The Campus Politics of Online Teaching

A few years ago I moved my teaching entirely online. One of the joys of online teaching is that it allows faculty to better know our students. In a conventional classroom, I would come to know the four or five students who spoke the most. In my online class every student must do two detailed discussion posts a week. There is always someone in the class who finishes their first lengthy post by saying, “I don’t normally talk in class, so this is unusual for me to say so much . . . ” Teaching online also allows for greater creativity, and has enabled me to rethink my pedagogy. Over the last two years I have become inspired by the principles of the negotiated syllabus, in which students choose their content in the course. In my classes students take increasing responsibility for the content as the course progresses. For example, in my Global Drug Trade course this quarter every student creates a 12-15 page research paper, which they share with their peers in the final week of the class. This is the only content in the course for this week. At the same time that my course is based upon a negotiated syllabus, the entire content of the class is shaped around the principle of Universal Design, which fosters the learning of diverse groups, such as people for whom English is a second language, and those with different learning needs. I teach at a public university that has historically has an access mission, and I believe that teaching online enables me to continue to serve those students who would otherwise have difficulty completing their degree. As such, online education reflects our core institutional values.

In spite of all these advantages, teaching online sometimes draws resentment from other faculty. My department just launched a new online degree, which has attracted a wide range of students. Our fall enrollment is up 34% over last year, and my department has had 70 inquiries from students interested in the new online track since May. Still, I know that in some departments faculty worry about the quality of online classes, which they view as lesser. In practice, some of these concerns may perhaps revolve around the fact that they fear that they won’t have sufficient enrollment in their classes. Of course, I’ve also known senior colleagues who were originally critical of online classes, who have begun teaching in this format, and now are enthusiastic advocates. Still, I think that in many departments there exists a small minority of senior faculty who continually question the value of online education. Partly for this reason, at some institutions online classes tend to be taught by adjunct faculty who need to teach in this format to be hired, which means that senior faculty don’t have to do the work or take the risks to change their teaching. I should note that in every department there are outstanding face to face teachers -certainly in mine- whose classes are always huge. I believe that such classes will continue to exist a century from now, and that a well-taught lecture is a joy for students. Still, structurally there are inequities in institutions, that may tend to disempower those who teach online. Those who choose to do so may shoulder more of the work serving students, while being resented by their peers, and continually having to justify their teaching choices.

For this reason I really liked Penelope Adams Moon brief opinion piece “Coming to Campus to Teach Online,” in Inside Higher Ed. This well-written essay looks at one of the practical issues involved in online teaching, and some of the real-life issues involved in departmental politics.

Want to read more about online classes? You can find another blog post on this topic here. You can also view my syllabus for a fully online course on Digital Globalization here.

Shawn Smallman, Portland State University

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