The Rewards of Teaching On-Line
by E.L. Skip Knox

Professors often characterize on-line teaching as cold, impersonal, and in various ways inferior to live teaching. At best they might allow it a presence as a poor cousin, rather like correspondence school, that would be chosen only by those unable to take classes any other way. With such a view, and with administrations talking about on-line teaching mainly as a way to save money, it's little wonder that faculty are less than excited about the prospect of Net-based education. Yet many of us find ourselves under increasing pressure to "get on-line."

Rarely does the media, our legislatures, or our administrators talk to us in terms that make sense to us: learning, critical inquiry, standards of scholarship, and learned discsussion. This presentation is aimed specifically at those who are considering teaching on-line but who have doubts and reservations, to those who wonder why in the world one would ever want to bother. Why trade the known rewards of the classroom for the compromises of the Internet?

I have taught fully virtual history courses since 1993, and these have been on the Web since 1995. My first was a Renaissance course, to which I have added a course on the first semester of Western Civilization and a course on the Crusades. These form the basis for the observations that follow, but others who have taught on-line have had similar experiences. My approach is not at all unique.

Because the phrase "on-line education" seems to mean different things to different people, I will begin by taking a quick tour of my classes. By seeing what is there, you will better be able to envision how I could find such an "impersonal" medium so rewarding. The tour will be brief, however, as I wish to spend most of the time talking about the rewards themselves.

I have two classes that have been up for some time: History of Western Civilization, and the Crusades (a third, the Renaissance, is under reconstruction). The former is your basic first semester introduction to European history, beginning with the Greeks and ending in the 17th century. The latter is a pretty standard upper-division course. I'll show Western Civ as the exemplar, then take a brief visit to the Crusades.

The first class I developed was for the Renaissance; this one is currently under revision. Western Civ was my second effort. I was sure by that time that the medium was viable for teaching, but I wanted to see if it would work at the introductory level. It was the first class that had a full set of lectures and other materials on the Web and I made a number of tentative choices then that have proven themselves over time.

The home page (URL = ) is not the syllabus, but is a sort of cover page with links to a Visitor Center, Registration information, and something called the Classroom. The Visitor Center tells what the course is about, gives links directly into lectures, and has other informational links. The Registration area is simply a quick link for those interested in actually registering for the course. It's the Classroom that holds the bulk of the course.

The Classroom page is the home page for enrolled students. It holds the Syllabus, a Study Guide, a link to lectures and a link to discussion.

The Syllabus is nothing special. It holds the standard information about the course. It's worth nothing, however, that since the Syllabus consists of web pages, I'm free to structure it as I please and to make it as detailed as I like. This lets me do things like have a link to the Schedule of Assignments directly from the Classroom page as well as having a link to the same schedule from the Syllabus page. By providing multiple points of entry to a single document I can raise its profile and hence its perceived importance. It's also worth noting that I still require a physical textbook.

The Study Guide is also, to my mind, part of the Syllabus, though I keep it separate in terms of links. A Study Guide is necessary because most students coming to the class are still new to on-line classes, and they need guidance and advice, not only with technical issues but also with how to study history. In some ways, those who have prior experience need the Guide even more because there's such a variety of approaches to on-line teaching that these students come in expecting this class to be like their last one.

The course is presented chronologically: as the class progress through the material from ancient to medieval to early modern, so we progress through the calendar of the semester. This is no independent study class; we are all working on the same material at the same time. The Study Units help establish that chronology, with one unit for ancient, one for medieval, and one for early modern, and an exam at the end of each.

The on-line lectures and readings correlate with the study units. Each study unit consists of an introductory essay, several lectures, links to required reading in the primary sources, and a set of study questions.

The study questions form the basis for the exams. The actual exam consists of one or more questions drawn from the Study Questions.

The lectures are essentially essays. They consist of a table of contents page plus anywhere from a dozen to about thirty pages sequentially linked. Each lecture also has a page of supplementary reading. The individual lecture pages are kept short, with no external links. I have added sound files to most to provide pronunciation of names and terms.

