Sunday, January 13, 2008

Email Record

I may have just hit my personal record for most student emails in a weekend:  56.  

About 3pm on Friday, I stopped answering student email on the theory that it is high time I take my life back - you know - have some boundaries and enforce them.  So all those emails that came in highlighted in lavender - the color I chose for the handy categorization rule for student email?  Yeah.  I there are 56 of them.  

I don't mind.  I guess.  It was nice to be away from the job for the weekend, and as long as the internet doesn't explode tomorrow due to my frantic posting of replies, I'll do it again next weekend, too.  

Even though it will be stressful until about 11am tomorrow, I will  have at least succeeded in creating some kind of barrier, which I desperately need.  

OK, tomorrow, I real post containing actual, real, teachable information. 


Saturday, January 12, 2008

Contracts are in

Hi All, 

Classes started a week ago, and my students are sending in contracts - agreements to abide by the policies and procedures of the course.  One of the reasons I require contracts is that if I don't, people claim later that they "didn't know" that I don't accept late papers or "had no idea" that attendance is enforced on the discussion boards.  

It not only saves me that trouble, but it also, I think, helps my students focus and retain what policies are important and critical for passing the course.  So will I sometimes feel like a rather mean person for requiring certain software and NEVER accepting a late paper, it's probably for the best.  I send them contracts in return, promising to grade their papers and post their grades in a timely fashion - and provide feedback.  So everyone is making promises.  

So far, 48 of 80 contracts have come back in electronically signed.  They are due by Tuesday at midnight, and then my classes will start in earnest.  

I can't say I feel excited, exactly, but the more contracts I have in hand by Tuesday, the better I will feel about the beginning of the semester.  And 48, on Saturday before they are due, is pretty good.  

Friday, January 11, 2008

Oh, yes. A filler post.

Folks, this week has been so nuts that I don't have the stamina to write anything.  I do plan on writing some articles and essays this weekend, but I felt  I should at east pop in here and post SOMETHING because I promised the internet (Blog365) that I would.  

More tomorrow. Promise. 

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Students in Trouble

Today I write about as subject that is much on my mind - and far more often than I would like.  

College students are often young, but not always so.  They are sometimes immature and unsettled in life, but often not.  Sometimes they are sure of their career plans, and other times, they can hardly choose whether to take chemistry or basket-making.  

They are, in other words, they are an inconsistent bunch.  

However common their... uncommonness, one trait I have noticed over and over in my eight years of teaching is vulnerability.  Yes, that's right.  Students are a vulnerable bunch. 

The young ones are vulnerable because of their age, if for no other reason than that they are still growing up and don't always know how to conduct their own affairs.  The older ones are often vulnerable because they are in transition  - perhaps out of one career and into another, or perhaps out of a marriage and into independence.  Only the very fortunate have parents and friends and others to stand by and help financially and emotionally with the challenges of being in school.  

I am reminded of this today because a student confided in me that she is separated from her spouse and fears that she will have to mend the relationship and quit school because she is not financially able to make it on her own.  I am reminded of this today because another student confided that he has lived in his truck for most of the year because he couldn't make rent - and that the recent cold snap had been particularly brutal for him.  

Believe it or not, these stories are pretty common.  As teachers, what we are tempted to do ti try to solve students' problems as much as we are able.   Of course we want to help.  

However, the right thing to do is to advise students to seek counseling and support from student services.  While we are good at what we do, and while we like to think we are good people, we are not trained social workers or psychologists.  Our job begins and ends with teaching curriculum and silently submitting ourselves as good role models.  Counseling, advice, and aid are the jurisdiction of others.  

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

In which I fall on my own sword

Ladies and Gentlemen of the Jury, Fellow Academics, Fellow Students, Fellow carbon-based life forms:

I screwed up. 

I can't believe it.  (Well, I can).  

A student's mom called the Dean this week and went ballistic over her son's grade.  Her argument against his F is that he never got feedback from me.  Nonsense!  I said.  Of course I gave feedback.  I feed people back.  It is what I do.  

