Published on 2012/10/22

Accelerating from 0-60 Online: Insights from the Road (Part 1)

When an educator begins teaching online, there is very little time to adjust to the new medium while meeting the expectation for a top-quality program.

Carla Mathison, PhD has taught at the graduate and undergraduate level at San Diego State University in the Department of Education for 25 years. Recognized for her teaching excellence, she has received kudos from students and an award from the university. She has a keen interest in brain based learning. Two years ago, Dr. Mathison went from teaching zero students online to teaching forty-two and now she teaches sixty students online. I spoke with Dr. Mathison recently and she was candid about her experience and lessons learned. This is the first of a four-part interview between myself and Dr. Mathison which will be published over the course of this week.

MEYER: What type of courses have you taught?

MATHISON:   I’ve taught courses in educational psychology and educational technology at both the credential and graduate levels. And I’ve taught doctoral courses on organizational change and educational neuroscience. I generally work with post-baccalaureate students who want to be teachers and educational technology masters’ students who want to become instructional designers, but I’ve also worked with principals and with students who want to do education in less formal situations – museum educators and so forth.

MEYER: How have the issues changed since you started teaching?

MATHISON:   I’m not sure the issues have changed a tremendous amount. We have learned much more about how people learn, because we now have the opportunity to look inside the brain while people are still alive. We can get some fairly decent ideas of how the brain operates. And it gives us some understandings about how people take in information and process information. How the memory works. And so, it’s really helped me as I try to continue to be a better and better teacher.

Within the last couple years, I’ve been asked to and have been, in some ways, eager to jump into the arena of hybrid courses and fully online courses. And that raises a whole other spectrum of issues wrapped around teaching.

MEYER: Tell me about your first experience teaching online.

MATHISON:   My first experience teaching online was with 41 students; 21 were face‑to‑face and 20 were online. That was 2½ years ago. It was literally overwhelming for me quite frankly. I didn’t really understand how I was going to do this. I had a very limited understanding of the technologies that were available to me and yet I wanted very badly to make my online students feel like they were included. .

I was teaching new curriculum using new technologies. Anybody who’s an educator knows that designing a class for the first time is a pretty steep learning curve. But for me, designing a class for the first time and designing it for half face‑to‑face and half online students was a particular challenge.

MEYER: Looking back, what did you learn from that experience?

MATHISON: Well, first of all, it was really difficult for me because I really loved teaching face‑to‑face. It’s what I’m used to. So, the idea that I was going to have 15 students online that I wasn’t going to be able to see, that I wasn’t going to be able to hear, it just didn’t seem right to me. I tend to be pretty interactive in my classes. I think that’s very important from the learning standpoint. And so, it was a particular challenge. I have to tell you quite honestly that I wasn’t comfortable the entire semester. I was nervous every class period. I found the technology tools just not quite right, they weren’t helping me do what I thought was pedagogically sound. I didn’t feel like they were helping me teach well.

MEYER: What tools were you using and what weren’t they providing to you?

MATHISON:   I was using Blackboard, the learning management system (LMS) and Adobe Connect. Remember, I also had 15 face‑to‑face students sitting in front of me. I couldn’t have a monitor right up on my face so there was a camera in the back of the room for the online students. The online students’ experience of me was basically watching and listening to somebody who was teaching a face‑to‑face class.

MEYER: How did you fold that experience into your next one to make it better? What did you change?

MATHISON:   The technology — one of the things that I realize is that everyday when I wake up there’s some new technology I don’t know about. And that’s a double-edged sword because I never feel completely up‑to‑date, but I always am hopeful that there’s a new technology out there that’s going to help me teach better. The second time I taught that class, I had the subject matter a little bit better tamed but I was also dealing with a new technology. As I said before, I was very concerned that I couldn’t see or hear students in the online situation and that was stifling to me.

I found out before my second go-around of the course started that Google had released “Google Hangout.” Google Hangout is a lot like Skype in that you can see the person and hear the person online. The nice thing about Hangout is that it allows you to see and hear up to nine people and it allows you to share documents. So, now I had this new tool. And while I couldn’t use it for my entire class because I still had over 30 students, it did give me some opportunities that I didn’t have before.

There are a couple things that I’m really concerned about in online learning. And one of them is teacher‑student interaction and student‑student interaction. Google Hangout enabled this added interaction. I had small groups organized ahead of time, with face-to-face and online students in each one. Each group had learned about Google Hangout prior to the session. That took a little bit of training. Then during class I would do part of a presentation and then stop and have students work in their small groups (in Google Hangout) just like I did in face‑to‑face, then we’d come back together as a whole class.

In this way, the face‑to‑face students and the distance students got to mix. The face‑to‑face students would interact with the people in their group who were online. Using Google Hangout I could drop in on different groups to see what they were doing just like I would in face‑to‑face. Actually in some ways it was better because in face‑to‑face, the room is usually very noisy. Since students had their laptops they could leave the room and go anywhere nearby to meet. And in this situation when I was in a Google Hangout group with a particular group of students, I was solidly with them and they with me and we didn’t have to compete with all the other things that were going on in a face‑to‑face classroom.

Please come back tomorrow for part 2 of Elizabeth Meyer’s interview with Carla Mathison.

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Readers Comments

Frank Gowen 2012/10/22 at 10:14 am

I think it is an increasingly common experience for instructors to be thrown into the online learning or semi-online learning environment with little or no instruction or guidance. And the result, at first, can be just as Dr. Mathison describes here– anxiety, confusion, a sense of distance or isolation from students. But it is inspiring to see an instructor with 20 plus years experience in face-to-face learning adapt so readily, creatively and handily to the online learning environment. Using Google Hangout is an incredibly innovative brainwave; interaction between non-online and online students doesn’t tend to be the focus; in my experience, instructors rather split the two types of learners into two groups and work on engaging them separately. The kind of engagement Dr. Mathison describes here seems incredibly fruitful.

WA Anderson 2012/10/22 at 4:31 pm

I agree that it’s a shame that instructors are often plopped down in the middle of an online learning environment with little or no preparation; in view of all the thought and money and energy that does into online education technology, software, marketing, etc.

It seems like a glaring error that the teachers (those who are actually administering said education) have fallen through the cracks.

Why not provide these new online educators with some online education of their own to prepare them, to get advice, to interact with their colleague to better their approach and to make the most of a new environment that, without context, can be confusing, disorienting, and difficult to use.

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