The Online College Instructor
Navigating the Virtual College Classroom

Working Online

Acclimating to Online Teaching 101


I began my teaching career as an academic gypsy. Everything I needed to teach my college-level English classes was stored in my suburban version of the gypsy wagon – not with pots and pans hanging off the sides of a colorfully decorated wooden conveyance with tapestry curtains. No, my academic gypsy life’s work was strewn over the backseat or flung into the trunk of my car. There was never a question concerning where I put that particular literature anthology or student project. As long as I didn’t “total” my car, I had the tools of my trade, including various colors of chalk and white board markers, depending on where I was teaching.

Now I’ve become an academic geek. I homestead, with my computer, wireless router, and broadband Internet connection added to the tools of my trade. When I began teaching full-time, I became hooked on various forms of technology as teaching tools. Back in 1998, I created my first fully online course, one of just a few such offerings at my university. With a distance learning initiative started in 2000, my newly acquired computer skills were in demand, and now, I teach all of my classes online.

No more bucking traffic or sliding on ice. My life is (almost) stress-free and climate-controlled. I can work outside at 1:00pm on a balmy Wednesday afternoon or in bed at 1:00am on a snowy Thursday morning.

This article is not geared to “How to Teach Online” and does not rely on any research studies. It is, rather, a compilation of ideas, based on experience, in the netherworld of bits and bytes. While the freedom my workplace affords me can sometimes make me delirious with joy, that same freedom can lull me into isolation and frustration. I recently sent an email to a member of our tech team and ended the message with, “I’m going outside now to talk to the squirrels.” I was, of course, joking, but if a professor isn’t careful, he/she might actually start enjoying the company of those furry little acorn-chomping friends.

What I will discuss here are some common-sense techniques designed to maintain your sanity and sense of humor, when you find yourself teaching distance learning courses.

Work Environment

officeFirst off, spend some time on your work environment. I’m not an interior designer or a professional organizer, but certainly working in a space devoted to just exactly that – work – keeps your residence from becoming a giant work elephant you wind up tripping over wherever you go. Yes, work spilling into spaces throughout your home does occasionally happen. The key is to put that elephant back in its own space at the end of your workday.

Work insinuated my entire home until last year. I finally realized that working at home had become an endless, all-consuming task of re-organizing piles of paper (so much for the paperless world), moving my computer, with its Hydra-like wires, from one place to the other, and finding textbooks used pillars of knowledge constructed in corners of the house. Clearing out a space, which my husband and I had already used as an office, was the key. Painting it, adding a wall-length desk-high counter space, and adding shelving units and baskets (for file cabinets) created a space, which was clearly designated for work and nothing else.

That’s not to say that work still doesn’t spill over into other rooms of my home, but at least, at the end of the workday, I have one place to rest my work. All the trappings of academic life are neatly filed and stored, including all the digital equipment I use for my online classes: camera, printer, scanner, etc. A word about printers and scanners: There are units on the market that combine many copying features, including scanning, printing, faxing, and copying. They’re worth the price because you wind up with only one unit instead four, saving useful desk or counter space.

Enough of my HGTV advice.

Technical Stuff

Modern Electronic DesktopOn the technical side, in addition to the above-mentioned scan, print, fax, copy unit, invest in a wireless router for your laptop. (I say laptop because many colleges and universities offer faculty laptops as an incentive to get more faculty members to begin either incorporating technology into existing classes or to create and teach online courses.)

I’m not going to recommend a particular wireless router, but do a little investigating or talk to someone in your tech department about which router to purchase for your residence. Once installed, the wireless router (and the appropriate computer card) lets you amble throughout the house (and even outside), when you want to work. But again, at the end of the workday, return the laptop to its special place in your newly organized office.

Another way to keep from going crazy while teaching online is to investigate broadband (high speed) Internet services. There are services provided by your telephone carrier – DSL or fiber optics (in limited areas) or provided by your cable service. You might be saying, “Why should I pay anywhere from $30 on up?” Do you want to sit longer at your computer than you need to because you now have a slow Internet service,that takes ten minutes to download one student paper? You might even want to try to ask your dean to be reimbursed for the monthly cost.