Of course, it is what I do when I actually do it.   Meaning, when I actually attach the file to an email to return it to the student.   Guess what I didn't do?

Yeah.   So the student, apparently unconcerned about the lack of feedback, assumed that despite the Fs in the gradebook and a sizeable number of blanks indicating late work, chose not to worry about whether he would pass until the moment when he found out he had, in fact, failed.  

My failure:  attaching comments to emails. 

His failure:  failing to care until he got his grade and his mom got pissed at him.  

So needless to say, this has not been a great day for me as a teacher (and carbon-based life form).  More on this debacle - and what I plan to do to fix it - later.  

I have lots of other feeling sad and stupid to do before this day is over. 

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Rules - Made for Breaking?

Each semester, I set standards for my classes, and one of them is "Students must turn in papers on time.  No paper extensions will be granted under any circumstances." 

Students are taken aback by this policy.  Most of them are either terrified by it - and some don't believe I will enforce it.  

Well, I agree with them on the first item: it is terrifying. It means you can't have an alien abduction, a car accident, or even a simple house fire the day your paper is due.  What kind of policy is that?

But they are wrong if they think I won't enforce it.  The reason I do is simple: it saves them the sting of the F later.  

An example:  Let's say Paper One is due February 1st.  Let's say that a student we'll call Bob decides to email the paper to me on February 3rd, citing the death of his grandmother and his unexpected departure for XYZ, Oklahoma for the heartbreaking funeral.

My response is to express sympathy for him and his family and suggest that if he is having a hard time coping with the loss, counseling services are available and confidential and free.  Regarding the paper, I regret to inform him that he did not meet the deadline and will therefore have to accept a zero for the assignment.  

The student, naturally, seems far more upset about the zero than he does about the loss of his beloved grandmother.  I, being a student myself, am obsessed with grades.  So I know just how he feels.  That's why I had my grandparents killed before the first week of graduate school - you know, to eliminate surprises and distractions.* 

What I don't understand is why the student will email the paper after he gets back from the funeral - when he just as well could have submitted it BEFORE he left for the funeral.  Even an incomplete or rough draft would meet the criterion.  I accept rewrites.  The zero could have been so easily avoided.

That is, unless he never even started the paper until after the funeral.**

Some teachers, the more compassionate and gentle ones, will simply accept the paper and give the student a cookie.  I will not - and no - it is not because I like to see people suffer and fail. It is because I like to see people with clean shiny transcripts, free of Fs. 

You see, that very student with the newly dead grandmother is likely as not to have ANOTHER dead grandmother by the time the semester is half over.  He is also likely to suffer a house fire, an alien abduction, a freak smelting accident, a failed relationship and at least one catastrophic hardrive failure in which he loses "everything."  

Knowing that these events are likely, I believe it is far kinder to let the F stand, and then gently suggest to the student, when he misses the next deadline, that this might not be a great time for him to be taking online classes, what with all the distractions and troubles he is having.  I then explain the consequences of having an F on his transcript.  I reveal that I, too, failed a course in college, and it sabotaged my GPA and kept me out of top notch grad schools.  (The first part of that sentence is true; the second might have been true had I actually applied to Yale.  I didn't).  I then explain that W grades are not counted in the GPA and actually look rather innocuous on a transcript.  And wouldn't the student like to just think all this over?

It's true, of course, that I sometimes break my own rules.  I once had a student two semesters in a row - a student who proved smart and responsible and mature.  In his first semester, he was a model student.  In his second, he lost his job, wrecked his car, and his wife left him.  I cut him a lot of slack. I was happy to do it because in all that chaos, he only missed one deadline, and he made up the work almost immediately.  

But such students are as rare as alien abductions and Bigfoot sightings - and also about as rare as instances of me breaking my own rules.  

Rules are rules, everyone.  I don't break them, and neither should you. 

* Oh, come on.  You know I am kidding.  
** We're assuming both the funeral and the grandmother were real. 

