Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Burnout, Context and Online Teaching

Yesteday, a lengthy article appeared in Inside Higher Education which made the following claim:  “In this light, burnout risk for online instructors seems less about the medium and more about personality.”

My bullshit detector went on red alert at that point. Here is the response I offered the site. We'll see if they actually publish it:

Hmm. Why do I hear notions like “rogue agents” buzzing around in the background of this comment? Why would burnout risk turn on personality of the individual while completely ignoring any kind of contextual considerations? That sounds like a rather not-so-subtle attempt at exculpation.

I’ve taught online courses for seven years now at a state megauniversity. I also use online components for all of my courses. While I think there is some truth to arguments in the article about extraverts (like myself) needing more personal contact than online settings provide, I think that is but a fraction of the total picture and probably not terribly informative regarding burnout.

Here are some other considerations:

Best and Highest Uses

1. Online technologies probably have their best and highest use as adjunct technologies to F2F courses. They provide means to create and store assignments, readings, images and links to videos while simultaneously requiring students to actually appear and perform. Online components provide constant access to schedules and assignments. Thus students have constant notice of what their responsibilities to the course are with no excuse for not meeting deadlines.

2. Online technologies have their second best and highest use as actual distance learning. Students who are responsible enough to arrange distance learning are usually mature enough to handle its demands. Some of my best online students have taken my courses from study abroad sites. However, few of your students will actually be distance learners.

Conversely, distance education works both ways – I have taught courses from all over Latin America from Bolivia to Cuba. Online courses can be used to engage summer educational travel as well as to cover days when the instructor is out of the classroom due to conferences or illness. This is one of the few real incentives for online teaching.

3. Online technologies are most frequently misused for reducing classroom overcrowding. This confuses an administrative imperative with a pedagogical concern. It also results in an influx of students who often don’t want to be there but feel they have no other choice if they want to graduate.

Adult Learners

4. The more adult learners on board, the better the content of the discussion, cooperation and performance online. Adult students offer wisdom based in life experience that kids fresh out of high school could stand to hear. Conversely, courses loaded with FTIC students, many of whom have never taken an online course before, and graduating seniors who saved general ed requirements until last when they finally couldn’t avoid them anymore, are recipes for misery. You will spend hours dealing with technical issues with the former and the latter will simply not show up until the end of the term and wonder why they’re failing.

Setting - and Keeping - Boundaries

5. Setting boundaries is critical, as one of your sources noted. This is a college course, not a convenience store. Instructors are not on call and assignments have deadlines. Set a particular time for students to be assured their emails will be answered. Consider holding on-campus office hours for those who feel the need for actual human being contact. Be emphatic that the only schedule that matters in a successful online course is the course schedule.

If you want to survive, lower your expectations

6. Bottom line for survival: Lower your expectations. Your students are going to cheat. You probably won’t ever know it and you will never be able to prevent it. Undergrads simply see online exams as open book, joint projects.

Your tech services are going to largely be unavailable and unhelpful. Worse yet, you should anticipate that it will inevitably be your fault, whatever the problem actually is, when you do finally catch a technician at home.

Your students will expect As and easy classes. They have shopped for such courses on Ratemyprofessor.com. And they will whine if you require anything more. Moreover, up to a third will withdraw, mainly due to poor time management skills and underestimation of course demands confused with the minimal amounts of work they actually want to complete. And the chances are they will punish you at evaluation no matter how hard you’ve worked (and you will work at least as hard if not more so than real classes) and how good a job you’ve done. The impersonal dynamics arising from never dealing with a human being makes it very easy to evaluate you and your course in exactly the same manner.

This is simply the context of online courses. If you expect more, you will be disappointed. And if you continue to expect more, you’ll burn out.

At least that’s how I see it. Your mileage may vary.

The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Orlando


 If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.
Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes. ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

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