The basic elements, therefore, are the study units with their lectures and readings. The Syllabus and so on provide context and support for that core information. The Classroom page also has a link to the discussion area, which is the other pillar on which the course rests.

I use WebBoard from O'Reilly Software to handle class discussion. It is easy for the students to use and is very reliable.

Students are required to post three messages a week in order to earn at least a passing grade for participation, and participation forms 20% of the total semester grade. Three messages a week may seem pretty minimal, but it is in fact more participation than many students are accustomed to, and the "talkers" in a traditional classroom wind up speaking more than three times a week here, too.

The discussion is structured by using conferences, with one or more conferences corresponding to the study units. Within a conference, anyone can start a new topic (also called a thread). A thread can have only one or two messages, or it can have dozens of messages. There's no limit. Every topic remains there for the entire semester, so people can always return to what was said. Most topics take at least a few days before they play out, but some go on for two or even three weeks. There are typically five to ten topics active at any given time.

Two conferences play special roles in the class: the Student Lounge and Announcements. The latter is just what it says. It's a read-only conference that only I can post to. I use it to announce changes to the syllabus, unexpected absences on my part, and the like. The Student Lounge is for off-topic conversations, so that talk about technical issues, for example, doesn't clutter up the main conferences.

The usual routine for students is to begin reading both on-line and in the textbook from the beginning of a Study Unit. As questions or comments occur, they go to the discussion area and begin posting. Some check the conferences every day or even multiple times a day, while others check in only two or three times a week. As you might expect, the better ones check in more often.

The Crusades course is built in nearly identical fashion (URL = ). The home page has the same three links to a Visitor Center, to Registration, and to the Classroom. The structure of the course is of course different, but it still depends on a textbook, on-line lectures and readings, and web-based discussion.

I have done a couple of things different here that are worth noting. One is that I have offered the class for both graduate and undergraduate credit, which entailed creating pages specifically for the grad students. Another is that I am currently teaching the course for another university. Mine is on the semester system, but Eastern Oregon University is on the quarter system. This has presented some interesting challenges in re-structuring the content of the site while trying to minimize the number of pages that needed to be changed.

The final difference is something called the Virtual Pilgrimage. I created this site as an adjunct to the course-optional reading. It is really designed for the general public. It is a trip from southern France to the Holy Land, with lots of pictures and sounds. While my lectures I keep as plain-text as possible, I designed this site to be multi-media, to be more of an experience than a lesson. Along the way, I talk about what a pilgrim was, the kinds of things that might be experienced along the way, and so on. This site is an attempt to explore the boundaries between "classroom" and "community".

That's the structure of my on-line courses. I have found little need to revise the basic approach and, as I have said, many other teachers do something similar. My approach emphasizes discussion (it forms 20% of the student's final grade), reading, and writing. Many of the aspects of on-line teaching I find rewarding stem from the central role played by discussion. But other benefits derive from the nature of the medium itself.

The most significant reward is the improved quality of class discussion. This was unexpected on my part when I began, but now it is the aspect of teaching that I look forward to the most. Discussion is better on-line for a number of reasons, one of which is that the students are better prepared. There are some who will send a message without reading the text but that is not common-most do the reading and more besides. They aren't coming to discussion simply because it is Wednesday and it's 10:40 am; they come to discussion because they have done the reading and have something to say. It makes a huge difference. Discussion is better, too, because I can watch the students thinking. I discovered this early on, when I happened to be teaching Western Civ on-line in one section and in a live classroom in a separate section. A question arose in the virtual class concerning Greek democracy. It's a common question, as students have trouble understanding that Greek ideas about democracy were rather different from our own. While that conversation was still going on, I had a student in the live class ask essentially the same question.