Monday, January 7, 2008

Beginning of the semester

Online classes started today, and it has been one snag after another.  I am sorry I don't have the stamina to create a longer post.  Just a few words for anyone starting a new semester

1)  Be patient

2) Be kind 

3) Avoid alcohol 

That goes for both teachers and students.  This is a stressful time and we need to be as level as we can until the smoke clears.  

Happy Monday - and I promise a real post tomorrow.  

What a Day!

Sunday, January 6, 2008

Re-Organization Underway

This site is ready for a major re-organization. I have added some links and need to add more, and I need to re-categorize and edit some pending posts.  But most important, and much to my joy, I my semester starts tomorrow, so I'll be teaching 80 new online students.  

If you are one of those, welcome!  I am happy to have you "in" class and I look forward to a great semester ahead. 

Please be patient as this site changes and grows.  I have big plans, but only so many hours each day to work on bringing them to fruition.  In the coming week, for example, I'll be adding more links and YouTube content for my current online students.  I can't wait.  

Saturday, January 5, 2008

Tips for Teachers - Email

Why on earth would a teacher need advice about doing something as simple as answering an email?  

Because so many of us don't do it - or do it so inefficiently that we might as well have three times the number emails we actually have.  

When I first started teaching distance education courses, I installed Microsoft Office and set all my email up on Entourage (similar to Outlook Express) and THEN I wrote a "rule" that would automatically check email every five minutes.  As a result, I got email... every five minutes.  It was great, except for one thing: it gave me a false sense of control regarding my email inbox.  I'll give you an example:  I once got an email that went something like this:

From:  Angry
Re: my paper 
Yo, I don't get why you always gives me bad grades on my papers and I think you are wrong.  You should read my papers and gives me grades, highest.  I have a problem with you. 

Now, I get emails like this more than I'd like.  (I would prefer never, thanks).  But when I got this one, I did what I normally do when I don't know quite what to think:  I waited.  Had I written back right away, I might have written something like this:

To:  Angry
Re: my paper

Hi Angry, 

Your papers are, as I clearly stated in my comments, not passing  because you did not follow the directions.  Also, your grammar is so poor that I often wonder whether you are writing in alien-script and using a transliteration button.  I can't pass you unless you actually learn something.  That's why you are in school.  And by the way, your problem is with you and your failing papers.  Once I give you the F you so rightly deserve, I'll forget about you entirely.  But your transcript?  That's forever, so I suggest you get to work.  

Sassy MsTeacher 

So as might be able to tell, I was a little miffed at being addressed as "yo" and I didn't really appreciate being called "wrong."  Also, the student's poor command of verbs was irresistibly funny, considering he was complaining of poor paper grades.  In short, I was too conflicted to compose a response right that second.  So I went for a run and flossed my teeth and perhaps I even baked a cake.* 

Then I returned to the computer and composed an even-tempered and professional reply:
To: Angry McStudent 
Re:  my paper

Dear Angry, 

I am sorry you are having trouble understanding my paper comments and your grades.  Why don't we schedule a phone conference or an IM conversation and go over each paper?  Please let me know what time would be convenient for you.  I will be on instant messenger between 2pm and 4pm today.  You can also reach me by phone at XXX-XXX-XXXX.  

Nice McTeacher

Now you might thinking: ah, you are advocating letting your emotions cool rather than writing a sassy reply. If you are thinking that, you are WRONG.  

Here's the thing:  teachers are passionate about what they do and they are passionate about their fields of expertise.  As a result, most of us personalize our jobs far too much.  What I should have done was taken perhaps two deep breaths before writing the inevitable (and far more helpful) reply.  I knew exactly what the "real" reply would be; I did not need to bake a cake to figure it out.  And by waiting, I caused myself three very real problems:

1)  I put myself at risk of forgetting to reply at all - and I am sure I do not need to tell you why that would have been bad, indeed. 

2)  I let the student, who was probably very itchy and uncomfortable about having written the email, stew in his own regret for hours.  That was not very nice of me. 

