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Harrington: Teaching Online

09/22/10 5:55PM By Elaine Harrington
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(HOST)  Commentator Elaine Harrington teaches in the English department at UVM.  The latest trend in education is teaching online - and recently she's been learning how to do it.

(HARRINGTON)  It's Day 4 of my first online class. I'm answering e-mails at 1 a.m.  In Baltimore, Ryan does his most thoughtful work at 4:15 a.m. In California, Ariel is three hours behind most of us. At 5:30, I'll respond to what everyone has just posted and fine-tune the next day's lecture. "The hours you're keeping," my husband remarks, "would kill a horse."

I've worked from home before, but this is an intensive two-week UVM writing class, taught totally online. Enthusiasm and experience in the topic - writing arts reviews - are givens. But reaching and knowing my students is the challenge.
 
Intense days and nights fly by: readings, discussions, first drafts, revisions. Students take cell phone notes while dancing to Japhy Ryder at Red Square on Church Street; analyze Toby Keith's neo-patriotic lyrics in San Francisco; and they grapple with landscape paintings in Bennington. I offer lots of feedback - star in Video Lecture No. 3 - and consider the really big questions related to online teaching, such as...
 
Pajamas or not? You can read a student's new draft in your bathrobe, but this sets the tone of the whole day and, of course, night. So put on real clothes and "go" to work. Everything rides upon creating as full a presence as possible.
 
To video or not to video? It helps with being present for students, summarizing main points, and explaining logistics. So dress professionally and place flowers in the background to deflect attention from your undone housekeeping. An inexpensive Flip camera, a little courage and you're in business. Also learn how to configure the wikis, writing blogs, podcasts - but still be ready to scream the night you read: "No content available for this class."

Then there's the coffee shop with Wi-Fi or home office question.  You may get a productive buzz from the people and caffeine - but friends will chat and pastries don't aid mental acuity. Go there - but only after you finish a certain quota of work.
 
Family vacation? Not a good mix. You'd only be obsessed with trying to find - and keep - an internet connection.
 
A walk in the woods to clear the mind? Just 20 minutes, then back to work.
 
How about food? Only nutritious things you'd normally eat, and at the usual times - except tea or coffee, as needed.
 
If you're talking to yourself a bit by now - don't worry. It's part of bonding with your students, which is the goal.
 
And finally - will I be crazy enough to do this again?
 
One student writes her thanks on the last day of class. She was born with a disability and has been mostly home-schooled. Our class has encouraged her to go to exhibits, to expand her language choices and to organize her work. She writes, "I feel stronger and more confident in my abilities to voice my opinions."
 
I had no idea. I am humbled. I do want to teach online again - if only for her - and have signed up to do so again this winter.
 
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