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Confessions of a Lousy Online Teacher

The natives are restless and rumbling among the online web teaching course I am co-teaching this semester. One student’s self-evaluation referred to the “hostile” environment (a weeks worth of angry posts to the discussion board).

There are a number of factors I am accepting my role in:

* It is a course taught previously by someone else, and I had made a bad assumption that this would be more faciiltating existing content. But we are having to re-do or modify much of the content as we go.
* I did not do nearly enough (or any) prep back in the fall, especially on getting familiar in new environment (WebCT) and even for this college, they were testing a newer version of WebCT than is in production
* Underestimating the range of experiences / skills in the class
* Grossly underestimating the complexity of the WebCT tools. it took one of our students (a colleague I know well and a tremendous classroom teacher) almost 3 weeks, and several visits to her college’s support desk, to figure out the 12 steps it took to access, download, and view (on a Mac) an assignment posted in RTF format. WebCT makes for a lot of clicking, a lot of screen views.
* Navigation problems. We tried to simplify the structure because the previous course had about 3 places to locate assignments and activities. We got it down to more or less one, but we still find students getting lost, needing much more explicit directions. Options are great, but I am thinking fewer options for an online course may be better than more options.

I also think the course tends to be a bit more weighted on the mechanics (students getting tripped up in the WebCT HTML editor, finding where to submit assignments), too much assignment devoted to creating their course syllabus rather than process and activity focus.

In the previous course, one week “covered” Copyright AND Accessibility issues with suggested 30 minute readings from a list of external web sites and some online discussions. I think these are a bit big to be taking at a skimming of external resources, so am looking at writing something more focused and experiential Ie.g. case studies of visiting various web sites and asking them to decided what the fair use is for media there, how they would try and get permission, what their strategy would be if htey cannot get permission; and for accessibility some of the great simulations from Web-AIM)

But on the bright side, more than half, more like 70% of the students are actually sticking with it. You gotta love persistence. We are having them do some resource discovery activities at MERLOT and MLX,a nd in April we will have some participation activities in the Teaching in the Community Colleges Online Conference.

My teaching partner Kurt, who is likely carrying much more of the load in teaching so far, posted a nice summary to try and quell the beating drums:

I have been reading a few messages concerned about the clarity of assignments and activities within this course. It is interesting to me also because I expressed the same concerns when I took the course a few years ago. I guess there is still a lot of work to do :-).

Here is a summary of some of the concerns that I have read so far:

1. The assignments are not clear.
2. It is hard to navigate through this course.
3. I can’t get my machine to work properly in this environment.
4. The discussion postings are not well thought out or do not illicit real thought.
5. It is hard to submit the assignments.
6. Not enough links that take you directly to the information you want.
7. How do I?

All the comments are valid comments for online learning environments. This is also partly why I posted the ACOT Continuum. Sometimes we are trying to teach people at various levels of skill and equipment where their needs are different. We have people in this class who are in the Entry Phase AND the Appropriation Phase and have different needs.

I would venture to say that 50% of all instructors who teach online (here at PC) are being thrown into that environment with little or no training and with 1-2 weeks to get the course up online. As you can see from your experiences, what a potentially disasterous situation that can be for students and teachers.

My recommendation is that you take some time to make notes of all these issues that you are facing and ask yourself “How would I change this when I am teaching online?” How would you answer students when they can’t get their computers to work? Can you always solve technical issues? Can your help desk solve all technical issues? How would you clean up the navigation? How would you illicit deep, thoughtful discussions? Would you even use discussions? How would you deal with your students when they have difficulty submitting assignments?

Instructors who have taught this class over the years have debated whether to throw into the class some examples of “bad habits” just to see how students react. What if we didn’t answer any emails for a week? What if we did have errors put into the organization of the class to show students how frustrating it can be for the student and the instructor?

