I had never considered teaching an online course because, like many instructors, I love teaching in the traditional face to face classroom. It is a physical space where people gather to exchange ideas, collaborate, make eye contact with me and ask me questions if they do not understand a concept or an assignment. The traditional classroom lends itself to a unique type of spontaneity, an unpredictable dynamic that I love. I also like having the ability to make an immediate assessment of students’ comprehension and interest (based on eye contact, verbal responses, and/or yawns), as well as to measure my teaching skills and choice of texts/assignments. I witnessed some of my colleagues in the early stages of our campus’ attempts with Distance Learning. I wondered why they subjected themselves to this teaching approach when so often they were troubleshooting and trying to figure out what was going on with WebCT.
My attitude changed when I was expecting my twins. I needed to find a way to still teach, but be near my newborns. By this point, our campus was offering a Distance Learning certification course, and I jumped at the opportunity to learn something new while caring for my two month old infants. I needed intellectual stimulation. The overwhelming newness and responsibility of caring for little ones taught me a great deal and was itself life-changing, but like many new mothers, I craved adult time and missed my professional life.
Luckily, the Distance Learning course I took was delivered asynchronously. While my babies slept (which they did a lot at that stage) or were being cared for by dad, aunties, or grandparents, I logged on and learned about the history of distance learning, the basic terms and concepts, theories and concerns of online pedagogy, and of course, how to set up an online course that is engaging, accessible, and accomplishes ALL that a face to face course does. Often in the late hours of the night, after a feeding, or during the early hours of the morning (after another feeding), I’d complete homework, participate in discussion forums with my classmates, play with suggested (free) online software, and check my grades.
By the time I finished the course, not only did I feel confident in my grasp of eLearning, but my entire teaching approach had changed. Although I learned many things—from the theoretical to the practical—one lesson made the most impact on me: my students’ communication and learning styles are vastly different than mine and are continually evolving, as is our world, while many (or most) instructors continue delivering lessons in ways that don’t fully engage our student population. Furthermore, I realized that the traditional classroom only serves the students who are in a position to physically attend class because of their location, reliable transportation, those with set work schedules, and those not homebound with family responsibilities (particularly, and most often, women caring for children or aging parents).
To understand WHY this realization made such an impact on me, you should know that I choose to teach in the California community college system because despite its culturally, academically, and socio-economically diverse student population, these very different students have one common denominator: they are adults pursuing knowledge and the community college is the most welcoming, affordable institution for them to work toward a degree, regardless of their past educational history. In a nutshell, I want to teach and I want to reach the most diverse, and often underserved, students. But by teaching only face to face classes, I am missing out on the opportunity to serve even more students—many of them women—like me (mothers on family leave or homebound without childcare), as well as women unlike me (military wives forced to relocate every so often, hungry for education but who cannot commit to attending a complete semester on a physical campus).
While finishing my Distance Learning certification class, I thought of all the students I had dropped from my courses in the past for excessive absences regardless of their reasons—I got called in to work, my child was sick all week, my car broke down on me again—and yes, I felt guilty. I realized that if we live in a world where technology has facilitated our communication with people around the world, so too, has it facilitated a teacher’s ability to teach and a committed student’s ability and access to learn.
Since 2009 I’ve taught at least two dozen online courses, including some hybrid, and have met students who are traveling for work or pleasure (but complete my course nonetheless), and expectant and new mothers (one student gave birth and sent me a hospital picture of herself with a tired but proud grin—hospital gown and I.V. still attached—and her newborn’s pink face, eyes tight shut). I love reaching students at some point in their academic journeys, who I may not have been able to serve in the traditional classroom.
And in addition to serving a broad range of students who I may never meet in person, I also know I’m serving my traditional students better, because I employ eLearning best practices with them as well. I have all students communicate with me and with each other in discussion forums. In such forums, no student can sit quietly or tune out when she or he is expected to participate in an online discussion. Though that kind of teaching is more time consuming, because I also attend to the forums, I am now privy to every single student’s thought processes, perspectives, and questions, and I am better able to address their concerns at our next face to face class meeting. How many teaching opportunities did I miss in the past, when I asked if there were questions but no hands went up and instead I got a few vague, tired shaking heads?
More is expected of online instructors: more time in developing a course, more professional development in order to stay current, closer attention to where each student is in her level of comprehension or in his type of interaction. But I would not change a thing. Instructors and colleges must be committed to serving the students who come to us for an education. This means making a continued effort to stay current in our fields and with our students’ changing needs and modes of learning and communicating.
Rebecca Cisneros-Díaz teaches in the WVC Department of English and the Women’s Studies Program. In addition to raising her beautiful twins, she dedicates much heart and energy to being the Co-Coordinator of the WVC Puente Program.