally limited, yes, I have found that to be the case, but things are changing.  This also means that as much as we want to get crazy with the bells and whistles, that simplicity is not necessarily a bad thing, and we need to consider the most easily accessible media options for students, which sometimes means going for a lower tech option.

Why online students are special

I have all sorts of students taking my classes, and I probably I have a much greater variety in my student body than traditional classroom professors.  Because of the flexibility and wide access of online courses,  I teach a lot of working single parents, young mothers, older students who are retraining, and active military.  I have taught students while they are serving in Iraq and Afghanistan! My students take my courses from Navy ships and correctional facitilites. When I run into resistance about the efficacy of online learning, and I do, I tell people about the ways in which online classes can reach people who might never be able to set foot in a classroom.  I take a lot of pride in helping my students to make the life transitions that my courses frequently signal for them. I especially like knowing that I am helping to give my students a chance they may otherwise never have had.

Communicating with my students

Wow, what a holiday break.  In truth, because of the way I teach, I don’t ever really get breaks.  It’s part of the bonus that I can teach from wherever I want, so I can teach from San Francisco, London, or Costa Rica, but the downside is that I’m always having to teach.  The same goes for being ill.  I don’t get to just go home and rest, I’m home already, I can rest, but more often than not I just work through whatever is ailing me. I don’t take sick days or even weekends off.  In early December I came down with shingles, which is horrifically painful, and I seriously needed to not work at all.  I just couldn’t, partially because of the pain and fatigue, and also because I couldn’t move my head for a week.   Of course I had what seemed like 10 million essays to grade, feedback to give, and grades to configure, all in the context of panicky students who had been asleep all term and realized that OMG they were failing in the last three days of the class and what can I do to help them.  Bad time to get ill.  What I did was to send all of my students an e-mail and let them know what was happening, what they could expect from me, and what I needed from them.  You know what?  They were awesome.  All of them.  Not only were they sweet, they took responsibility for their actions and their grades, and stopped asking me questions that I couldn’t answer.  This all gave me a “huzzah!” sort of moment: I need to clear some of this stuff upfront.  Even though course rules, deadlines and my expectations are in my syllabi, many students don’t read them entirely, if at all, and they just forget stuff.  I have had FAQ’s in my courses before, but I needed to update them and add to them.  I think that maybe if I put my expectations in different words in a separate spot in the course, that it will help drive some of these points home to my students.  I also need to remember that my students don’t expect for me to be superhuman.  If I’m sick, or if I need to be at a conference or somewhere else, that all I need to do is tell them.  They just want to hear from me, and it will help reduce some of the pressure on me to get everything done yesterday.

I’m off next week to do some research in London and Cornwall.  I’ll be gone for a month.  Normally this all works out well.  I do love my mobility!

Ways to build presence in online courses

I heard a horror story the other day from a dear friend of mine who was taking an online course.  She reported to me that the professor offered no grades on the written assignments until the end of the course, and gave no feedback at all for any written assignments.  When she went to the college dean to see if this was going to be the standard amount of interaction for an online course, the dean said, basically, “It varies. The Professor had e-mail problems. You should do your homework to find a better professor next time.”  I was disgusted by this.  I work my butt off to try to get to know my students and to give them useful feedback on their work. For me, that is more important than being on the discussion boards.  That is the one to one supervision that my students get from me.  I just don’t think neglecting your students is acceptable in any format.

This kind of stuff gives online learning a bad reputation.  Both learners and academics are very skeptical of this form of teaching (although honestly, if more professors were actually trained in any sort of pedagogy, they might not even ask the initial question).  People actually believe that online courses are entirely computer run.  To combat this perception, online professors need to work a little harder at demonstrating our humanity, and building connection with our students.  This is not as difficult as it sounds.  Yes, you need to be present in your classes, but you also need to have a personality.  Work on your writing style, be funny, be human. Let your students know a bit about who you are.  It’s much easier for F2F profs to perform and entertain, which really helps to establish a student following and also builds classroom success.  We can do it too, we just need to work at it. When students and colleagues see that there are real people teaching online courses,  they will be harder to dismiss.  The statistics about the efficacy of online teaching already support this, we need better marketing.

As a final word, teaching this way is not for everyone. If you don’t want to, don’t know how and can’t balance it with face to face teaching, don’t do it.  You will quickly realize that online courses don’t run themselves, and no one will be happy with the results.

Online Educational Specialist