We have sooooo many activities and assignments in this class to complete, sometimes it is hard to get everything coordinated and timed exactly. This course really needs to be a 15 or 16 week 3 credit course (in my opinion). It would smooth things out quite a bit. You in this course are at a disadvantage. We are using a new version of WebCT. Some of the materials for supporting the learning are difficult to come by. You also have two instructors working on development at the same time as the course is progressing.

The other day Alan commented to me on how much time it takes to put together just one weeks worth of materials for this course. He is correct. Online learning development takes a lot longer than face-to-face courses.

I encourage you to learn from your good experiences in this class and the challenging experiences. It will only help you to be a better online instructor. For our part, we continue to keep working hard to make things better for you.

Teaching is hard. Teaching online is very hard, and I am guilty of taking it more lightly than I should have. A good humbling experience that may send me scurrying back to my programming cave.

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An early 90s builder of the web and blogging Alan Levine barks at on web storytelling (#ds106 #4life), photography, bending WordPress, and serendipity in the infinite internet river. He thinks it's weird to write about himself in the third person. And he is 100% into the Fediverse (or tells himself so)


  1. Hi Alan..

    Don’t let this discourage you! No scurrying! You will get through this!

    One good thing that you are experiencing is a deeper appreciation the learner experience — and why its so important to really scope out your learner characteristics…

    I thought I would pass along some good WebCT resources — we’re in the middle of planning an upgrade to WebCT 4 so I have been doing lots of searches on this topic laterly…

    A number of schools have developed good documentation for WebCT 4…

    I’ll point you to two, and I think you will find them really useful:

    1) Idaho State University — awesome resources.

    Check out the student resources, particularly the handouts:

    I’d really recommend looking around on that site. Randy Stamm and Bernadette Howlette are very knowledgable — and wonderful people as well!

    Their faculty links are excellent….

    The two of them have done a lot of work on the course design and development process (see their ACT model-

    2. Another school that has some really good resources — the ones with which I am most familair are for the instructor — -is Cal State Chico.

    I am a big fan of their Rubric for Online Instruction (see

    For the instructor, they have an excellent set of handouts:

    Hope these are helpful!

  2. Hi Alan,

    Ace post… thanks!

    I’d argue that the number 1 issue you’re faciung is the frustration of communication within the WebCT bulletin board environment, hence:

    “4. The discussion postings are not well thought out or do not illicit real thought”

    and all the aggro you talk about.

    Now… I’ve had a sneaky idea of late (I don’t know if it’d work though) but couldn’t one pop an typical blog discussion tool (especially one using email notification) onto, say, the front page header or footer of a course….

    Just a thought.

    Cheers, James

  3. Thanks James–

    The number one problem (to me) however is even simpler; I do not prepare enough, so it appears chaotic to the students. This is not all that bad, as it humanizes the experience, and maybe lets these “studets” (who are actually teaching faculty who do or will teach online) that is does not have to be a perfect, borg-like experience.

    As you likely know, good board activities need structure and facilitation, not to mention a meaty topic. Our folks have been rpetty good and getting to the board, so I amnot convinced that ti is the tool; it is more the craft of using the tool.

    That ebing said, WebCT’s board is plain cumbersome. For example, messages I write appear to me as unread, so when I log in after a day away to check new messages, see 4 in the bin,. it is disconcerting that 3 are marked unread are the ones I wrote. The display of read/unread is un-instinctive, and works agains the intuitiveness of people accustomed to seeing a structure more like an email in box.

    The whole linking to other media (RTFs, etc) via a paper clip link to a download window, to more options, to the desktop takes WAY too many clicks. One of my students documented it as a 12-step process (we have her signed up now for a 12-step program ;-).

    The whole entering of activity points in the gradebok is a nightmare of a labyrinth; frankly there are just too many damn controls and options, and it usually takes me 5 minutes to get to the right screen where I can award someone 10 points for doing a small task. Maybe it is because I am unfamiliar, but I am a techie by trade, and if I stumble along in the gradebook what are future instructors going to do?

    But these are quibbles. A good online course is no different than a good F2G course- if the content is presented in an engaging meaningful manner, everthing else flows.

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