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Virginia Journal of Education

Logging On

One man's journey from ditto machines to the world of cyber-teaching.

by Terry W. Mullins

When I began my teaching career in Virginia over 30 years ago in Bland County, I taught in a self-contained fifth grade classroom and my primary instructional tools were a slate blackboard, a box of chalk, a filmstrip projector, a 16mm projector and a ditto machine. Later, I taught at my alma mater, Tazewell High School, for over two decades. There, the major tools available to me were (you guessed it) a slate blackboard, chalk, filmstrip and 16mm projectors, and a ditto machine.
As technology advanced, I began to use overhead projectors and videotape players. The overhead projector made it possible to introduce some variety—images could now be incorporated in presentations and outlines fastidiously prepared could be preserved. The videotape player, although large and bulky in the early years, brought the educational videotape into the classroom as the blackboard and chalk became less important. Changes were coming to education, albeit slowly.
Then the Internet arrived, and the rate of change accelerated. A few years ago, I was approached by a colleague about teaching an online course, which was an entirely new concept for me. Along with a group of teachers from different school divisions, I attended a workshop to learn more and found myself learning by being enrolled in an online course.

After completing the course, we were told we would continue to learn by actually teaching an online course to other teachers. Still a bit uncertain as to how this all really worked, I embarked on the journey into the online environment. My “students” included several fellow teachers in neighboring school systems, in my own county, and even in my own school building. We all learned quite a bit about online instruction and, perhaps, a little subject matter simultaneously. I’m not sure who was more uncertain of where we were headed, the instructor or the students, but we were moving and we all survived, better for the experience.
Not long after this, I was asked to put a community college course that I had taught for several years, United States History, online as a dual enrollment opportunity for high school seniors in the 16-county region of southwest Virginia. I wasn’t sure I could even envision how this would happen, but with the help of others who were more familiar with online learning, I gave it a try.

I discovered that the online learning environment quickly opens a two-way communication route where active learning becomes the norm. Entirely online, the instructor and students meet, discuss course topics, review materials, give and get prompt feedback, and submit written assignments, Webquests, and even objective assessments. Contact between students and the instructor and cooperation among students are both encouraged. The course becomes a type of virtual classroom where learning goals are met with general guidelines and specific deadlines.  Students and teachers may work on course requirements at various times, providing a flexibility possible only in such an asynchronous learning environment.

A “community of learners” is truly created as the students and I share in the learning process. I can set high expectations while simultaneously respecting different learning styles and talents. Although I was accustomed to and comfortable with the communities of learning that were created in my more traditional classrooms, this was a new, but just as vital, version of community.

I had some experience with distance education, having taught students in a neighboring high school via an interactive classroom for several years. I’d learned to appreciate technology and enjoyed working with students from a distance. The asynchronous aspect of online instruction, however, was new for me. The interactive classroom depended on television monitors, a fax machine, and a telephone. Now I would be connected to students only through one medium, the Internet, a scenario that was somewhat daunting but at the same time a bit exciting.

I soon discovered that this online environment is different, and has some advantages. For example, students have to become better writers and better readers, thanks to repeated practice of both skills. It’s difficult to be a passive learner in the online environment: Since students must interact one-on-one with the teacher online, it’s impossible to be a part of the class without establishing that relationship. Students must routinely respond to individual e-mails, submit individual assignments, make individual posts and replies to other students in online discussion forums, and take individual online assessments. Communication skills are refined constantly. Student writing becomes focused on a specific audience—fellow students and the instructor. In addition, students meet many of the National Educational Technology Standards as they become familiar with the learning management systems used in the courses. As an online instructor, I find myself constantly checking my courses, often five or six times a day. In fact, I devote more time to online instruction for a particular class than would have been possible in a traditional setting.

In the traditional classroom, teachers face the dilemma that 30 students do not all learn in the same way. Making individual adjustments while working with a group that large can be a tall order. Online you can appeal to a variety of learning styles simultaneously, meeting a need for students who have trouble learning in a traditional classroom. Online courses also offer a cost-effective way to reach not only a greater number of learning styles, but also a greater number of students.

I have now taught students throughout southwestern Virginia for several years in online courses, and believe that such courses are a very significant part of the future of education. Students and teachers benefit from the one-on-one contact that the online environment affords. Not only that, but limitations based on where a student lives, or the availability of a qualified faculty in one particular school, become moot points. A good computer with a high-speed Internet connection can bring the world of education to an individual student anywhere. Online instruction equalizes educational opportunities and also offers educators the chance to teach new and different students while broadening their own professional skills.

Mullins, a member of VEA-Retired, is now an associate professor of education at Concord University in Athens, WV.



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