Reflections on a Fireside Chat: “Managing” Versus “Teaching” the Online Course


Image courtesy of a Creative Commons license from Flickr user Sam Howzit.

This past weekend, I had an interesting conversation about e-learning while sitting on a mountaintop, huddled around a campfire in the dark. (I promise, dear reader, that I won’t try to make a metaphor out of that.) I was having this conversation with an old friend from my undergraduate days who teaches history at a large, urban community college. He mentioned that he teaches online classes — “Or rather,” he corrected himself, “I manage them; I don’t really do much in them that I would call teaching.”

We talked about how these courses are construed — in that system, the online faculty are allowed to create their own assignments, assessments, and readings, as long as they touch on an approved list of topics for the course. We talked about other things, too, like the difficulty of fostering good online discussions, the challenges of practicing student-centered teaching in the context of huge classes, and which is the best Pink Floyd album. But my mind kept returning to what he said about managing online classes.

“Do you record video presentations for these courses?” I asked.

“No, but I suppose I ought to look into that,” he replied.

It made me a little prideful. I didn’t mention this. I knew community colleges had been doing distance education for decades, and I figured they’d be light-years ahead in things like course delivery and student engagement in online contexts. When W&M launched two fully online courses this summer (the first ever for the Arts & Sciences), I was cognizant that we were, in some ways, reinventing the wheel. What I think I sensed at the time, but really realized when I was chatting (and chattering; also shivering) with my friend, was this: We reinvented a really good wheel. Though what we really did was aim very high with our expectations, choose the best standards, and figure out how to make the best product we could modeled on the best examples we knew about.

W&M’s Collaborative Culture Makes for Good Online Courses

It’s also a good example of one of the strengths of our organization at W&M. I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately while spending time with various job candidates on campus. Inevitably they ask about what it’s like to work here, and I always acclaim our collaborative culture. Last summer’s classes are a great example of that. When something is done for the first time, there’s no established process, protocol, or policy, and the the decentralized nature of academic institutions means that assistance and care must then come from many quarters.

Off the top of my head, this involved the Dean’s office, faculty members, IT staff from central campus and professional schools, and the Registrar’s office, along with necessary approvals and funding — and took place over the course of a few months. Members of the working group rolled up their sleeves and dove deep into things like online course standards measures, online test proctor services, how to hire contractors within state regulations, and many other matters without regard to where individuals reside on the org chart or what their job description says.

From an organizational leadership perspective, it is a thing of beauty. Thick tomes and expensive consultants are employed to achieve similar working cultures elsewhere, in all kinds of industries. While I recognize that this is made possible by the Goldilocks condition of our size, I think the lion’s share of the credit for this culture goes to the excellence of our faculty and staff and the support of our leadership for this kind of collaborative innovation.

It took a lot of time, sure — a lot of discussion, reflection, research, and meetings, on top of the many hours the faculty teaching the courses put into creating the materials, editing, revising, and working with instructional designers. But the payoff was a couple of great courses that our students acclaimed (we asked — not only in course evaluations, but also in survey and panel formats) and the knowledge we will need to do it more efficiently next time.

So yes, I certainly am proud of our work–and proud of us!  But around the campfire, the conversation had moved on (we settled on Wish You Were Here, by the way), so it seemed best not to brag.

About John Drummond

John Drummond is the Academic Technology Manager at the College of William & Mary. Originally from Mathews County, VA, John graduated from James Madison University with a BA in English in 1996 and an MS in Technical and Scientific Communication in 2002, and is currently studying for an Ed.D. in Higher Education at the W&M School of Education. He has been with W&M since 2007. In addition to working in IT, John has taught occasionally at W&M and previously at Tidewater Community College, and in other roles has been an author, a musician, a Perl programmer, a UNIX systems engineer, and a network manager. He resides in Toano with his wife Andrea and daughter Rebekah.