I taught my Web Programming in the second summer session (July 5th to August 12) through Tufts. A number of people have inquired about my experience as this was my first experience teaching a course online. I had fantastic experience this summer and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Observations:

  • The big differences between my physical class during the normal semester (the “regular class”) and the online class: no semester group project and content crammed into six weeks. Other than that, the content is identical. I reused notes and assignments from my regular class. I created about a dozen short videos, most were on average 5 minutes long. The videos can be used for my regular class.

  • I use a “top-down approach” to drive each week: I dictated a real world problem for the week, students learn the techniques to solve the problem. The students were excited by that. A few students even reached out to me that they immediately applied what they learned to their jobs or internships.

  • The biggest thing I learned: if a student is not a self-starter, not responsible for his/her own learning, does not ask questions or reach out for help, does not have any discipline, requires hand-holding, the online course medium will be a significant challenge for the student. Now I understand why online course completion rates (e.g., at MOOCs) are so low.

  • Interactions with students are almost exclusively online. While I don’t see students face to face, Q&A is done via Piazza, no different than normal semester. While the teaching assistant (TA) offered Skype sessions, it was largely underutilized due to the point above.

  • Set the expectations before the first day of class. I can’t emphasize enough how important this is. Example points I made:
    • “You are on your own pace. You can choose to (1) pace yourself during the week, (2) do everything during the weekend, (3) do everything during the last minute, or (4) don’t do any of the work –your choice, but the latter three choices may not be wise.”
    • “You are responsible for your own learning. A very important point: if you want everything gone over in lecture or in notes, then this is not the course for you. More importantly, that’s not how things work in real life.”
    • “You will learn by doing. Each week, there will be at most three labs (and a quiz on weeks 2, 4, and 6) to hone your skills and to aim at the crux of the matter for the week. Here’s an analogy: you don’t learn how to cook simply by just reading cookbooks and watching YouTube videos. You learn by making, using your hands, and making mistakes. Same idea for this course, mobile development, cyber security, etc. “Ah ha” moments are great.”
  • I did not have set office hours. I did not require students to meet online during specific times. I did not require students to work in teams, a semester group project. I did not require students to physical meet at the Tufts Medford Campus. The reasons for these points: (1) it’s the summer, (2) students have jobs, internships, weddings, and other plans, and (3) some students are taking the course from another state or overseas. Adding constraints and extra burden to the students will not fit well with anyone. Extra constraints and burden also defeat the purpose of an online course. Throughout the course, my thoughts were justified.

  • I had 35 students. Originally, we limited the course to 30 students but then there was a wait-list –and another wait-list. I had one very good TA. To scale the course in the future, I need to add additional TA support.

  • I wouldn’t go so far to say there are no physical constraints. A number of students experienced power outages, floods, hard drive failures, and Internet outages. These issues affected respective students’ pace in the course.

  • Virtual constraints exist: some students were still using Mac OS X Lion and alas, could not install the appropriate software for the course. One thing I need to improve in the future: be very clear at what the minimum software requirements for the course are before the start of the class.

  • It is a good idea to open up all weeks and contents for the online course ahead of time especially during the summer. Originally, I closed subsequent weeks (e.g, I did not open the content for weeks 2 to 6 on week 1) but students were asking to have the subsequent weeks opened due to vacation or work plans and wanted to start work early.

  • The number questions that were asked, the intellectual depth of the discussions, the quality of work by the students, and the excitement that many exhibited were amazing. While I was away for most of the first week of August for security summer camp (and thus I could not answer questions as soon as I could), I could not be more happier and proud of the students’ engagement (e.g., answering other students’ questions) while I was away.

Coincidentally before the start of my online class, there was very good post published by Northeastern University: “How To Be a Successful Online Learner.” at http://www.northeastern.edu/graduate/blog/2016/06/29/successful-online-learning-strategies/.

This first experience teaching a course online far exceeded my expectations. I was very surprised at how easy it was for me to transition into teaching online. While this was my first experience, there are still lots of issues to be ironed out. I also need to be mindful of issues like close captioning of videos for an online course as Harvard and MIT were sued for that. Many thanks to my first online class for a fantastic and welcoming experience. We can all agree on one thing: online education is not going away any time soon.