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Reflections on Teaching Online: the Myths and Realities of One Instructor’s Journey

As external and internal changes have taken place, it has become obvious that universities are planning to provide more and more classes online. I have been resistant to this change. In my mind there was no way to teach my classes online. I felt the concepts were too varying and too important to be taught online. I believed that there was no way to keep the quality and the expectations at a high level in an online format. And maybe, most important, as one of only a few faculty of color, I thought I needed to stay in view. I did not want to hide behind technology. I felt that I was supposed to stay out in front to be a role model and to break through stereotypes of what a professor looks like.

On the other hand, if the classes that I taught were going to be taught online, I also felt that I should be the one to do it. I worked very hard to include elements of what I consider good teaching. I wanted to include small and large group discussions, direct instruction, practice, hands-on work and modeling. I worked hard to include as much of this as I could and was surprised at how many elements of good teaching I could include. But it also made me realize that there were parts of my teaching that I could not include: elements that made me, in my mind, a good teacher. All the intangible things. All the things not found in books. I could not rely on things that I had come to include in my teaching. My teaching was strong, in my mind, because of my connection with students. I know this is not something found in a handbook, but I found that I may rely on these intangible elements more than I realized.

Maybe giving up the intangibles is why teaching online is so scarring for so many of us. As teachers, we know that we have some elements and things that we use that are not found in a textbook or in a research article. There are some characteristics of good teaching that are indescribable, but you know them when you see them. Basically, I felt I had to let go of many of these things.

In looking back on my experiences, what I found was that I had to understand the material in a new way. I had to branch out and figure out what was essential and what was not. I needed to rethink what good teaching means and look at it in terms of the tools that I had in my online class. I found that many of the techniques that I use in the classroom can now be recreated using online tools and technology. Maybe, most important, I found that I did not have to give up my connection with students. It is a different connection, and I am still learning ways to build social connections because this important aspect of teaching should not be lost.

I discovered that teaching online has unexpected benefits. I have discovered that online classes have the potential to allow equal access for all students. Online classes can increase the diversity in the teaching force and in educational access, in general. I believe that this increased diversity contributes to an enriched academic program and more informed dialogue which truly reflects the complexity of our educational system. In addition, from my experience with online classes, I have found that some of my students who are normally silenced are given the opportunity to demonstrate their knowledge and strengths through these online opportunities. Online discussions make it possible for all ideas to be expressed and “heard” since everyone must read the posted information.

In the end, I learned a lot about the material, my students’ needs and myself in this journey. I had forgotten that in trying something new we learn something new about ourselves. I think I was comfortable with the way I taught and comfortable not challenging myself, but I learned that with change comes challenge and with challenge comes learning. I have truly learned a lot. In my exploration of the unknown and maybe unwanted, I found new strengths as a teacher that I didn’t know I had.

— Dr. Lisa Kirtman is an associate professor in the department of elementary and bilingual education at California State University, Fullerton.

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