Online Blogucation

What Constitutes Teaching in an Online Course?

A recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, “Students of Professor Who Didn’t Show Up Keep Their A’s and Get Refunds, Too,” caught my attention a few weeks ago. Initially, as I read the headline, I assumed that the professor in question had not showed up to teach her on-ground course. As I read the article, though, I realized that the instructor in question was fired for not teaching an online course: the third paragraph of the article states that “Venetia L. Orcutt, department chair and director of the physician-assistant-studies program” at the George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences, was “assigned to teach a sequence of three one-credit courses in evidence-based medicine over three semesters last year. The first semester of the required course was face to face, and she showed up for that. But according to three students who complained to the university’s provost, Ms. Orcutt went missing when the course sequence shifted online” (Mangan 2011). The article does not explain which of her teaching duties Ms. Orcutt failed to carry out (nor could I find this information in the two other articles I could locate on the case, which seems to have received relatively little attention); it says only that she “went missing” and then assigned all the students in the course A’s.

How exactly does an instructor “go missing” in an online course, I wondered? How much negligence constitutes not teaching an online course? For instance, if you don’t participate at all in threaded discussions, does that constitute not teaching your online course? What if you answer questions in the threaded discussions but don’t grade any student work, or fail to keep your gradebook up to date?

These questions may seem overly simplistic, and it does seem logical that a university firing an instructor for “not teaching” an online course would probably result from a combination of all of the above duties: no appearance in the threaded discussions, no grading of student work, no answering of student questions. But I wondered whether this case might open the door for institutions to decide, for instance, that online instructors who fail to respond to students in the threaded discussions may be in breach of their contracts with the institution and thus at risk of losing their jobs, or that instructors who don’t grade student work should be fired. This question was particularly interesting to me given recent feedback from some of my own online students. I always use the last threaded discussion of one of my online courses to solicit feedback from students about what worked well in the course and what didn’t; this term, which just ended last week, I had for the first time students telling me that they really appreciated my doing things that I consider pretty basic aspects of my job: participating in the threaded discussions, responding to their questions punctually, being available for extra help over email, using the course tools available in my institution’s LMS rather than email to accept student papers, and keeping the gradebook updated.

Coupled with this anecdotal evidence from my students, I have seen firsthand a variety of online courses that demonstrated exactly the shortcomings my students were complaining about in their other online courses—courses in which there is no record of students submitting assignments, much less the instructors grading it; threaded discussions where the students post regularly, for up to eighteen weeks, with no response from the instructor; gradebooks that are either empty, incomplete, or inaccurate. Such behavior would not be tolerated for long, I suspect, in most on-ground courses; what makes it acceptable in online courses?

The short answer is that it is not acceptable. There are two problems, though, that make such occurrences more common in online teaching. The first and largest of these is that many online instructors don’t receive adequate training; they don’t know how to use the tools in their LMSes and thus lack basic knowledge that would facilitate the teaching of their courses online. This is an institutional problem more than it is an individual problem. Certainly, there are online instructors who persist in believing that online teaching is somehow secondary to on-ground teaching, and that they need not actually do the same kinds of work in their online classrooms, but most online instructors, I think, want to do a good job and sincerely believe that they are. They simply haven’t received the training they need to make full use of the tools available to them, nor do they understand that there are strong pedagogical reasons for maintaining an active presence in an online course. The second problem is that it is much more difficult to measure how long online teachers spend teaching, particularly if those online teachers aren’t using tools in the LMS that record activity for the time spent using these tools. If, for example, instructors ask students to submit papers via email rather than using a dropbox tool in the LMS, it’s more difficult (not impossible, but more difficult) for those instructors to show that they’ve collected and graded those papers. If instructors are primarily interacting with their students over email, not responding to or facilitating threaded discussions in their online courses, it is again more difficult to ascertain how long these instructors are spending actually teaching and interacting with their online students. This second problem thus relates to the first: these instructors haven’t received really basic information about why and how they should use their LMS’s tools to teach their online courses. The good news is that both problems are easily fixed: institutions need to make adequate training, both in terms of basic instruction for online teachers about how to use their LMSes and in terms of the pedagogical principles of online instruction, their first priority.

Jennifer Golightly, Ph.D.

Academic Trainer & Consultant

Works Cited

Mangan, Katherine. 2011. Students of professor who didn’t show up keep their A’s and get refunds, too. The Chronicle of Higher Education (November 9).

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  1. She never turned up, sick maybe? of course a teacher does not have to participate in all threaded discussions, they are after all, open discussions. To keep records of students submitting assignments or other should be quite an easy task too in my opinion.

  2. True, a teacher doesn’t have to participate in all threaded discussions. BUT, they should be actively involved in the discussions. Otherwise the students are essentially teaching themselves. If you have 20 students discussing a certain topic, they will need the teacher to keep them on the right track. Until there’s a differential in the price between on-ground and on-line classes, the teacher needs to play an active role in any discussions.

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