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My whole adult life I have taught composition. In 1994, I landed my first paid teaching gig in Prague at Gymnasium Pisnicka where I taught high school students, trying to prepare them for their English entrance exams for university. Unlike my roommate who came home from her first day teaching vowing to find work in a restaurant, the instructional bug got me on day one, and I have found myself in the classroom from that day on.
In 2008, I took a job with an online university, and I officially left the ground. I transitioned from having only taught in face-to-face classroom settings to teaching online courses exclusively. In the past decade, I have had the chance to collaborate with so many amazing fellow faculty members, and this blog is dedicated to helping faculty take their individual brick and mortar tool kit and expanding it to online settings. Many composition teachers have expressed trepidation about distance education, yet I have found that teaching writing online means you get to write about writing all the time.
Full disclosure: I find it exceedingly difficult to write as a human adult writer person with multiple children, a bowling league, and most time consuming of all: a full time job. As an online composition teacher, my work is in essence writing back and forth with my adult students in discussion boards, emails, in anchored comments on their work, and in announcements. So, while I compose all day for my living, I will almost do any chore and pursue any distraction to avoid writing creatively (or for that matter composing online instructional best practices blogs). While Cervantes argued that the pen is the sword of the mind, the typewriter keys are my conduit into the worlds of those around me. How can you teach writing yet dread the act itself? Turn composition assignments into a hyperlink lasagna of fabulous concepts, and trick yourself into loving to write again!
Teaching online is more memorable when teachers use the power of story enhanced with links to resources; online classrooms allow for curated exploration in the context of a lesson plan. When I moved home from the Czech Republic, I brought with me a profound love for the Russian novel, The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov that was composed in an act of defiance under the harshest regime imaginable. Bulgakov himself was despised by Stalin. The writer lived out his days in hunger and abject poverty, sharing a bathroom with six other apartments in a freezing block of flats. With his final breaths, Bulgakov dictated the last few pages of the novel to his wife before he died at the age of 49. The first website that I ever fell in love with contained an annotated version of Bulgakov’s book with links to all the places that the book depicted. It was an intellectual gift to my way of understanding the power of online spaces, and it ushered me into a keen appreciation of the Internet’s possibilities for learning about and exploring multiple facets of a topic.
The future of teaching online is contextualizing knowledge in a manner that makes it easier for students to understand complex ideas so they can be part of identifying creative solutions. To enhance authentic learning, and to create a web of related materials, teachers can embed links that take their students on adventures all over the Internet and direct them to content in all modalities from a podcast on restorative justice to photography from the 1920s and all places between and beyond. Today’s course resources are multimedia, intersectional, and knitted together to provide adult students with a glimpse into a synthesized whole in order to transfer essential academic and professional skills to learners in the context of a course syllabus.
We live in amazing times. These words once uploaded can be viewed on a screen thousands of miles and multiple time zones away from my home here in Minnesota. We are able to break down any daunting task and describe it, with visual clues, to another person who we will likely never meet IRL (in real life). My college already has classrooms with Augmented Reality scenarios where social workers can encounter a home visit with a person in crisis without putting themselves in harm’s way. Vulnerable populations deserve extra safeguards. In the college of education, special education instructors are practicing facilitating activities for children with behavioral issues in a realistic environment before placement in an actual classroom. Virtual reality is making professional development for pre-service teachers much more meaningful and realistic, and more institutions are striving for this level of realism in simulations to challenge students without risking patient, client, or student safety.
At the age of 49, I have not suffered for my art like Bulgakov did, yet I so admire his durable passion and drive to compose, even while being weakened from hunger and gravely ill. While being very glad to live with air conditioning and regular nutritional intake, how can I possibly replicate that frenetic drive to write it all down? Here I am, able bodied as all get out, in a country where I am not fighting a politically harsh and physically awful environment. Why am I not writing with the same directed vision and unwavering desire to have my stories out in the world? It is a puzzle all teachers and authors must ask ourselves: How can I be useful with my words and ideas to support the greater good? For some folks it may be text books, others fiction or memoir. For some of us it might be an academic blog.
Some of us were born to teach, and we need to find ways to make it easier for others to create the types of online environments where knowledge can transfer to others easily. It is incredibly gratifying to be an online faculty member at this particular intersection in time and space, and if you have great tips for fellow online faculty, send them our way. The future will be annotated, and it starts with us.
These weekly blogs are for teachers by teachers. If you currently teach in a brick and mortar setting, and you want to move to online, the tools, techniques, and technology short cuts we describe here may be useful to you. If you have been teaching online for some time, you too will find that our blogs on optimal online learning environments are a great set of resources to use and share.