When is an online course opaque?
My heart sinks when someone says to me, “He’s a good face-to-face teacher, I’m sure he’ll make a great online teacher!” Without help, I’m afraid he’ll be the teacher I get a call about from angry students next term, who will say, “he’s disorganized!” or, “I don’t know what is due when!” or “Nothing is happening in this class!” This isn’t fair to the student or the teacher, and is the source of the “I’ll never teach/take an online class again” syndrome. (An odd asymmetrical syndrome, without the matching “I’ll never teach/take a face-to-face class again!”)
What is so different about teaching online? Without focus and an intentionality of design and practice, the online environment is opaque. The feeling it can engender reminds me of a line in the song, “Invisible Ink,” by Aimee Mann: “I feel like a ghost who’s trying to move your hands over some ouija board in the hopes I can spell out my name.” Without intervention, there is a sense of absence, dislocation, and distance. And those warm forgiving feelings you might have toward the apparently confused, disorganized philosophy professor who wanders in late to class, seems to have no particular lecture in mind, and then takes the class on a dizzying ride through Nietsche’s writings . . . not going to be there so much if you have to take an online course from that same professor, if he doesn’t know how to be present in the online environment, and provide a way for students to have a sense of the presence of the each other. This is not intuitive, it is a learned skill. One way to begin to understand it is to try it out as a student – try to take an online course before you teach one.
“Invisible Ink,” from Aimee Mann’s Lost in Space album, released 8/27/2002, SuperEgo Records.