Lessons Learned and Lessons Lost: An Education in Online Education

I am now in Cambodia, wrapping up three weeks of teaching my students back in Fredericksburg online, via web conference. My experience here has been immensely valuable, and I have learned an enormous amount. Most of what I have learned, however, has been a result of things that have gone wrong in my online classes. As a result, my learning has come at the expense of my students, who have been left annoyed and confused rather than edified and inspired by our experiment in online education.

The past three weeks were supposed to be an exciting and novel experience for my students. I would be teaching classes about Southeast Asia from Southeast Asia; through the miracle of modern technology these classes would be live and online. I would record video segments and take photographs to incorporate in classes, I would speak against the backdrop of interesting local places, and I might even get some local people to join our online discussions.  I had done this in the past with some success, so I did not anticipate any problems.

I was sorely mistaken.  Anything that could go wrong this time around did, and just about every glitch that arose was something I had not encountered before. Some problems were technical, and were for the most part easily, though not necessarily immediately remedied (although, significantly, no problems were a result of my internet connection in Cambodia, which worked flawlessly.) Others were related to the web conferencing application or, more specifically, from the fact that I was unfamiliar with it. My most salutary problem, however, was pedagogical: I came to realize that the teaching techniques I have successfully used for decades in a classroom setting do not necessarily work online.

As I was preparing for my final classes here, I decided to write down some of my experiences of the past few weeks primarily as a reminder to myself of what I need to do differently in the future. I am posting this here, though, because I suspect that others might have run into the same problems, and perhaps reading about my experiences might give them the comfort of knowing that they are not alone. I hope also that others will offer me some suggestions and ideas to help me as I gear up for the four online courses I will be teaching in the Summer and Fall Sessions of 2012.

1. Check, recheck, then check again: How small glitches can cause major problems

I grew up in simple times. For the most part, electrical devices could be plugged in, turned on, and they would work. You didn’t need to configure settings on a toaster, download and install a driver for an oven, or do anything more than plug in a few cables to get a stereo system to work. If for some reason a gadget didn’t work, there was a short list of possible causes: the power wasn’t turned, or the cable wasn’t connected properly, or perhaps the thing itself was defective (in which case an expert was required to fix it.)

If only digital devices were so simple! Today we live in an era where a simple problem could be the result of a long list of causes. Take, for example, my presentation last week when my audience couldn’t hear me talking. I could see them and hear them, and they could see me. But they couldn’t hear me.  It could be that my microphone was broken. Or that it wasn’t plugged in properly, or it was plugged into the wrong socket. Maybe I had inadvertently muted it. Or was problem was at the other end? Was the speaker turned off (or not plugged in, or broken, or muted) on the computer in a classroom half a world away. Maybe the problem was with the application itself (in this case, the very simple and easy-to-use Skype), and could only be remedied by downloading an update, or perhaps just restarting it on both computers. Or it could be anything else.  The only way to solve this kind of problem is to check each possible cause, one at a time, until the culprit is found. That’s what I did, and it turned out that my computer was set to receive audio from a (non-existent) external input rather than its own built-in microphone. This was something I had never thought to check. It was easy to fix, but diagnosis took five minutes, an eternity when you are working in front of a live audience. It was at times like this that the panic effect kicked in; in my rush to find and fix one problem, I found myself carelessly making others, sometimes descending into a catastrophic downward spiral.

There were other examples: a connection lost because a network cable came loose, a close call with losing power because I had neglected to charge my computer battery enough ahead of time and the power cable got disconnected, howling feedback on one of the students’ microphones in a web conference. Or my inadvertent erasing of several hours of unedited video footage as I tried to make a backup copy (I had planned to use the video in my classes, and had to scramble at the last minute to replace it with photographs in my presentation). My most egregious error, though, was failing to take into account the fact that when clocks sprang forward in the United States, I needed to begin my class an hour earlier here in Cambodia. For a geographer, arriving in class an hour late for this reason was particularly embarrassing.

The bottom line here is that it only takes one tiny glitch to bring an online presentation to a grinding halt. And, if that glitch results in the audience losing contact with the presenter, it can be fatal and terminal for that class meeting.