3)  Worst of all, I caused myself to have to handle the same piece of email TWICE.  That's right:  I ended up spending two times the the amount of time answering that email.  And the end result was the same.  

Summary:  open it once, answer it immediately.  If you are having feelings, shake it off.  It's your job.  

Have a good weekend, and thank you for reading.  

*I don't remember, but I am sure this is close.  

Friday, January 4, 2008

Tips for Students - Email

To continue on yesterday's theme, I'd like to offer some tips on effective email communication, for students first:

1) If you have an email address that does not properly identify who you are, consider creating a new email address specifically for academics - one that contains a portion (or all) of your name. When teachers receive emails from students, but the email addresses do not give the teacher an idea of who the sender is, writing a reply can be difficult. I'll give you an example. I recently received the following email:

Re: Class

Hi, I don't know what to do for this class. Please help.

An email like this one poses problems for the receiver. For one thing, the receiver has no idea who Butterflyer2007foryou might be. It could be a student. It could be spam from an online retailer of butterfly catching equipment. Then again, it could be a student. After concluding that the email came from a student, the teacher has to try to answer the email. She can't, and the reason she can't is that the email does not say what class the student is in. Most of us teach three or more different courses at a given time, so the words "this class" could mean Seventeenth Century French Poetry or Freshman Composition - but your teacher has no way of knowing this, which brings me to my second tip.

2) Use specific subject line headings - and always include an indication as to whether your email is urgent or not. For example, if you are in ENG 301, Seventeenth Century French Poetry, simply type the words ENG 301 and the section number into the subject line. Then include the word "urgent" if the email happens to be truly urgent.

3) This is a matter of preference, but I think it shows poise and civility to use salutations and closings in emails. What would be so hard about adding a greeting, such as "Hi Professor _______," or "Dear Professor ________," to the beginning of the email? While you are at it, try closing your email with something like "Sincerely, _______" or "Best, ________" of "Cheers, _______" - whatever suits you. That way even if you don't follow the advice in item #1, at least your instructor has an idea of who you are.

4) Consider putting an auto-signature on your email that includes a return email address, a phone number and an instant messenger screen name. Doing so will allow your instructor to get back in touch with you by phone or IM if he or she thinks the question you ask might need more than a few sentences of typing to answer. Most internet based email services, such as Yahoo Mail, Gmail, and Hotmail, include easy ways to add an auto--signature. It is a great idea to add one now. If you are concerned about giving your phone number to everyone who you send email to, again, consider an academics-only email address - one that you use for communicating with your teacher and your teacher alone.

A much better email might look like this:

From: Michelle
Re: ENG 301 section 004, URGENT!

Dear Professor Smartness,

I am lost. I do not know what to do. Please help me.


Michelle McStudent
AIM screen name: Butterflyer2007foryou

If I got an email that looked this like, I would answer it instantly, or I would call or IM the student. If I got an email that looked like our original example, I would answer it, but I would have to ask three or four questions before I could really help the student. Those questions slow everyone down.

Take these tips into consideration as you start your distance courses this semester. They will make communicating with your instructor much easier and faster.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Communication for the Virtual Classroom

It's January, and we all are preparing for a new semester.  Students are in denial about book prices and tuition fees, and teachers are in denial about all that peppermint bark they ate over the holidays.  Those of us teaching our way through graduate school find ourself in both positions: praying we have enough "room" on our credit cards for one more anthology - and trying our best not to look fat in our teacher-pants.  Academics is paradise, isn't it?  Despite my jokes, I certainly think so.  

To start the year - and the semester - I'll address the A-1 priority both distance educators and and online students should share at the beginning of a term:  communication.  

Now, I know.  It is so obvious that it hardly needs saying.  And yet oddly, it does need saying, if not for instructors, then certainly for students.  Here are some common mistakes students make when communicating with their online instructors:

Common Mistake #1:  Not emailing (or calling) with the mistaken view that the instructor is so busy that he or she will be annoyed by so many questions.

