Central Washington University assistant English professor Joshua Welsh learned early in his online teaching career that humor was not a tool that translated well from the face-to-face classroom.
“In the classroom I can start cracking jokes and try to be really approachable,” Welsh said. “I’ve tried that online and you can almost hear the crickets chirping.”
Instead of being driven by building a rapport with students on the first day of a course, Welsh said he has learned to give online students what they want — the materials. Not just some of the class. All of it.
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“I front load as much work as possible so when the student logs in the first day they see everything they’re going to have to do,” Welsh said. “Here are all my activities. I learned that the hard way.”
For students both traditional and non-traditional, this can be a big help online. Justin Carroll is a 24-year-old cyber security major who started his undergraduate career taking online classes at Bellevue College and transferred to Central. Carroll said he typically takes one online class and two face-to-face classes a quarter, though this quarter he’s taking two of each. He said sometimes online classes lock you into a week-to-week schedule, but the good ones let you work ahead.
“I like to just go ahead,” Carroll said. “I’m already two weeks ahead in one of my classes and school just started today … I need to do that to maintain sanity.”
Carroll works full-time in the multi-modal education center in Black Hall, and said without the flexibility online classes bring him, he wouldn’t be able to pursue a degree.
Much like in face-to-face learning, the experience of online classes can differ from teacher to teacher. Most of those adjustments come from learning how and where teachers organize materials in the system.
CWU uses a learning management system called Canvas — a program the school switched to from Blackboard in 2014. Canvas has a statewide contract with universities and colleges across Washington, making it familiar to students transferring to Central’s online degree programs from different schools. According to the Executive Director of Multimodal Learning Chris Schedler, half of the students pursuing online degrees at CWU transferred from community colleges.
By the numbers
The university has been tracking online enrollment since 2011, when 186 students were pursuing online undergrad degrees along with 41 pursuing graduate degrees. Today a total of 1,137 students are enrolled in online degree programs, including 930 in undergraduate studies. That makes up 10 percent of Central’s total enrollment.
Schedler said each college at the university has an online degree program. Information technology administrative management is the biggest program.
“For the sciences it’s more challenging, definitely,” Schedler said about online instruction. “Most are in the social sciences like sociology, psychology, law and justice.”
As far as total online enrollment, 3,840 students are enrolled in at least one online class at CWU, which makes up 33 percent of total enrollment. In 2011, that number was just 1,782.
“I think traditional students do like the flexibility that online provides, but there is often a preference for face-to-face interaction with faculty in the class,” Schedler said. “The non-traditional students are more familiar with having to work virtually in teams … and they also obviously appreciate the flexibility because they wouldn’t be able to pursue their education if they didn’t have it.”
Welsh got his start teaching online as a graduate student at the University of Minnesota. He was hired at Central to help develop and teach the online curriculum. He now is the adviser of the department’s online professional and creative writing degree, which has about 100 students and is the department’s biggest major.
“I think it’s because we can meet the students where they are,” Welsh said. “We have students from all over the state of Washington certainly, and then from other states as well.”
CWU draws from states which it has agreements in and there are some restrictions in regard to internships, but overall the program is flourishing. Having online classes and degrees simply makes the pool of interested students larger, allowing more courses to be offered regularly.
“I have my advanced tech writing class and you’ll be shocked to hear that’s not the most popular class in the English department,” Welsh said with a laugh. “There’s always plenty of room, and it’s actually almost full this quarter for the first time since I’ve been here. That’s great because it’s not one of the hugely popular courses. But for those that want to take it, we can have a nice strong course, a full course and keep offering it to the students that really want to go on and do more with technical writing.”
Welsh said he can’t speak for other disciplines, but English translates well to online teaching, humor aside.
“You really never know if a student has learned something in a writing class until you read their writing,” Welsh said. “You do more of that sooner in an online class.”
Welsh also said he likes the individual attention each student gets in an online class.
One of the drawbacks to online teaching, however, can be a lack of flexibility. Instead of the opportunities face-to-face learning gives with trying new things out if something isn’t working, teachers and students are kind of stuck with what is promised at the beginning of a term.
“Improvisation does not work very well online,” he said. “Planning works really well online. Sort of figuring out how to be thinking a quarter ahead. Quarters move really quickly as it is, so just getting ahead of the curve like that, that for me was the biggest challenge.”