Lessons learned

  1. Check and recheck everything before the presentation starts. Not just the week before or the day before, although these are vital. Check also half an hour before the presentation starts, enough time ahead to fix things before the audience arrives. This isn’t as easy as it sounds when, as in my case, only one person is responsible for the setup and presentation of a class.  I completed the whole routine of checking everything before my 8 am class last Tuesday, and even had a video playing for students to watch while they waited for class to begin. From my perspective, everything was working fine. How was I to know before students logged in from their own computers that they wouldn’t be able to hear me? (And at that hour not too many showed up early.) This brings me to the second lesson I learned…
  2. Have a point person on hand early to make sure that everything is working properly at the other end. Also have a phone number or other way to contact that person without using the presentation application itself (or any other application involving the presenter’s computer; you can’t run a web conferencing application and Skype, for example, at the same time.)
  3. Remember that the problems that crop up this time probably won’t be the same ones that you solved last time. You will already have checked those. They will be different, they will involve issues you never thought of, and are may be so simple that you never even thought of checking them. But it takes only one weak link in the presentation chain to cause the catastrophic collapse of an entire presentation.
  4. Have Plan B (and C, and D) ready, just in case a fatal problem occurs.  When I had to abort my class meetings this week, I didn’t have an alternative to offer my students. The best I could do was upload the Powerpoint portion of my presentation, and tell them to look over it, but without my narration and the discussion I wanted to have about the maps, photographs and ideas in it, this was a very unsatisfactory solution.

2.  Mastering the medium: Learn your craft before you try to use it

For two years, I taught a few online classes every semester using a wonderful web conferencing application called Dimdim. It did everything I needed it to, and it did it simply and cheaply. But Dimdim was so good that the company was gobbled up by a bigger company, and is no longer available as a stand-alone product for users like me.

In 2011, I tried an alternative application, Big Blue Button, which is part of the UMW Canvas course management system. It turned out that it didn’t do what I needed, so I looked around for another, and eventually found GoToMeeting.  I had attended a web conference that used this application, it seemed very easy to use, and I liked it, so I decided to use it.  But after deciding to use it, I discovered that because there are more than 15 students in each of my classes, I needed to use a premium version of the application called GoToWebinar, and this costs $99 a month. To save money, I decided to use a free one-month subscription to the application for my Cambodia classes, but because my classes straddled our week long Spring Break, I had to enroll for the free trial the day before I began using it in class. This was a Very Big Mistake.

I learned very quickly that, no matter how simple and intuitive an application might be, it still takes a lot of practice (that webinar I attended was good because the presenters had had lots of practice and knew what they were doing.) An instructor’s practice sessions should not be inflicted upon students.  GoToWebinar is a good application and it’s easy to use. So is a bicycle, but riding it takes some learning and practice.

My ride up the GoToWebinar learning curve was steep and very uncomfortable for my students. My lack of understanding of the scheduling of meetings meant that I twice showed up to classes devoid of students; they had received the wrong information about how to join the discussion. I didn’t know how to get the chat facility to work (it doesn’t work for groups larger than fifteen, I eventually discovered, and this alone completely disrupted my plans for class discussion. It also means that I now need to find and learn to use yet another web conferencing application before the start of the Summer Session.)

Lesson learned

  1. In instructor’s ineptitude with an application is embarrassing and seriously damaging to a class. I often tell my students that good writing is critical in any paper, because a badly written paper distracts the reader, reduces the credibility of the author, and detracts from the argument presented in the paper. I now know (and, yes, I should have known it before) that the spectacle of a presenter trying to figure out how to use an application fundamentally undermines the presentation and its content.
  2. Practice – a lot – ahead of time. If I am to teach online classes successfully in the Fall semester, I need to start using any crucial new applications now, six months before the class starts.  Once a course is underway, I need to be able to focus on course content and, most importantly, interaction with students. Every hour I spend learning how to use an application or a gadget is an hour taken away from my teaching. It’s simply not fair to students for any instructor to be using their time for him to learn how to use GoToWebinar (or Canvas, or Powerpoint.)
  3. Find a suitable application and stick with it. If it costs money, find the money. Any university that aspires to offer quality online courses must be prepared to invest in the equipment and applications necessary to do the job properly. For the web conferencing based teaching I will be doing (as I hope others will,) this means that UMW needs to be willing to lay out the funds necessary to purchase or license a suitable, well-supported, and flexible web-conferencing application (Adobe Connect is an example of such an application.) Faculty members won’t start using web conferencing (or other online applications and technologies) if they don’t have access to them, and if they cannot get help in learning to use them. Trying out a new application every time I teach an online course is a sure recipe for repeated disasters.

