Cultural/Psychological Struggle of Putting Course Online
You Want Me to do What? The Cultural and Psychological Struggle of Putting a Course Onlineby Sharon K. Anderson and Val Middleton
The educational needs of counselors, teachers, and other applied-science populations has put pressure on colleges, universities, and individual instructors to take advantage of emerging technologies in order to deliver courses and workshops through online instruction. An oft-repeated selling point of online education is its convenience and accessibility. Countless advertisements for academic advancement—using celebrity endorsements, catchy jingles, and promises of greater earning potential—attempt to persuade us that such courses can fit smoothly into our already busy schedules. Indeed, for many individuals who work full-time, these options are attractive, especially when attending a local college or university is impractical.
Although we initially resisted development of online courses by citing the need for human interaction in the learning process (e.g., discussion and question-and-answer opportunities), we were prompted, ultimately, by a number of considerations to step into the net of Web-based instruction. In Sharon's case, the online environment would help her meet the demand for the course; state regulatory boards mandate that licensed and unlicensed Colorado psychotherapists take a jurisprudence course or an exam as part of the licensing or registration process. Moreover, since Sharon's courses required her to travel to mental health agencies, online instruction would allow her to save the time and money otherwise invested in travel, paper copies, and other materials by conducting her courses online. Lastly, developing an online course would allow us both to meet a university goal that faculty become technology-literate and adept at online instruction. Faculty are confronted with the reality that Web-based instruction is quickly becoming the norm rather than the exception.
Encounters with the Culture of Online Instruction
Our experience in preparing to become online instructors may most easily be understood in reference to Alvin Toffler's concepts of culture shock and future shock (cited in Dodd, 1998). For Toffler, "Culture shock refers to the transition period and the accompanying feelings of stress and anxiety a person experiences during the early period upon entering a new culture"; future shock refers to cultural change related to rapid technological change (pp. 157-158). The cycle of entry, emotion, and adaptation is described as the v-curve. In this cycle one typically starts at a high point of cautious optimism and anticipation, drops to a low point of disappointment, and then regains a level of adjustment and acceptance. As this model suggests, we approached this new culture with both excitement and apprehension.
Our first step was to register online for a "live" course in online instruction offered by Colorado State University's Instructional Services for Faculty Development. Before committing to the course, we shared our apprehensions with each other: "What if we are too dumb to understand how to do this?" "What if we get poor evaluations from the students?" "How will this course affect our face-to-face courses?" Despite our concerns, we registered for the course. One aspect of the process that stood out for both of us was the encouragement provided by the "submission sent" message. That small reward convinced us that this was something we could do; after all, we had become adept at e-mail and actually enjoyed surfing the Internet.
A short time later we attended the course. The first hour went smoothly (the high point). We worked on simple tasks such as getting onto the Web and looking at online courses constructed by other faculty members. We both had the sense that the course wasn't as difficult as we had imagined it would be. Then the instructor encouraged us to try more complicated tasks such as creating and editing html files, creating a course-specific homepage, selecting and changing backgrounds, working with gif files, and zipping and unzipping files. As our tasks grew more complex, we became more confused and intimidated. In addition to challenging our abilities, the course also challenged our convictions about communication and knowledge, in particular the belief that instructors were the primary sources of information who needed to have all the answers. Duchastel (1996-1997) suggests that online instruction moves the instructor from presenting knowledge to requesting the production of knowledge, and that it fosters the building of a global community rather than a one-classroom community. Although these tenets of online instruction are familiar now, they initially added to our discomfort and intensified our psychological struggles. We had entered a new dimension with a language and culture all its own, and we both began to feel that the experience would not be as good as we had hoped.
Classic Conflicts in the Computer Age
In psychological literature, Kurt Lewin (1890-1947) is credited with being one of the first people to classify conflicts by type (Benjamin, Hopkins, & Nation, 1990). One of these types is the approach-avoidance conflict, in which a person is concurrently drawn to and repelled by the same activity, event, or object. One complicating aspect of approach-avoidance conflicts is the relationship between emotion and distance: the attraction is stronger than the avoidance so long as the activity, event, or object remains at a distance, but the avoidance is stronger than attraction as one approaches the activity, event, or object. Both of us were eager to work on our online courses, and we scheduled time for course development in our daily plans. Yet, upon checking in with one another, we discovered that we allowed anything and everything, from e-mail to Internet searches, to consume the time allotted to course development.