Now that you’ve finally stopped laughing, another way to keep from talking to squirrels is to organize your computer files that relate to an online class.

I’ve seen my colleagues’ computer desktops and turn and run for fear their computer chaos might be contagious. Computer icons of every type and color – particularly unidentified word processing documents – glower from the screen. “If I need to find a document, all I have to do is look on my desktop,” colleagues respond. That’s fine, if you’re working on one thing at a time. It’s a completely different (and scary) situation when you’re teaching online, especially teaching more than one online class.

Organize your computer desktop by:

  1. Creating and adequately identifying file folders.
  2. Move documents into your newly created folders.
  3. Keep only those folders on your desktop, which you are currently using for online classes.
  4. Store other folders (carefully) onto the documents section of your hard drive.
  5. Just to play it safe, you should investigate various ways to back up your work. Once you’ve established your back-up method, do it regularly!

Another area of computer organization is located on your Internet browser. Bookmarking is great, but not organizing your bookmarks makes it extremely difficult to remember which site is for what course and will lead to wasting time when you decide to include some bookmarked sites in your online course.

Each Internet browser has its own system of organizing bookmarks, or favorites, as they’re sometimes called. Spend some time on a rainy afternoon (or at 3:00am, if you wish) and visit all the sites you’ve bookmarked. Delete those you either can’t remember why you saved in the first place or which no longer seem useful to you or your online students. The remaining bookmarks should be placed into folders (as discussed above concerning desktop folders.)

As I mentioned earlier, teaching online can be an isolating experience. While homesteading can be a relief from the sometimes less than collegial activities on campus, learn to enjoy the freedom of working in your bathrobe and slippers. Actually, it’s not such a good idea to go from bedroom to office, without getting dressed, unless you don’t mind the neighbors watching you talk to the squirrels in your bathrobe at 2:00 in the afternoon.

I remember reading about an executive who began telecommuting from home, and who found it was difficult to get started in the morning. Serious procrastination developed, and he began falling behind in his work. His solution was to get ready for work each morning, as he had done for years when he worked in his company’s office. Not only did he dress for work, he actually walked out the front door, as if he were on his way to work. When he got to the end of his sidewalk, he turned around, re-entered the house, and sat at his desk in his office. That scenario might seem extreme, but it does convey the necessity to stay focused on all that we perceive as work-related activities.

Stay in Touch with the Outside World

But as the expression goes, “All work and no play, etc…” Sitting for long stretches at the computer just isn’t healthful. Take breaks and get up and walk around. Take a long walk or Get in the car or on the bus and go somewhere – a bookstore, museum, your campus to see what’s going on.

Campus visits are not only helpful for keeping you moving; they also remind people that you’re not fired, retired, or dead. Visit those people whose company you really enjoy. Go to the snack bar or coffee shop and hang out for awhile and talk to a few students, even those you don’t know. Of course, make sure students don’t think you’re some sort of weird person who just walked in off the street. Gee, maybe even go to the university’s library. Whatever it is, stay engaged with your college community.
Of course, there are always family members and friends you might not normally be able to see, who might enjoy going out to lunch. The point is the same: stay engaged, connected with the outside world.

Once you’re refreshed and reconnected, you decide to return to your home office and continue working. Sounds great, but when you try to log into your course material or access your email account, you can’t. They (whoever they are in tech support) are probably fiddling around again with programs and networks and all sorts of odds and ends associated with computer technology. All you know is that you can’t get any work done.

I used to become unduly agitated whenever I couldn’t get to where I wanted to go because the university system was down. How am I going to get those online papers graded? How will I be able to post next week’s assignments? Who’s emailed me in the last two hours while I was out having lunch with my aunt? You know what? There’s nothing I can do but call the tech people to alert them to a problem they probably already know about. Once I put down the telephone receiver, I grab a handful of peanuts and go visit my friendly neighborhood family of squirrels.


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