Teaching real students in a virtual environment

Posted: October 10, 2011 in Uncategorized

In 1999 I was teaching in a relatively “traditional” classroom environment. By traditional, I mean that students walked through the school doors each morning, sat at desks, opened books, ate lunch, and did all of the regular things that students did in traditional schools. At the end of that school year, I moved to Alberta and began teaching at an online school. When I was hired, I questioned my employer’s hiring of me for the job. I had little, if any, technological training and skills, I had only begun using email in the third year of my undergraduate degree and wasn’t quite sure what an attachment was! My new Principal assured me that she had not, in fact, made a mistake by hiring me and that everything I needed to know would be taught to me by experienced teachers at the school. The mentorship relationship that developed between me and several teachers at the school was my first experience of community building in the virtual world. Some colleagues I saw everyday and some I saw twice a year. The revolutionary concept for me at the time was that in spite of this, I was in touch with my staff community everyday and that everyday we as a staff had the opportunity to connect without seeing each other.

My classroom was my computer, a cubicle and class lists of students with their corresponding email addresses. In the weeks, months and three years that followed, I got to know my students by posting lessons online, sending them morning email messages, responding to their work, answering their questions by email and telephone and using a program similar to the one we use for eci831 for extra-help sessions. In this way, I experienced a second way that communities could be built in a virtual environment.

At the time, the concept and operation of such schools was relatively new and in many ways as a staff we shared a common belief that in some ways we were pioneers. We knew how to teach, however, other than the day-to-day contact through email and telephone, we did not have a set course on how to build and foster community. As such, our Administration and division office senior administrators allowed us the freedom to develop classroom and school-wide communities in a variety of ways. The school year opened with a meet and greet BBQ. Throughout the school year there were opportunities for students to participate on sports teams, perform in a talent show, attend parent-teacher interviews and graduate in a grade 12 graduation ceremony. Not all students could attend, however, those that could were able to extend their virtual education into another setting. These live, in-person interactions became the third and very powerful way in which I experienced being part of a community in the virtual world.

The concept of online, distance education is common today and most traditional schools have students that take these courses as well as the regular “classroom” courses offered. Taking time to reflect on these experiences has given me a chance to see where my personal journey into online education started and is continuing today.

Please feel free to share your online educational experiences and if possible, please describe how community was built or not. As always I thank you for your responses and look forward to hearing from you.

  1. kreuj says:

    This term both of my courses for my MN are online and these are the first online courses I’ve ever taken. First of all, I have to say that they are more demanding than face to face. No one gets to stay silent, to not have an opinion. So, for me, and any others that I’ve spoken to in these courses, the learning is not in any way diminished, in fact, it is more likely optimized.

    For my Leadership in Nursing course, we had one meet and greet, Q & A with our prof. in late August as part of the Saskatoon orientation. We didn’t meet the Regina folks, but are getting to know them online. A few of us get together or do more emailing as we know each other from other courses and have become part of one another’s PLN. I think nurses, like teachers, by nature, are facile communicators and inclusive, so we encourage one another in replies to posts, just as we are doing in ECI831.

    There is so much potential for online ed to be expanded for more open access, more student-centred delivery.


  2. sjphipps says:

    This is my first online experience as well. I am really enjoying it even though at times I still struggle with the lack of face-to-face communication.

    I would love the opportunity to see how an online classroom works. Right now I am just proud of the fact that I email my student’s parents daily, send and use youtube videos and am learning new apps every day. We will be starting our digital portfolios this week too. Lots to learn but definitely worth it when the students are engaged and excited to learn.

    • mickpanko says:

      I too would love to see how these online schools work – sounds like a great opportunity Dean. The fact we, as students, never really see each other is still a weird concept to me. In fact, I had met Alec before but it now seems weird to actually see him in person as opposed to online :-).

  3. It’s interesting to hear of your experience – obviously, the physical place (the cubicle) would normally be such an isolating space. Add communication technology, and it is what you make it – continued isolation, a vibrant community, or somewhere in between. Thanks for sharing your journey.

  4. Chelsi says:

    It was very interesting to read of your experiences, Dean. What did you find to be the most challenging aspect of teaching online?

    • Hey Chelsi, thanks for your question. At first, the most challenging aspect of teaching online was developing the courses I was teaching. All of our lessons were Word documents and had to be posted to a webpage where the students could download. At first my lessons were daily postings, but as time progressed, I (and the entire staff) moved to weekly lessons that were posted on Monday and contained sufficient content to be spread across 5 days of the week. Once these were developed and tinkered with over a year or 2, the workload became less. I still remember my first 2 years at the school as being non-stop work. Literally working from 8-4, coming home, having supper and then back to work on my lap-top until 11 or so…for 2 years!! I know many teachers have a similar workload, however, I found it extremely heavy. By the third year I had “canned” most of my units and other than the small revisions we all make, I didn’t have such a heavy planning workload. Marking student work and providing feedback and continuous assessment was also heavy. I soon found out that printing all of the student work that was sent t me was ridiculous. I then refined my skills with the help of my colleagues and was able to move to paperless feedback and comments very quickly. Add in the questions by email, tracking down students for late work, etc. the job was busy as all teaching is i have found in subsequent years. Although I did not regularly see the students, found that when we did meet in person (as per my blog comments) the experience was very rewarding. The most difficult thing…I’m not sure…as I have had more traditional jobs since this one, I have concluded that good, passionate teaching involves a lot of work and 15 years in I still seem to be working as hard as ever. I think my work is better now, but not necessarily any easier. I ramble…I hope this has helped answer your question. All the best Chelsi…Dean

      • Chelsi says:

        Hi Dean,
        That definitely answered my question! I was just curious, as my friend teaches adult education and taught a portion of the class online, and she expressed many of the same issues as you did (all of the emails, the huge amount of marking, tracking down students…). It sounds like you definitely spent your share of time editing and revising the classes you created!

        I definitely agree with you that passionate teaching involves a lot of work. My mom taught for 33 years, and when she retired, she was still going to work at 7:30 and coming home at 4:30. Many people think it just gets easier and less work with time, but you’re right – those who are devoted are devoted until the end!

        Thanks for the insightful reply!

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