My response:  I, speaking for distance educators everywhere, can verify that our entire job is to answer your questions and help you navigate through your courses.   Your emails thrill us.  Your phone calls thrill us too, so long as you make them during reasonable hours (ie, between 8am and 10pm).  So send the email.  Call.  We love it. I am not kidding.  

Common Mistake #2:  Emailing, waiting ten minutes, and then emailing again because you expect an answer at the speed of instant messenger - or - you are under the impression that your instructor is like a ten-year old sweat shop employee chained to a phone in a terrible third-world country where no one ever heard of taking coffee breaks - or eating - or sleeping. 

My response:  Give your instructor a good twenty-four hours to answer you before you decide the email was lost or overlooked.  We work all the time.  Sometimes we are working at 8am, but sometimes we are not.  Sometimes you'll catch us at 2am grading papers.  But not always.  However, the chances that we will stop working and not return for OVER twenty four hours are just about zero - even over the weekends.  Most good distance educators will answer you in less than eight hours, and some routinely check and answer email over the weekends too.  

Common Mistake #3: Getting offended if your instructor refers you to information already listed in the orientation or other materials in the course.   

My response: At the beginning of the semester, many students read a little too quickly through the orientation materials for their classes.  They get the gist of the class, but they miss important details such as deadline policies and due dates and testing practices.  Then they email the instructor asking for the information.  The instructor loves these emails (see item #1) and could answer your question instantly - but in all likelihood, the instructor will email you back telling you to re-read the start-up material again.  He or she will do this not to be snide or hard on you, but to help you understand how the course works inside and out.  Knowing the course that well from the beginning will save you time later, and you'll feel more confident going into the first batch of assignments if you have thoroughly read through the start-up information.  

Common Mistake #4: Neglecting to add your instructor to your instant messenger buddy list.  You might be thinking "But IM is just for my friends and me.  I don't WANT to talk to my teachers on IM.   

My response:  Your instructor is NOT going to contact you via IM just to making pointless conversation, so have no fear of that.  Instead, think of how great it would be if you were stuck on an assignment, and your instructor just happened to be online at 11pm  - just about the time you were about to give up and go to bed.  Think of how great it would be if you IMed your instructor and got the answer to your question in real time - instead of having to wait for an email back in the morning.  It would be great, and you know it.  So don't worry about your social life getting all mixed up with your math homework.  Many instructors prefer to communicate through IM because it saves them time, too.  So add your instructor to your buddy list, first thing.  You'll be glad you did.  

Common Mistake #5: Not calling because you think it's an invasion of the instructor's time or privacy.  

My response:  We don't care that much about our privacy.  It's true that we'd prefer you not drop by our houses at 4am, but distance education is meant to be flexible, and believe it or not, it is meant to be personal.  Computers and the internet are tools for learning, but you paid for  teacher, not a droid, when you wrote that tuition check.  We are happy to talk to you, so call - especially if your issue is urgent and you will be distressed while waiting for an answer.  If a phone call will clear up an issue that is stressing you out, get on the phone.  We don't mind at all.  

That's all for today, folks.  Tune in tomorrow for a more detailed discussion of successful email habits - and perhaps some instant messenger tips, too.  

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Revising Content

One of the items on my list of "must dos* between semesters is revising the content of my online courses to fix all the bugs, clumsy sentences and links, and bad policies that just never worked. As I revise in the next few weeks, I will be posting some of the changes so others can see the kinds of online content that works and the kind that doesn't work. One thing I can tell you all right now: after seven years teaching online, I am abandoning my practice of reading unlimited drafts of student papers. I have pulled my last all-nighter grading papers no different from the previous versions - aside from a new comma and a wider margin. Don't look at me like that. Whether you are a student or an instructor, you know exactly what I am talking about.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

New Year, New Blog

Here it is: the inaugural post of Learners Online. My hope is that this blog will provide resources, advice, and a few laughs for anyone interested in distance learning. My work as a distance education instructor inspired me to start writing about what I do, and as a newly minted member of Blog 365, I'll be doing a lot of it in the next, well 365 days. Welcome, and enjoy.