08:28 PM

A Note from UHD Interim President Michael A. Olivas: May the (Teaching) Force Be With You

Sam Houston State University professor Ricardo Montelongo. Sam Houston State University professor Ricardo Montelongo.

Sam Houston State University professor Ricardo Montelongo, pictured on the right and featured in this Chronicle of Higher Education article, offers some suggestions about teaching online and asynchronously. He happens to be my wife's cousin. That fact went undetected until I was asked to speak to a Sam Houston graduate course in The Woodlands. Afterward, all of us met afterward at Guadalajara Bar and Grille, which is owned by another of my wife Tina's cousins, Phillip Torres. Got all that?

The purpose of this story, however, is to spotlight an important development in higher education … and one that leaves me uncertain: online and asynchronous teaching. Approximately 20 percent of UHD student credit hours are taught either online or in a hybrid format. If I were put under oath or administered the truth serum, I would have to admit that I hate teaching through the internet. I do, however, concede its value in certain circumstances. Personally, I prefer to see my students light up (or not), see the quizzical looks when I have not made a point clearly, and see their body language so I can move a discussion toward or away from them. In large classes, such as my introduction to Immigration Law and Policy — with an enrollment of about 40 to 50 students — I used to walk around the classroom. I remember catching a student so focused on e-surfing that she did not even see me approaching. With my pending knee surgery, I cannot get around the way I used to. Still, being animated and expressive has always been a hallmark of my teaching style. I value and need the formal and informal feedback from students. Online modes of instruction seem remote and disembodied to me.

On the other hand, I have taught about two dozen webinars and Skyped/broadcasted workshops over the years to experienced professionals on a variety of subjects. The sheer reach of these webinars and workshops is attractive. While I lose eye contact and personal interactions, I focus intently on lecture preparation and developing detailed instructional materials. These experiences have allowed me to teach classes to students in remote settings including a course in law and education for Indian students. I also once led a structured workshop on undocumented college student legal issues where more than 800 people signed up. That experience taught me about the economies of scale and pay structure. I agreed to a $5,000 fee, turning down a percentage, when it turned out that I would have made two to three times my fee by taking a piece of the action. Go figure.

I think that some courses and subjects lend themselves very well to this kind of pedagogy and delivery system, and the success of the Khan Academy is a great example of how inspired teaching can happen online.

I once got nailed for a completely unfair and probably illegal speeding ticket. Rather than contest it, I took a defensive driving education class on DVD that was available at Kroger. I found it to be quite helpful and well produced. And the content was delivered very effectively.

I actually enjoy the interactions in webinars I teach. They provide students a chance to query me anonymously or ask very basic questions and raise concerns that may not be posed in a public setting. And many people will simply miss out on college without some non-traditional options, which would be a substantial loss. My view may be an example of the perfect being the enemy of the good — especially on days when I do not bring my "A" game or when the students do not play their role, or when we all regress to the mean and muddle through.

But I confess here and now that I am something of a fuddy-duddy in this area, and believe that college coursework is most effective when delivered in person, and I am relieved that I will carry this view through to my retirement. But most of you have either accepted this changed world or have even thrived in it. I think that the proper mix of traditional classroom style, outside projects and engagement, and electronic communication has to be found, and it must be the faculty who determine this proper proportion, including the governance and workload dimensions.

We provide exceptional workshops and "teaching tips" resources, and I regularly see some of you who are working across sectors to improve teaching in all formats. I also know that a number of UHD faculty have jumped into hyperspace and have not only eagerly embraced this new world, and some have even studied and focused on it as a field of study. Because I also believe that difficult dialogues have a strategic and central role in college pedagogy, and because UHD is such a natural laboratory for these class discussions, I hope that many of you will consider how to raise such questions in class and how to guide these discussions even in online instruction. However you undertake these approaches, or even if you do so at all, I hope that the new technologies in which we have heavily invested, provide you and our students with satisfying and meaningful exchanges and teaching moments.