3.  Control-Alt-Delete: Teaching an old dog the new tricks of online pedagogy

I have been in my current job for nearly 22 years. My own (immodest) gut feeling, reinforced by student evaluations and annual performance reviews, is that I do a reasonably good job in the classroom. Students by and large enjoy my courses, and feel that they learn a lot from them. Perhaps this is why I took it for granted that I would inevitably be a good online teacher as well. I was very wrong indeed (yet again.)

My recent experience with online classes has helped me realize that I am good at a particular kind of teaching: lecturing in a classroom using lots of photographs, maps, and charts.  I do not use notes (my Powerpoint slides are my notes) so my eyes are constantly on my students. I have learned to read their expressions – boredom, skepticism, curiosity – and to respond to them in what I am saying. I can often see when a student wants to make a point or ask a question, but is hesitant to raise her hand. Most classroom teachers, from kindergarten to graduate school, have acquired these same skills.

It has been sobering – and rather frightening – for me to realize over the past few weeks that my skill set does not equip me very well at all to teach in the environment of a web conference-style class.  I can’t see my audience, so I don’t know whether they are bored or riveted by what I am saying; I can’t see the puzzled expressions that would tell me to explain something more clearly. In fact, I don’t even know whether my audience is still there.

Lessons learned

  1. I need to go back to school, and learn how to teach online. I need to find out what good online teachers do, and read more of what experts in the field have written.  In graduate school, I learned from watching some really good lecturers in action, and I tried to emulate them when I began teaching. I need to do the same thing again, in virtual classrooms. Good teaching is learned, not coded into one’s DNA; this is as true of online teaching as it is in the old-fashioned classroom.
  2. Face it, Donald, you’re really not very good at getting students to talk. You can get them to listen, but you’re not very good at getting students to share their ideas or raise questions.  You don’t really know how to ask the kinds of questions that make students want to participate in discussions.  You have always been averse to getting students to have small group discussions in class, and bring their ideas back to the class as a whole. If you hope to be able to become a good online teacher, you have to learn how to do these things; lectures simply don’t work very well online (in fact – I hate to burst your bubble – but a lot of research shows that they don’t really work too well in a classroom either.) You need to move out of your comfort zone pedagogically, just as you have technologically. If you can survive the embarrassment of a class canceled because your microphone settings were wrong, you should be able to weather a class discussion that falls flat. But, and it’s a very big but, as long as you are wrestling with equipment and learning how to use new applications on the fly, you won’t be able to focus on pedagogy.

What next?

I suspect that anyone who has had much experience in with online presentations might respond to what I have written here with a single word: Duh! For an old hand, everything I have written here is so rudimentary and so obvious that it is hardly worth saying. I hear you; perhaps that will be my reaction when I come back and read this in a year’s time, after I have taught four courses entirely online.  But for someone at my stage of learning, the lessons I have learned these past few weeks have been crucial.  I have not only learned things I didn’t know, but I have also learned things I didn’t know that I didn’t know, and so didn’t think to ask anyone about ahead of time.

From a selfish perspective, I am very pleased that so much went wrong. In less than two months from now, I will be back in Cambodia, teaching two entire summer courses online; in the Fall, I will embark on an around-the-world trip, teaching world regional geography online from a dozen different locations on four continents. I would much rather experience problems now and learn how best to avoid them, rather than risk having them derail an entire course in the future. Failure is an important part of the learning process, and I hope that I will learn from my recent (and future) failures, just as I have (sometimes) done in the past.

My current students have put up with a lot of frustration, anxiety, and uncertainty these past few weeks as I have stumbled from one bungled class to the next. I appreciate their patience and endurance, and I ask them to bear in mind that their loss will, I hope, be the gain of those who will take my classes in the futur

Phnom Penh, Cambodia
March 21, 2012.








  1. onepercentyellow (Leslie) says:

    Great post! Thanks for charting all these bumps in the road in the hopes that we who follow have a clearer route!


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