In typical student style, she came up after class to ask me. Another class was due in, and she had to go off to her own class anyway, so my answer was necessarily short when, given the topic, the answer was necessarily long and involved. She seemed to understand, however, and thanked me. Two things struck me as I returned to the same question in the on-line course. First, even if my answer had been complete and clear, that one student was the only one in the live class who benefitted from the information. Yes, I could bring the topic up at the next lecture, but only by then sacrificing the lecture material that I would have covered. In the virtual class, though, my answer was read by everyone and at no cost to lecture material. Moreover, the answer remained on the board, and could be reviewed by any student at any point.

More important was that the conversation in the virtual class continued for some time. It became evident that, for some students, a single explanation did not suffice. We had to revisit certain aspects of the topic multiple times before people really understood. In the course of the conversation, a variety of misunderstandings were aired and cleared up. I'm not suggesting perfect understanding was achieved. But it was clear to me that one of the great difficulties and limitations of live teaching was that students seem to understand but do not. Because of the time limitations, we mostly just deliver information and hope they get it. We invite questions, but even the responses to the questions are greatly constrained by the time factor. We don't really know where their understanding fails until we read their exam essays or their term papers. This is what I mean about being able to watch the students thinking. As they participate in the discussion, they try to answer one another's questions and I can see where they get something wrong. As they respond to my responses I can see where they understand and where they fail to understand. I can watch as they try to work things out for themselves.

That's an experience I never had as a teacher before. This closeness to the students as students is what I value most. In part it is like having a semester-long conversation with each student, but they are conversations in which every student can participate and from which every student can benefit. For a discipline such as ours, anchored in texts and in ideas, this seems to me to be the best teaching medium ever invented.

The format has other, related benefits. For instance, no one student can dominate the discussion, as can happen in a live class. Each student can speak at length, and every student can take as much time as they need to formulate their thoughts.

It's better because students have access to the sources during discussion.

They cite sources. This is much closer to the way historians actually discuss history. The live classroom discussion is an artifical environment rarely duplicated in the profession.

Everyone gets a turn. This is more important than you might think. About twenty-five is the optimal size for a virtual class, as indeed it is for a live class. In a live class-let us take the common 50 minute, three-days-a-week format-at theoretical maximum each student could speak for no more than two minutes. In practical terms, it would be something less than that and of course not everyone actually talks.

Live discussion often takes time to get rolling. No matter how successful the conversation, it must end fifty minutes later. You can try to get it going again next class meeting, but the very spontaneity that made the discussion "lively" in the first place is exactly what cannot be recaptured. In an asynchronous discussion, the thread can always play out to the end. The only terminus is the semester itself.

Second, spontaneity is not always a virtue. What you get is students talking off the top of their head. If they take the time to check their recollection of the facts, the discussion has often moved on without them. So the very ones who are most careful and meticulous are the ones who get left, and the ones who take center stage are the ones who are not careful. True, that's also where your brilliant students will be, and we all hope for that, but we have also all experienced the less desirable scenario, too. This does not happen on-line.

Third, multiple people can speak at once, as it were. If five people in a live class wish to speak to a point, only one can do so at a time. By the third or fourth student, the discussion might have branched or the fifth student might decide his contribution is redundant. Perhaps it is or is not, but the teacher will never know. To me, when I look at a live discussion now, what I see are the missed opportunities; what I hear are all the silent voices; what I worry over are all the silent misunderstandings. Asynchronous discussion gives the students more chances to speak and gives me more chances to teach.

The on-line environment is more intimate than the live classroom. This is probably not what most of you would expect. The best way to explain this is to compare it with the experience of a live classroom.

Early in my on-line teaching I was asked what were the demographics of the class. I had to laugh because I had no idea how old my students were, their age, race, appearance or even, in some cases, their gender. I was at the same time teaching a live class on the same subject. Those students I knew by sight. I could have estimated their average age and so on. But I did not know the students in my live class as individuals. My only contact with them were a few moments once a week when they might speak up in class, and their exams. In the on-line class, on the other hand, I could say in some detail what sort of students those people were. I could tell which ones understood how to do research and how to do evidence. I knew which ones had a religious prejudice, which ones tended to reductionism, and so on. In short, I knew my virtual students far better than I knew my live students.

