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Spring 2011

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On Teaching
Natalie Hess, PhD

Professing on the WEB

I teach teachers in Yuma, a border community in the southern corner of our state. These days, most of my courses are offered on the WEB. My students are working teachers who have returned to school to earn Master’s Degrees in Bilingual Multicultural Education (BME) and English as a Second Language (ESL). I also teach the two ESL methodology courses, which our state now requires of all teachers and all school personnel of Arizona. We in Arizona, and particularly in Yuma, have a large population of ESL students, and the general feeling is that all teachers must of necessity also become teachers of the English language.

I have worked and taught teachers in six countries and thus profited from many years of classroom experience in widely different school settings. I have covered the whole gamut from “sage on stage” to “guide on the side” and have traveled from phonics to whole language and back. I have adapted my teaching style from Grammar Translation, through Audiolingual Methodology, to Communicative Strategies toward Content-Based Instruction, and into Structured English Immersion. I have, as the saying goes, “been struck by the same pendulum a great many times,” but none of this has prepared me for my most recent role—that of instructor on the WEB.

Until quite recently, I had taught and felt that I was doing reasonably well in face-to-face frameworks. My students were supportive of my efforts as I was of theirs. But everything seemed to collapse when necessity so rudely catapulted me onto the World Wide WEB.

The students in my new environment are children born into computer land with umbilical cords ensnared by WWW. By now, they have also become full-time employees, parents of young children, and struggling professionals. They too enjoyed and profited from the face-to-face structure, but their reality has texted an alternate story. My students have had to balance education and work with family. Travel time means time away from home. Baby-sitters are expensive and whole degrees can be earned by dedicating late-night hours to the courses on line. All of us have been reformulated into the same digital design. We are all on the WEB, and the WEB is here to stay. Our educational institutions must inexorably play a strong role there. Learning something new keeps one young, they say. In spite of my more than forty-year classroom odyssey, I am suddenly very much a newbie.

There have been many questions on my mind. My classroom style has very much been one of interpersonal engagement, and it is such engagement that has become my pedagogical forte. Are there ways that such a style can be translated into the digital?

I have never been one for super organization, and many of my last-minute ideas have overridden last night’s carefully planned lessons. Is such over-riding possible or even desirable on the WEB? As a teacher of methodology, I had been free to bring in material that I recently discovered in the popular press or in a randomly chosen journal. Could such unsystematic pursuits still serve me? In every class, there are students who for one reason or another are in need of special tending and cultivation. Would I perceive these needs via the WEB, and could I handle the situation in the www environment?

Parker J. Palmer in his inimitable The Courage to Teach (1998) tells us, “Good teachers possess the quality of connectedness. They are able to weave a complex WEB of connections among themselves, their subjects, and their students, so that students can learn to weave a world for themselves” (p. 11). Can we really create such “connectedness” in the ever-expanding and consistently-fading WWW?

I must admit that I am very unsure of answers to the questions above and mostly I am doing the thing that Parker so avidly opposed—searching for the right techniques. Techniques, I believe, are valuable tools to the “craft” of teaching. The art on teaching demands “soul.” But before anything becomes art, it must have the essentials of “craft.” Once we know technique, we can polish, amplify, expand, diversify, and breathe our spirits into the matter.

Below are some of the things I have learned while professing on the WEB. I hope that these concerns will be of interest to colleagues and that we will begin a conversation that will promote craftsmanship that can bloom into artistry.

  • I have learned that there are many differences between on-site classes and courses on the WEB, but that there are also similarities, which with some adjustment can be rediscovered.

  • I have learned that behind every paper there is a person. This is someone with nerves, ideas, hopes, and frustrations just like mine. The above appears so obvious that you must wonder why I even bother to mention it. But keep in mind that in asynchronous WEB courses, you only have a name. You don’t see the students, and if their ears, lips and noses, and tongues are pierced, you will never know. You don’t see their late stumbling into class, and you don’t hear the pitch of their anxious voices.

I try to keep this firmly in mind when reading each student paper and to recall that in spite of all their pod-casting and Face-booking, many of our students are taking their first WEB course and are duly terrified by the whole idea. Occasionally they will write you about these things, but often they don’t, but it is our role to pry open and interpret context.

  • I have learned that students enjoy exchanging ideas on the discussion board but that they have to be given very specific directions in how to do this.

  • I have learned that the entire course must be organized and laid out at the opening of the class, so that students can plan their semester carefully.

  • I have learned that shortening an assignment in the middle of a course is acceptable and reasonable, as long as it is given in plenty of time, but that complicating or lengthening an assignment is absolutely forbidden.

  • I have learned that readings must be chosen more carefully than they are in face-to-face classes and that students must be encouraged to criticize and question the authors.

  • I have learned that a well-crafted discussion question as a pre-reading will bring about more focused reading reviews.

  • I have learned that assignments must be clearly explained and that each assignment should be accompanied with an example, and that no matter how carefully I have given instructions in the syllabus and on the home page, I should repeat them several times before each assignment is due.

  • I have learned that, even in graduate courses, nothing can be taken for granted. In other words, if I want my students to produce an essay, I have to give some explicit instructions on essay writing.

  • I have learned to include films for demonstration, and that I must give clear instructions for such observation.

  • I have learned that when I create groups, I must allow for great flexibility of participation because some students just will not participate, and those who do should not have to bear the burden of the slackers.

  • I have learned that small groups work better than pairs on the WEB.

  • I have learned that while there are no “class-meetings,” my students expect me to ALWAYS be available, and that I better check my online classes at least twice a day, and my voice mail regularly.

  • I have learned that just as in on-site classes, students must be given a choice in how the material is organized and how they are to go about their learning.

  • I have learned that, just as in on-site classes, and perhaps even more so, students are in need of personalized feedback and clear assessment strategies.
And I am very anxious to learn more.
Professor Natalie Hess

As all teachers, I have found that my best learning experiences have come from contributions made by colleagues. Are you there, dear colleagues? Is this something we can discuss on the WEB? I sincerely hope so. Let’s BLOG about it. Or whatever the latest acronym happens to be. Please, let’s help one another to be the WEB teacher we have always wanted to be.

—Natalie Hess, Professor of Bilingual and Multicultural Education, NAU-Yuma, and NAU President’s Distinguished Teaching Fellow