July 22, 2018

Review of book on disasters in teaching online

Smith, C. (2009) Who Let This Disaster in My Classroom? Eugene OR: Resource Publications (http://wipfandstock.com)

Subtitled: A Practical Guide for Online Instructors and Some Funny Stories Along the Way.

I’m not normally a procrastinator, but I’ve been putting off writing a review of this book for some time. The reason of course is that I wasn’t sure what to say about it, or whether even to include the review on my site. Let me start first by giving some factual information about the book.

What’s in the book

The book is aimed at online instructors. The jacket claims that the book ‘provides long overdue answers to your questions as an online instructor. It provides skill, strength, and the gift of laughter…’. It has 18 short chapters (the book is 122 pages long) that cover topics such as preparing students for online learning, online netiquette, how to handle difficult students, student excuses, being clear on your instructions to students, avoiding online teaching disasters through better communication, handling communications between students in online discussions, problems with group work, and so on.

What I liked about the book

It is clearly written and uses a lot of examples from Ms Smith’s own class. It is a refreshingly honest, no-holds-barred account of lessons learned from often painful experience. Mostly, I did not disagree with the main advice and conclusions she draws from these experiences. Lastly, I am indebted to Ms Smith for revealing the reality of online teaching in the United States of America.

What upset me about the book

For someone who has spent over 40 years in distance education, the book is deeply distressing. The book clearly reveals that instructors are often inadequately trained, courses are poorly designed, and students are subjected to really bad online learning experiences.

Let’s start with the author. The author had a background in technical writing. After completing an online Masters of Arts in Adult Education at the University of Phoenix, and with no prior teaching experience, she was hired as a part-time adjunct professor by two different colleges (which unfortunately but understandably are not identified). It appears from the book that the colleges provided no or inadequate orientation for students, and even less for instructors, in online learning. So here are Ms Smith and her poor students, thrown together into a new and challenging learning environment without any training. Is it any wonder that the book is about disasters in online teaching?

What is bad about the book

There is not a single reference in this book. No, not one. Ms Smith is clearly totally unaware of the extensive literature on online teaching, educational theories and methods, or methods of course design. There is no mention of how to facilitate the construction of knowledge in online discussions and in fact she is even unhappy with students being asked to think critically (because they misunderstand what that means). Although there is an occasional reference to online courseware, there is no mention of any learning management system, although reading between the lines I suspect that the colleges were using them. We have then a totally experiential, theory-free and trial and error approach to online teaching. (For a minimal list of references on online instruction, see the end of this post).

I was also unhappy about her continual whining about the students. The book is full of bad examples and very few good examples of students studying online. Many of the examples of ‘bad’ student behaviour – such as excuses for late work – would be just as common and familiar in a face-to-face class. Many of the problems Ms Smith faced were due not just to her inexperience and lack of training but to bad course design and lack of a professional approach by the colleges to supporting online teachers and instructors. Is it any wonder then that the students often appeared ‘ratty’?

Lastly, I’m afraid I didn’t find the stories funny at all, although it is often fun and funny teaching online. It was all too sad. However, maybe I’m losing my sense of humour.

The implications

All this is not the fault of Ms Smith. She was poorly trained or prepared by the college, and indeed you have to ask – as she does – why she was hired in the first place, but then, on reflection, she was probably as well if not better qualified than many other part-time adjunct instructors in two-year colleges. She tells it as it is, and has obviously learned a lot from her experiences. But if this is happening to any large extent in colleges in the USA or elsewhere, then there are major quality issues with much of the online learning that is taking place, all of which is easily preventable by going to the literature and following best practices.

I also have to ask: where are the accreditation agencies here? Why are they not requiring institutions to follow best practice in online learning – including ensuring that the instructors are properly trained or qualified to teach online? Is a different and higher standard being applied to for-profit institutions compared with public two-year colleges (yes, of course).

It was a great pity that she did not name the colleges. Indeed, from an ethical perspective, I believe this is essential. Colleges that do not prepare their students or instructors properly for online teaching should be named and disgraced, so students can avoid them.

Why am I reviewing this book?

First, I’m grateful to Ms Smith not just for sending me the book for review, but for letting it all hang out. We need to know that these things are happening. Second, as a resource book for training online instructors and teachers, it would be invaluable, in that it should generate a lot of discussion in class, so long as it is used alongside books that discuss best practice as well.

Books that Ms Smith should have read

Salmon, G. (2000) E-Moderating London: Kogan Page

Palloff, R. and Pratt, K. (2007) Building Online Learning Communities San Francisco: Jossey-Bass/John Wiley

Comments

  1. Unless you spend quality time in Education school, you get no exposure to anything resembling classroom management. Online, lecture, nothing. You’re the expert, here’s the text, go for it. Been this way in higher ed for years. Actually – I can’t name an institution that DOES provide fundamental training in classroom management for their professors and instructors.

    Glad you decided to write up the review and post it. I think we could be looking at the start of a valuable conversation.

  2. I too am glad you decided to write a review of the book. It does sound like what can happen when faculty are not provided the training they need to be effective. Even when receiving training, online learning is challenging. In my experience, it takes a huge paradigm shift for most faculty. Based on my observations in over 30 years teaching in universities, most faculty use what I call an instructivist approach (teacher directed) rather than a social constructivist approach which is arguably the most promising approach for this new learning context. I have felt that I have been provided some training, but most of the most effective training I have received was from a continuous review of the literature on the topic and from the Quality Matters training I have received. Yet this is still not enough. It takes many years of experience and unfortunately much trial and error. It is challenging and demanding work to teach online. Nevertheless, I love it. I believe with my whole being that through online learning we can teach more effectively. We are just beginning to learn how to design and deliver effective online courses. I also like the books you recommended, especially the book by Palloff. I would read all of her books. I also recommend Salmon’s book entitle, eTivities. This last book provides some creative ideas about how to design and teach online.

    One final thought…students also need to understand that a social constructivist online course requires a whole never way of learning and many of the students today do not understand it and we need to do a better job helping them make the change to active learning, problem solving, critical thinking, collaborative learning and understand the importance of learning from their peers, resources and instructor. I have found it challenging to help students understand the value of a social constructivist approach.

    I do find the online learning and teaching for both students and faculty is very time consuming and yet immensely rewarding.

    • Tony Bates says:

      Thanks, Diane, for a really great comment. I was very conflicted about this review, because the book does contain useful advice for instructors, but it’s more like trying to rescue the passengers than avoiding the boat sinking in the first place,

  3. Where can i find this book. It seems interesting

  4. This should be a really good real life example why online education fails. I hope Ms Smith won’t get mad after she read Tony’s review and my comment. However, personally I think this book is worth reading and I will read it.

Trackbacks

  1. […] Now, as Richard Garrett commented in the article, as online distance education activities grow and become an integral part of a university’s operation, there is a logic in decentralization, but with several big provisos: the academic departments must understand that distance education students have different needs than on-campus students, and in particular should not be starved of resources to subsidize the on-campus students; online distance courses need to be designed differently and hence require instructional design and web technical support and this is expensive; and small departments will need some kind of central help as they cannot afford to hire their own specialist staff. You can of course not do any of these things and still decentralise but the quality will be dreadful, and there are plenty of examples of this (see my review of Cassie Smith’s book). […]

  2. […] This is a report on how a US community college retrofited its online courses to reduce drop-out, which left me with the question: why do so few US colleges and universities study best practice in online learning before moving in this direction? (see also: Review of book on disasters in teaching online) […]

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