Discussion, then, is immensely rewarding on-line. But writing Web-based lectures, creating a Web-based syllabus, and the very act of architecting a course Web site brings other rewards. One of those derives from the mere existence of the Web.

I made a decision from the beginning that my site would be completely open to the public. My intended audience, beyond my enrolled students, was public school teachers and home schoolers. I have found in addition to these a surprising number of amateurs who tell me that they have read one or more lectures simply from general interest.

The web site has created a steady stream of messages. The bulk are from students looking for easy help with an assignment and aren't very interesting. I also get messages from people asking very specific questions that I can't answer. Very often, these are genealogists. I just don't keep in my head the roster lists of those who served with the Roundheads in 1643!

Every so often I get a really solid question from someone, a question that makes me stop and think and sends me off to my books, or to the library, or to an academic discussion list. Most rewarding, though, are simple notes of thanks, especially when they come from people whom I had originally targetted: public school teachers. Because my site is open to the public, I also get e-mail pointing out mistakes. While it is not rewarding to be corrected, it is certainly worthwhile. Some are mistakes of fact, others of style. Most all were minor, but what recurs to me each time I receive a correction is that had I taught live, I should have repeated these errors endlessly.

Taken together, I have found that I am simply talking with a lot more people about history than I ever had before. This, to me, is meaningful community service, a form of interaction made difficult by the physical campus but made easy by the virtual campus.

The simple act of teaching on-line has caused me to give much thought to pedagogy. When I first began, everything seemed possible. I could ignore the constraints of the semester system. I could teach in monthly installments. The students could proceed in cadres, the more advanced helping the newbies. I could write any number of lectures, on any number of topics. The challenge, I soon recognized, was to decide how to edit.

This was exciting. In live classes, time is a tyrant. We have only so many class hours, and everything most conform to that irreducible reality. The limitations on-line are real, but less precise. I have to make sure the workload is reasonable, but that leaves me considerable leeway.

In a live class, I might decide that a lecture on the development of the papacy was necessary, but that I could afford only one fifty minute lecture on the topic. On-line, though, I can theoretically write as much as I please. In the live class, therefore, the dynamic is: how much can I cram into fifty minutes? On the Web, the dynamic is: what do my students need to know about the early history of the papacy? The latter is a far more challenging and a far more satisfying lecture to write.

Working in a new medium has raised a number of interesting questions for which I have few clear answers, but they have time and again provided fodder for fruitful conversations with colleagues. I will give here three examples.

When I teach a live class, at some point in the day I say that I am going to "go teach." By this, everyone understands that I am going to walk into a room somewhere and lecture or lead a discussion or give an exam. It's all called "teaching." It's also understood that when I am writing a lecture or grading a term paper or the like, that I am working on a course but that I am not "teaching".

The vocabulary shifts in an interesting way when I teach on-line. I do not ever say that I am going to go teach. I say that I'm going to "check on my class" or "check my e-mail" or some such. The physical activity, and the intellectual activity, is the same whether the mail contains messages or term papers. In the physical world, there's a convenient, physical divide between the activity of teaching and the activity of course development. But in the virtual world the line is considerably more blurred.

So, when am I engaged in teaching? Is it only when I am writing responses to discussion? At the very least I have come to understand this: I am teaching pretty much whenever I am communicating with my students and even when I am simply mediating communication between students. This means that writing comments on a term paper is as much teaching as is talking in discussion. It also means that lecturing is not teaching. It's presentation, on a par with the textbook and readings. It's an interesting perspective.

Related to the question is: where is the classroom? Whereas I "go teach," the students "go to class." When a student says he's going to class, everyone understands that he's going to go to a room for a specific period of time. At other times, if he's working on a paper or something, he doesn't say he is "in" class, even though he is engaged in learning.

