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Taking it Online

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Two lecturers discuss the e-course teaching experience

 “…uh…my cat stepped on my keyboard while I was taking the test.”

 That’s a defense of exam performance that few UNH professors hear, but one that Michael Albrecht, lecturer in communication, heard recently (although he fully protects the source). Albrecht teaches an Introduction to Media Studies course entirely online. All of his exams are administered online, so his students might take their tests anywhere—possibly even in their bedrooms with naughty cats at their sides.

 Albrecht is one of two lecturers teaching the College’s first two semester-long e-courses this term. The other, Jennifer Armstrong, is a seasoned instructor in philosophy who has taken the rigorous Introduction to Logic course from the physical to the virtual classroom. Both lecturers recently discussed the experience of preparing and teaching an online course.

 A boost to pedagogy

“I found that I thought more about my pedagogy than I had in a long time,” says Armstrong of her e-course preparation.

 Armstrong and Albrecht credit the online experience with having improved their teaching techniques both in the traditional classroom and in the online environment.

 For e-courses, Armstrong tapes her lectures as voice-overs that accompany PowerPoint presentations. The process of taping, listening back, assessing, and, in many cases, retaping in order to ensure the communication is as effective as possible has changed the content of her lectures in her in-person courses.

 “The process was very valuable for evaluating what I do in the classroom and asking myself, OK, this worked well for my taped lecture; would it transfer to the classroom?” says Armstrong.

 Yet the in-person teaching experience is essential to online pedagogy, Armstrong contends: “I think it's important to have taught that same class in person a number of times before moving it online. I can listen back to my recordings and think, oh, that is exactly what I should have said, but I may not misunderstand an idea in the way that students might if I hadn't had students in class giving me quizzical looks.”

 Albrecht, who videotapes his in-person lectures for use in his online classes, has found the ability to evaluate those lectures enlightening.

 “The first time I saw myself on video teaching, I said, ‘I really sound like that?’ I used too many ‘ums’ and ‘ahs.’”

 The videotapes give Albrecht a tool to evaluate his content and the way in which he communicates concepts. He can then tweak sections for future in-person lectures or re-tape portions of a lecture for his online class. He has also realized that precious in-class time need not be spent on taking quizzes and has moved all of his quizzes online, even for his in-person courses.

Beyond flexibility

For students, the obvious benefit of online courses is the flexibility they provide, allowing students to fit coursework into their schedules and be anywhere in the world, provided they have an Internet connection. What might be less obvious is the benefit that online learning provides to some populations. Both lecturers found the medium advantageous for students with certain disabilities. For a hearing-impaired student, the ability to communicate via computer can be very helpful, and a vision-impaired student can be just inches away from the material, manipulating his view to suit his needs, something not possible in the in-person classroom. E-courses provide the lecturers with new and effective tools with which to teach these students.

 The challenge of engagement

Armstrong and Albrecht say they enjoy the online teaching experience and look forward to developing more online courses, but they identify challenges with the medium, as well. 

 “I would caution students to watch out for procrastination. It seems to be more tempting online,” warns Armstrong, who has found that online students miss deadlines more often.

 Given that most of her students are matriculated UNH students whom she might otherwise have had in an in-person course, it makes the difference curious. Is there a perception for some that an online course might be easier than an in-person course? Does the medium make deadlines harder to remember or plan for? Is it human nature to attend to a deadline that requires a face-to-face interaction, such as putting homework into a professor’s hand, while letting slip the deadline for which the interaction will be virtual?

 Such psychological dimensions of online learning might be positively impacted by establishing a personal connection between teacher and student. Albrecht hopes to forge that connection through frequent e-mails. And because students can see his face during the lectures (not the case is Armstrong’s course), it may help to personalize the experience for them. More than one student has approached him in town saying, “Hey, you’re my professor!”—seeming to express a genuine sense of connection.

 Armstrong seeks personal connections through virtual meetings where she can communicate real-time and one-on-one, but students have to show up to the meetings to gain the benefit, and that doesn’t always happen.

 “For those who are motivated, this medium works well; for those who aren’t, it’s difficult” concludes Albrecht. Even with efforts to establish a relationship, students ultimately have to be comfortable not seeing a live professor day in and day out.

 The eUNH initiative

Over the past few years, the College has developed online offerings for the three-week January and summer terms, giving students education options at times of year when they may not be present on campus. Now offering e-courses in limited number during the fall and spring terms, the College can assess student demand year-round, increasing offerings if warranted.

 The College’s e-initiative is part of a larger University initiative to increase flexible and affordable options for students. While the University remains true to its residential undergraduate mission, it recognizes that there is a place for e-learning. The infrastructure, technical training, and faculty interest are strong, but just how big a role e-courses will play is yet to be determined.