What We've Learned

The Cyberspace Project served us well in that it was both a classroom success and a perfect introduction to online teaching and to the politics of such an endeavor, now occurring nationwide. Yet one of us hears, almost daily, cries for help from instructors whose institutions have not yet entered the online realm. The topic seems almost overwhelming, especially when instructors are learning a new teaching method at the same time they are learning how to use the technology, or when they are being pressured to learn everything overnight, or when there are not enough system support personnel to help all the people who need it. Our advice, then, is summarized as follows:

  • Start something, anything, even if on a shoestring. Don't wait for the perfect access or the perfect computers. Prove that your project works first.

  • Begin by adapting standard classes to new pedagogies and using online technology as a supplement. Don't decide to teach your class entirely online until you have had active experience with students working online on a part-time basis. More often than not, doing so is a formula for failure, and students pay for the mistakes.

  • Find supporters at your campus and keep them abreast of your work. Keep a history of the project, and create documents outlining the project in detail, including student evaluations, which will give you enormous feedback. The documents you prepare will help you answer questions you may receive from other instructors (both on- and off-campus) and may also be used in the quest for promotion and tenure. Post the information to a gopher or to the World Wide Web.

  • Hold firm if supporters want to help you too much, and ignore those who would like to block your success. Most of us handle this with ease when faced with ordinary projects, but there is so much debate about online technology it is easy to take criticism personally, to become sidetracked from what is essentially a good idea, or to question your own judgment because everyone else seems to know more than you do! Dive in, but do so prepared.

  • Pick your projects carefully and follow the mission of the institution. Write and publish whenever possible and realize that you will constantly have to explain unfamiliar terms and give demonstrations of what you are doing. Also work on a local level. Give presentations to area high schools and related groups.

  • There are also those who will insist that any course is easily adapted to online technology. This is not the case. While it is important to be flexible, it is also important to use sound judgment as an instructor and to know what works best with students and with your own teaching style. We have noted over and over the failure of courses hastily created just so a department or school can add them to their curriculum.

  • Online technology is labor intensive and poses problems in creation that do not occur in the regular classroom. It takes a while to write all the lectures for an online course, for instance, no matter how well you know the information. Writing is different from speaking, and the instructor must consider making the coursework interesting in a different way--without immediate discussion or feedback. Instructors also frequently discover how much they depend on student questions and discussion to remind them of what they should cover or to clear up problem areas. And if the instructor is also creating the web pages (and they should in order to be able to make timely changes), the design process itself must be considered.

  • If working with two schools, put your key people in touch with one another and insure that paperwork is disseminated to everyone. Then follow-up.

  • Use chaos to your advantage. No matter how neatly drawn their organizational charts may be, all institutions have "chinks" in them--especially with regard to anything new like emerging technologies. Showing mastery over some of the organizational "messiness" means that you're working for institutional solutions.

  • Seek grants and work around existing political realities. Work across the curriculum whenever possible, and work for change. Ignore matters over which you have no control, or point them out to someone who does. Check on accreditation standards.

  • Discuss the ground rules with your partner and create a contract. Be willing to modify the contract.

  • Keep in mind that as an instructor, you may be learning many new procedures yourself, including some programming, in order to run an online project successfully. Additionally, many of these procedures will be outdated or updated remarkably quickly, making it difficult to stay current. It is therefore important to avoid allowing either the tools themselves or the seduction of new online avenues to get in the way of either your current project or of the coursework itself. And remember that it is not necessary for you to become a heavy-duty programmer; it is more useful for you to know how to communicate with your system administrator. Foster a good relationship and learn enough of the necessary computer jargon so that you can communicate effectively. Know what you want before you call for help and try to figure it out yourself first. You'll learn more that way.

  • Remember your students. Be flexible and understanding and expect the technology to fail from time to time. Prepare back-up procedures. And never expect your students to do something you have not done yourself. They will do so soon enough anyway.

    The Project Where We Are Now