So, where is the classroom on-line? Is the student "in" class whenever he is on-line? Or only when he's in the discussion? If he reads a question, hangs up the phone and researches the question, then goes on-line to write a response, at which points was he "in class"? Put another way, when do students learn, and what's my role in the process?

All the most interesting questions are ones that don't have quick answers, and I'll not try to answer these here. I bring them up by way of saying that I find it rewarding to consider such questions. Yes, I should have been thinking about these things years ago, but I didn't. With a physical class, it all seems so . . . obvious.

Writing for the Web, whether it is for the syllabus and study guide or for the on-line lectures, is an interesting literary exercise. How does one integrate multimedia with text? How does one present the text? I find that I must face issues normally only faced by the book publisher-questions of font choice and layout, for example. Should a lecture be a single document or be presented in multiple pages? Should I include external links? What tone should the writing take?

Writing an essay to be read not by peers but by students is a new forum, at least for me. I enjoy the challenge. It lacks the theatrical aspects of the live lecture, but it has compensating attractions, in that I can revisit the work and revise it over time.

In a live class, the length of a syllabus is limited in part by the department's photocopying budget and in part by the realities of the classroom. Even if the department would spring for the paper, it would be intimidating for students to be handed a thirty-page syllabus!

But there are lots of things I can put into an on-line syllabus. In addition to the usual, I can link to the academic calendar, for example. I can link to the university policy on academic honesty. And I can create my own study guide, with samples of student exams, study tips, and so on.

Another benefit is that I finally can create exactly the reader I want. There are enough materials now on the Internet that I can pull together more than enough primary sources for the classes I teach. In fact, for the Crusades, there are more sources on-line than are currently in print. This is a tremendous advantage for the on-line environment, as I no longer have to work with a set of documents merely because those are the ones the publisher saw fit to put in a binding. I also don't have to worry about the work going out of print.

Yes, web sites do disappear, but good ones don't. Here I might mention the Internet Sourcebooks, originated and maintained by Paul Halsall and housed at Fordham University. Or ORB, Voice of the Shuttle, and other source collections, created by scholars and housed at universities. I have far more faith in these collections than I do in publishing houses. Having the reader on-line confers an advantage to both student and teacher in another respect, as well. When we discuss the readings, everyone has the text in front of them. A live discussion loses momentum if students have to take time to look up a particular reference, but an on-line discussion actually gains from it.

Yet a third benefit is that students learn, almost automatically, the value of citing their sources. They find that the conversation progresses better if they say where they read this or that. A lesson that seems remote and even arbitrary in the traditional classroom becomes a matter of course on-line. In this respect, as in others, I find the virtual world more closely approximates how professional historians work, and that a live classroom is sui generis-a creation whose artificiality is largely a function of the real-time environment.

Last but not at all least, I get better evaluations from on-line classes. Not better in the sense of better ratings, but in the sense of more informative and helpful.

I have always valued student comments. Evaluation forms I find worthless and worse, but actual written opinions give me much-needed guidance. The problem with evaluations in a live class is that they are generally handed out on the last day of class; indeed, after the final exam has been completed, at a time when most students want nothing quite so much as to head for the exit. The evaluation becomes something like a pop quiz.

But on-line, my evaluation forms are on the Web from the beginning. I ask the students to wait until the semester is over to fill them out, but once the semester ends, they can do so at their leisure. I find their comments are much more thoughtful and detailed than what I usually get in a live class.


On-line teaching is rewarding, but only if it emphasizes reading and writing; that is, if it emphasizes doing history. In a myriad of ways I have come to realize that students in most undergraduate courses don't actually do a lot of history.

On-line courses that fail to emphasize reading and writing will have all the shortcomings that live courses do. They will be impersonal. They will be more vulnerable to cheating. They will further the university-as-factory.

The key thing teaching on-line has taught me is to resist all forms of depersonalization and unprofessionalism. We must hold to our standards in every arena and every medium. It is not the case that we have won the battle in the live classroom and the only threat is in the virtual world. No matter where the classroom is, what matters is who inhabits it and what they do there.