When I was an undergraduate in my senior year, I realized I needed one required Western Civilization course to graduate on time. Since my senior year was consumed by teaching methods courses in the fall and student teaching in the spring, my schedule would not accommodate a history course on campus. Fortunately, through distance learning I was able to take a correspondence course offered by another university several states away. Although I cut it a little too close for my parents’ comfort, I fulfilled the requirement and graduated on time. This was over 20 years ago, so distance learning opportunities were limited, and what was offered was very different from what is available now. My Western Civilization course was straightforward: 9 assignments, all the same in structure, different in content. For each, I read several chapters of my textbook and wrote a paper on an assigned question about the text. I mailed (yes – snail mailed) each assignment by its due date, and patiently waited for the same paper to show up in my mailbox with my professor’s comments and a grade at the top.
Fast forward 20 plus years, I now find myself involved in distance learning again, but this time as a CaseNEX online instructor, not a student. Times have changed. The mailbox no longer plays a role in the courses I instruct. Feedback is immediate, allowing for dialogue between instructor and students as well as among the students enrolled in the course. Assignments are varied. The overall experience is much more collaborative than I remember from my experience as a student of distance learning.
For the generation of kids currently enrolled in K-12 schools, I imagine online learning will be as “normal” an experience for them as researching using microfiche was for my generation. However, I still find that some folks walking through middle life and beyond are trying to figure out exactly how online learning works. Is it a real classroom? Is it as rigorous as completing a degree on campus? How does discussion work? Don’t students simply post on the discussion board to fulfill a requirement, not really saying anything meaningful? As an instructor, how do you really get to know your students? All of these questions have been asked of me when I tell people what I do professionally. Some really embrace the concept of online learning, but others are a little skeptical.
Here is how I assure the skeptics that my role as an online instructor is truly teaching, and that the students in the courses I instruct are truly getting an education. I assure them that CaseNEX courses provide everything a well run course in a physical classroom setting can offer. The academics are rigorous. Students review case studies of complex educational issues, and analyze each case using a five step method. This analysis requires students to identify issues, consider different perspectives, and use their knowledge from educational theory and practical experience to provide solutions and reflect on the potential consequences of those solutions. They apply this same five step analysis methodology to their own practice, reflecting on changes they can make in their own classrooms and schools. Required course readings are wide ranging from educational journals, recent articles, and books from leading scholars in the field. The feedback I hear from students is that the content is challenging and relevant to their work in K-12 schools.
As an instructor, one of my responsibilities is to post a new discussion thread each week and moderate the conversation that evolves. Students are required to post three times each week, first in response to the prompt and twice more in response to their classmates’ posts. Often, students respond more often than required, asking questions of one another, clarifying misconceptions, and offering additional resources to each other. I find the discussions to be focused since students have time to reflect before posting. One idea builds on another. Is there the occasional “I agree” with nothing more? Sure, but it is often someone’s fourth or fifth post after already contributing to the conversation in a meaningful way.
By participating in class discussions and providing feedback on assignments, I get to know each student. It is not the same relationship that I would have if class was conducted on campus, but I feel connected to the participants in my courses. From their journals, assignments, and posts to the discussion board I get a sense of how each teacher’s classroom looks. I can picture how a writing workshop is run, how a word wall is organized, how a mini lesson could be used to create more structure. I empathize with those who struggle to meet the needs of students reading below grade level. I get excited by someone’s a-ha moment. The unique nature of CaseNEX courses, the aspect that asks teachers to reflect deeply on their personal experience in their classroom, contributes to how well I get to know each student in the course. We are not simply communicating back and forth about educational theory, but about their teaching style and the students in their classes. I can’t help but get to know each student on a professional level with this type of dialogue.
Twenty years from now, I might be blogging (or whatever it is called at that point) about my experience as a CaseNEX online instructor, and comparing it to whatever form of teaching I am doing then. It is hard to imagine how online learning will continue to evolve. But I can say with confidence that no matter how things change over time, the experience of instructing for CaseNEX will remain one of the more challenging and interesting forms of teaching I have experienced. Each CaseNEX course fosters a community of professional educators who grow alongside one another as they research and actively reflect on their own practice.
Sarah Anderson, M.A.Ed.
CaseNEX Online Instructor