Judy Sly: MJC prof shows colleagues how to teach online courses

11/09/2013 12:00 AM

11/09/2013 4:48 PM

I don’t know about you, but I’m weary of politics, even local politics, so today’s column goes in another direction.

More than a year ago, I heard about a Modesto Junior College professor who is an expert in online instruction. And so I did what journalists get to do: Called up a complete stranger and said, can we talk? Fortunately he said yes.

Michael Smedshammer was an English professor. Now he wears the label of instructional design coordinator, which, when translated, means he helps other MJC professors become as effective at leading and teaching an online course as they are in the traditional classroom. Actually, Smedshammer thinks online classes need to be better, far better. “Spectacular” is the word he uses.

Why such a high bar? Because the students most likely to sign up for online classes are doing so because they probably can’t fit a traditional class into their overbooked, stressful, sleep-deprived lives, he explains. If the class is less than compelling, or spectacular, they are likely to drop. Across the country, Smedshammer told me, the completion rate for online courses is about 10 percent lower than it is for traditional, body-in-the-classroom classes.

That doesn’t surprise me, but some of the other things I learned from Smedshammer did.

For instance, preparing an online class takes about three times more work than preparing for a traditional class. The reward is more freedom in the schedule but the instructor needs to be prepared for a barrage of email, and it doesn’t always arrive during the normal workday. Students who would not come in for office hours apparently aren’t so reluctant to send an email. I suspect more of them arrive near the end of the term.

Preparing an online class is not just a matter of doing the same lecture in front of a web cam. In fact, Smedshammer advises his colleagues to keep their lecture short, very short. While a prof might talk for 20 minutes in front of live students, he suggests that an online lecture be no more than five minutes. Of course, he violated his own rule with the orientation presentation for his class. It ran 6:11.

It’s essential that students and profs have a way to interact. Smedshammer said he’s not enamored with live video chatting with students, especially if one or both parties are, say, at home relaxing with the cat or dog, with kids chattering in the background.

On the other hand, he used to hate emoticons but now finds that an occasional smiley face is useful as a way to soften an email conversation, especially if it includes criticism intended to be constructive.

Smedshammer was hired at MJC in 2000 to teach writing and other English classes. He was always interested in technology and probably among the first to put the syllabus online. He was, however, skeptical whether an online course could duplicate the classroom experience. Obviously he’s changed his thinking.

MJC isn’t forcing its professors to become experts in online instruction. They voluntarily sign up for Smedshammer’s classes which are, of course, taught online. Each class is four weeks long, with the profs (students in this situation) expected to do about 10 hours of work per week. Passing two 40-hour classes earns the prof a certification to teach online. Another 40-hour class earns the designation of a certified master online instructor.

I asked Smedshammer what a college student – or parent – could do to have some assurance that an online class is as good as a traditional college course. He said look for courses whose instructors are certified.

Obviously some classes don’t lend themselves to the online format. The jazz band needs to rehearse in person. Music appreciation, however, can be taught effectively online. There’s great potential for hybrid classes, with students doing some parts online and other aspects on campus.

Of course there are educational terms for all this: synchronous distance learning occurs when prof and students are in different places but all participating at the same time. Asynchronous distance learning involves students separated by time and place.

Smedshammer is struck by how quickly things have changed in the four years he’s been hooked on online possibilities. Oldsters like me, who hauled a portable typewriter off to college, wonder whether online courses will be as good and as rigorous as those I remember (probably inaccurately).

There’s always a possibility that online courses will be better in some regard. In a classroom setting, discussion tends to be dominated by a handful of students, Smedshammer points out. Online, more students can be drawn into email conversations. And professors can quickly identify who is getting behind.

Perhaps the most important aspect of online instruction is making college courses accessible to students who can’t afford gas, parking permits, the time away from work or the demands of family. “Without online instruction,” Smedshammer said to me, “that audience doesn’t stand a chance.”

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