Faculty Focus


The Underbelly of Online Teaching

No matter how much we embrace and enjoy online teaching, the human frailties of mistakes, disappointment, anger, frustration, and oversights will come calling each time we teach a class. And when any of these happen we can respond with an emotional and unchecked action—never good—or we can accept that these negatives will always be part of our online teaching efforts and learn how to deal with them in a sensible, appropriate manner. What follows are the most common of the negative issues one will find when teaching online.

Some students will really tick you off. You need to be motivating and positive and nurturing in all correspondence with your students. That is what each school emphasizes—and it is, of course, the right thing to do. But make no mistake: you will have students in every class who really upset you. You will have students who ask the most basic of questions (and leave you wondering how they made it to college). You will have students who just “don’t get it” no matter how many times you explain something. And, yes, you will have students who blame you for their poor performance in class—even though you know it fully rests on them.

You will never have enough time. In a face-to-face class there are set days to teach, but online teaching offers—boasts!—24/7 access, and thus you will constantly be getting student assignments (many on time, but some always late), emails and webmails, and discussion postings. All need be addressed in a fairly short amount of time (and some schools require response within 24 hours). And added to this are weekly and/or daily postings that you need and/or are required to do. Yeah, plan out your day and use all the time management tricks you’d like, but the fact remains that you can’t control the number or timing of emails/webmails, discussion postings, and assignment submissions students make, so know you’ll always be in a time crunch when teaching online.

Not all support staff or supervisors will have your back. In all websites and initial conversations with the “powers that be” at your school, a love fest seems to be taking place when it comes to the promised support and appreciation for your efforts from any professional at the school who comes in contact with you, directly or indirectly. This is not always true. Schools may have folks in positions that impact you directly (e.g., evaluators, supervisors, course schedulers) or indirectly (e.g., IT support, payroll, upper management) who either have no teaching experience or look at you merely as a number filling a teaching slot. These kinds of folks can really reduce your excitement for teaching at the school—but don’t let that happen. Usually—and the operative word here is usually—these individuals are a small portion of the overall school staff, most of whom are competent and supportive of you.

You will get blamed for problems that are not your fault. You can be the best online instructor this world has ever produced and you’ll still have students who insist that you are a lousy teacher or that you have insulted them by what you wrote or that you never returned their work (even though it was never sent in) or that you are biased or that you never explained an assignment or procedures (even though they were clearly explained, and in plenty of time). And don’t be so surprised if a supervisor or two and/or support staff also read you the wrong way or misinterpret what you wrote or did. All of this is the way things work in any teaching environment, but because of the overwhelming use of the written word in online teaching it can seem out of proportion. Just be gentle and patient in your responses—and be sure you always have a paper trail to back up your defense.

Evaluations can be unfair. It’s de rigueur for schools to have you evaluated—by your students, by your supervisor, and/or by an evaluation team. Of course, to do well on one of these you need to be sure you follow all your school’s policies, procedures, and “best practices,” as well as be an active, enthusiastic, and timely instructor in your class(es). But even if you believe your score in all these areas is 100 percent, don’t be surprised if you have some evaluations that are negative in one or more categories: sometimes evaluators don’t get it right, students can lash out at you in revenge (for poor grades, for example), or you just may have misinterpreted a school policy. Read over the negative evaluation, with its explanation, and if you feel it’s wrong, do respond to the appropriate party—but be prepared to back up your defense.

You will feel burned out and drained at times. Online teaching can be taxing. Staring at a computer screen for hours on end, sitting in a chair for all that time, editing and grading assignment after assignment, responding to so many webmails/emails and discussion postings, and placating whomever you need to placate at your school can eventually pull you down, defeat your spirits, rob your enthusiasm—no matter how chipper, upbeat, happy, and positive you start out. Know how to recharge yourself, because these down times will occasionally tap you on the shoulder.

Errol Craig Sull has been teaching online courses for more than 15 years and has a national reputation in the subject, both writing and conducting workshops on it. He is currently putting the finishing touches on his next book—How to Become the Perfect Online Instructor.

Excerpted from Sull, Errol C. “Teaching Online With Errol: The Underbelly of Online Teaching: Be Sure You Are Aware of It.” Online Classroom (June 2010): 6,8. Print.