The Online Classroom and Community (page 2)
When we say the “online classroom and community,” who exactly are we talking about? The foremost members of your online classroom are obvious: you, your fellow classmates, and your instructor. In some cases there may also be a teaching assistant or other types of specialized positions such as peer tutors or course assistants. The members of your online classroom include anyone who is in your first line of contact for the course.
What exactly your online community is may be a bit hazier. The members of this community can include all those individuals just mentioned in addition to the dedicated resources available from your school but outside your classroom. People such as advisors, program chairs, and librarians, as well as individuals and groups from the wide world of the Internet, can be resources for you.
For each of these groups, let’s look at who they are, what you might expect from them, and when it is appropriate to contact them.
Instructor, teacher, professor, facilitator—whatever term is used to identify him or her, this person is the subject-matter expert who will lead you through the course material and give you direction regarding what is expected and what resources are available to you.
Depending on the requirements of the school, your instructor probably has at least a master’s degree in a subject relevant to the teaching topic, if not a PhD or other type of doctorate/terminal degree (EdD, DBA, DM, JD). In the online environment, instructors generally post a brief biography, as well as virtual office hours when they are available for communication, and their specific course policies. Information about instructor availability and other resources should be clearly stated. You will need to explore your online classroom thoroughly. Do not be afraid to ask questions prior to enrolling in an institution, and if you do not like the answers, consider looking for another school.
Beware of coming to your online classroom with the expectation that the instructor’s role will mirror what you have experienced in other classrooms, online or on-ground. Instructor roles can vary quite a lot in the online environment, by individual instructor as well as by institution. Some instructors see themselves more as guides and mentors, willing to converse with you at length. Others are only available to students for specific, limited concerns, and depending on the school, there may be other people whose role it is to respond to your questions or problems, such as learning assistants, preceptors, or course coordinators.
When to Contact Your Instructor
Communication with your instructor depends on the boundaries he or she sets. In general, it is safe to assume that, unless otherwise stated, you can contact your instructor for any of your questions regarding the course content, assignments, and activities. Whenever you do not understand a concept in the reading or discussion, or expectations are not clear regarding assignments, grading standards, or due dates, do not hesitate to contact your instructor. If you are having a problem on your project team or having personal problems that affect your class performance, contact your instructor as soon as possible to minimize misunderstandings.
For course scheduling, graduation requirements, or computer problems, your instructor is not the appropriate resource. Who is depends on how the school organizes its online academic and administrative departments. You might be able to ask your instructor where you can turn in these situations, but do not expect the instructor to address them.
You are responsible for exploring those other resources. It’s a good practice to find out ahead of time, so you are not caught in a bind. While you are exploring the online class, put together a course contact list and keep it close at hand.
How quickly should you expect your instructors to respond to your questions? It can vary per institution, but find out by asking them what to expect or by posing an actual question. Some instructors adhere very strictly to their scheduled office hours; others are more flexible. Some respond immediately to every message, whereas others may take hours or even days to get in touch with you. Be willing to follow up; never be satisfied with not receiving a response. If your instructor does not respond or does not show up to class, contact an advisor or administrator at the school and apprise them of the situation.
Finally, know what venue is appropriate for various types of communication in your classroom. Many instructors have a space in the online course specifically for posting questions about the class, so all students will see their answers. If your classroom does not have such a space, e-mail may be the most viable option. Explore your online classroom to figure it out.
Do not ask about grades in a public forum.
Your classmates are an obvious and easy resource for you to consult. Do not be afraid to lean on them for support.
When you have a question you believe is too foolish or obvious to pose to your instructor, or if you just need minor clarification, or even if you are just curious to know what others think, turning to your fellow students is the simple solution. And if you need someone to commiserate with you over the difficulty of an assignment, no one is more appropriate than one of your classmates. You may end up learning almost as much from your classmates as you do from your instructor. Your classmates come from different backgrounds and can provide a wealth of resources and knowledge. Their varying perspectives and learning styles can give you insight into the course content that you might not otherwise discover.
Do not be intimidated by the variety of people in your classes; online learning can mean a wide range of people from all over the world share your classroom. Engaging with your classmates can lead to lifelong friendships.
Read other people’s postings to become acquainted with their personalities and see what you might have in common. You will probably be able to tell from the way people introduce themselves and respond to the discussion questions who will be the best ones to ask particular questions. You will discover who is serious and knowledgeable, who is more lighthearted and relaxed. What type of question you have or interaction you are looking for will determine which one of your classmates you wish to engage. There also may be times when you want to pose a query to the entire class to gain a wide variety of answers.
The rules and regulations for contacting your fellow students are in no way as structured and definite as those for other parties in the online community, so do talk to your classmates when you feel the urge. Of more concern is the where/how of the communication. Do not start personal conversations in class areas dedicated to specific tasks or questions. Usually there will be a lounge or other chat area set aside in the online classroom where students can communicate more casually with one another. E-mail is always an option too.
Your Project Teams
Because project teams are a subset of your classmates, the same information just described applies to them, just within a narrower scope. Project teams are typically formed to address larger assignments, so students can share expertise and abilities, support each other in their learning, and produce synergy through the collaboration. Some research suggests that depending on the individual and the group situation, people may learn more when they work in groups (Rowland, Lederhouse, & Satterfield, 2004). They learn more about the subject matter, as well as gaining team skills. Virtual teams are also commonplace in the working world, so working in this way in the classroom will help you be effective under similar circumstances at your job. You will probably be assigned to project teams quite often during the course of your online education.
The question that always arises regarding project teams is “How is it possible to work in teams online?” But there is every reason for it to work! You have classmates who are your potential team members. You have virtual meeting rooms. You have many ways in which to dialogue, such as chat rooms, Instant Messenger, and e-mail. You are offered even more flexibility to meet with your team than in a face-to-face environment. All of these options make team interaction not only possible but equally as productive as it is in the on-ground environment.
Project teams are usually created by breaking a class into several subgroups. The number of people on a team may vary. Sometimes an instructor takes care to ensure that teams include members of differing experience or expertise or that members are in close time zones, to facilitate working together. You will be responsible for helping your team run smoothly and succeed.
If you are on a project team, a percentage of your grade will be based on the team’s work, and sometimes that may be significant. You may be graded on a project as a whole, and sometimes team members grade one another anonymously on their group participation. So be proactive whenever you are assigned to a team. Take the following steps:
- Initiate contact with your team members as soon as they are identified.
Make sure you all have a common understanding of the requirements for the project.
- Start clarifying individual roles, responsibilities, and expectations right away.
Set up a timeline for achieving the project milestones that allows you to progress reasonably toward the final due date.
Communication is key for virtual teamwork. We will say it again: Be sure to contact your team members as soon as you are grouped together, and keep up communication throughout the project. Because you have a designated reason to be in contact with them, and you have built rapport, often team members can be great resources for other questions you have about the course. As with the rest of your education, the difference between a successful team experience and a miserable one is often in the planning and preparation. Be sure to spend adequate time early on to clarify roles and expectations.
© ______ 2009, Prentice Hall, an imprint of Pearson Education Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved. The reproduction, duplication, or distribution of this material by any means including but not limited to email and blogs is strictly prohibited without the explicit permission of the publisher.
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