The Pleasant Surprises of Teaching Online
By Paula Wang (Sidwell Friends School)
Last spring, I agreed to develop a hybrid science course for a new semester abroad program in China offered by the Sidwell Friends School. I was excited but somewhat apprehensive. Not being very tech savvy, and not having had the most wonderful online learning experiences myself, I was a bit nervous about jumping into the online education environment. A colleague suggested that I look into the professional development courses offered through Global Online Academy. So, this past Fall I took the Online Learning Environments Series (OLE 1, 2, and 3) to help me prepare and put together the China course.
What I developed and am now teaching for Sidwell’s China program is a one-semester course called Landscape Ecology. The first two-thirds of the semester is taught online (via Haiku Learning Management System), and the course terminates with a one-month concentrated field research component with the science teacher (me) on-site in China.
The students are together in China throughout the semester; I am there only for the field component. The course has been running for a month; here are my thoughts on the experience so far:
Crafting an online class is much more than depositing content for students to learn. My original conception was just that: I thought I would upload readings with questions to set the stage for when I would arrive in China and the real course would begin. For over two decades, I have been teaching content-driven AP classes, mostly with a teacher-centered approach. I feel that my enthusiasm and “story-telling” had made those courses successful. Through OLE, I learned quickly that this method would not work in an online environment. Rather, I had to become the facilitator or designer of the learning experience, not the deliverer of content. The course I ended up developing incorporated much of what I learned from OLE about effective online teaching.
When the course launched, some technical issues made it difficult to communicate directly with my students for about the first two weeks. I felt disconnected and missed the personal connection you make with students on a daily basis in a bricks and mortar classroom. The students seemed to be moving nicely through the first unit without me – but why didn’t they have questions? Not even an email. What I soon realized, however, was that they were actually learning on their own and together as a group, hopefully because the learning activities were well designed. They were constructing knowledge; I had just been the facilitator of the process. This online thing is really working! I now realize how important the planning process had been; the backwards design, the attention to detail, the clear objectives and directions, and the interactive environment.
With the technical issues resolved, periodic video-conferencing has turned out to be a critical part of the course, at least from my perspective as teacher. When we were out of touch for the first two weeks, I genuinely missed the personal contact with the students. I wanted to see their faces and hear their voices; I wanted to know that they were working through the activities successfully. Once we did finally connect, I learned that even though activities may be well designed with clear objectives and directions, the students may not ask for help or clarifications until they see your face or hear your voice. The video conferencing proved to be an excellent way of making those personal connections that we all know are so important in education.
Lastly, I am pleasantly surprised by how much I am enjoying online teaching. This was not at all expected. I appreciate working on a more flexible schedule, taking on a different role as a teacher, and watching the students take ownership of their learning experience.
Paula Wang teaches science at Sidwell Friends School in Washington, D.C.