Resolution Through Rebuilding
Several steps helped us break through our approach-avoidance conflict. First, we recognized the connection between our thoughts, our emotions, and our behavior. Albert Ellis, the developer of Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy, proposes that we feel a certain way (e.g., anxious, sad, lonely, depressed, or angry) because we think a certain way or have irrational thoughts (Corey, 2001). Ellis's basic premise is that people disturb themselves by how they think, and, if they want to be undisturbed, they have to think differently or rationally.
The following is an explanation of the approach and an application of it to our situation. Ellis uses the letters ABCDE to explain the process. A is the activating event: the situation a person is upset about. B signifies the person's irrational beliefs and self-statements about the activating event. C represents the emotional and behavioral consequences of A and B. In our case, the activating event (A) was sitting down at the computer to work on our online courses. Our irrational beliefs (B) were, "I can't do this," "I'm not smart enough to figure this out," and "I'll really look stupid if I ask that question." The consequences (C) included anxious feelings and avoidance behaviors: we avoided working on course development and used our computer time for other tasks. In order to overcome the avoidance, the A, B, and C of the situation have to be identified, and the irrational beliefs need to be disputed (D) and replaced with rational beliefs. The disputing process is effective when a person can see that the self-statements or beliefs are unproductive and can replace them with rational statements. If the disputing process is successful, the person will experience a different emotion and exhibit different behavior (E) when confronted with the same activating event. In our case, we needed to replace irrational self-statements with rational ones such as "I'm smart and can figure this out," "It's okay to ask questions, even if they seem silly," and "If others have put courses online, I can too." In essence, we changed what we were saying to ourselves, so that we stopped creating our own anxiety. In addition, our conversations with one another allowed us to air issues, recognize our situation, and encourage each other to stop participating in avoidance behaviors. These steps made our acceptance of this cultural experience possible.
In reflecting on our online endeavor and reviewing the comments of our on- and off-campus students, we realized that we all shared many of the same trials, tribulations, and emotions relative to the online experience. For example, when we tried to use the Internet to facilitate discussion outside of class, students groaned with displeasure and complained, “I'm not computer literate" and "Do we have to be part of this online stuff?”
As we improve our online instruction, we need to keep in mind where we came from and what we went through, so that we can act as resources for our students. As the creators of these courses, it is important that we facilitate the comfort and success of the consumers of the product. The following themes have emerged as requirements for providing positive consumer experiences.
Encourage and facilitate a philosophical buy-in for the method of instruction. For example, during course orientations, we need to present sound reasons for using Web-based instruction so that students see the advantages to this approach.
Allow consumers opportunities to acclimate and acculturate to the online process in a low-stress or stress-free situation. For example, we need to provide opportunities for students to practice navigating the system.
Provide opportunities for successful interaction with online processes. Knowing that initial success encourages students to persevere, we instituted an orientation workshop to the online program so that students would receive instruction and develop skills integral to online courses.
Acknowledge and address approach-avoidance behaviors. In order to illustrate the connection between irrational beliefs and self-statements that create anxieties impeding success, we share our own experiences with approach-avoidance conflict. Students appreciate hearing about our struggles and then feel more comfortable sharing theirs.
Identify and utilize internal and external motivators by building them into the process. Help and reward structures (e.g., "submission sent" and "correct answer" messages, help tools, and resource links) offer both comfort and aid.
Identify and provide opportunities for human interaction. Students often need human contact for problem solving and confidence building. With some courses, we have found that students need and value immediate feedback or direction; therefore, face-to-face meetings, partnered activities, and access to resource personnel are part of the course delivery format.
One year into our online course experience, we can honestly say that we enjoy more aspects of online instruction than we had anticipated and that we look forward to future opportunities with the Web-based instructional culture. Feedback from our off-campus students has been positive: the majority of unsolicited e-mails that we have received indicates that the information is comprehensive and easy to understand. This feedback has encouraged us to expand our online course offerings.
Benjamin, L. T., Hopkins, J. R., & Nation, J. R. (1990). Psychology (2nd ed.). New York: Macmillan.
Corey, G. (2001). Theory and practice of counseling and psychotherapy (6th ed.). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth/Thomson Learning.
Dodd, C. H. (1998). Dynamics of intercultural communication (5th ed.). Boston, MA: McGraw-Hill.
Duchastel, P. (1996-1997). A Web-based model for university instruction. Journal of Educational Technology Systems, 25 (3), 79-113.
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Note: This article was originally published in The Technology Source (http://ts.mivu.org/) as: Sharon K. Anderson, and Val Middleton "You Want Me to do What? The Cultural and Psychological Struggle of Putting a Course Online." The Technology Source, January/February 2002. Available online at http://ts.mivu.org/default.asp?show=article&id=917. The article is reprinted here with permission of the publisher.
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