Mariana Torres: How to keep an online course alive

In our second session of minilectures concerning Distant learning and creative writing during our Pedagogical Conference in Paris (Nov, 2012), Mariana Torres (Escuela de Escritores) focused the online course as a living being with three vital periods: birth, life itself and after-life. During these different stages, she centers the attention on common mistakes in order to differentiate an ‘Active Teacher’ from a ‘robot’


How to keep an online course alive

Mariana Torres (Spain)
The idea of this proposal is to share my experience in online courses, but from a methodological point of view, not a technical one. The secret of the success during an online course is not technical: the tools are there to help teachers and students, but the really important point is to focus on a method to keep this kind of course alive: a kind of course with not real contact between teachers and students. We will explore different ways to keep warm and healthy an online classroom.

We could consider an online course looking at it as if it were a living being. With 3 states: birth (creation and starting), life (all the course in weeks until the end) and after-life state (what kind of path do our students follow after the course).

A good preparation of the birth (creation and starting) will mark and define the good life of our course. We will talk about 4 common mistakes (or misunderstandings) at the starting point, birth: (1) teaching online means less work, (2) flexibility means improvising and 24/7 hours attention, (3) teaching online means independent study and (4) making couples is the same of group working.

The healthy life of our course totally depends on the teacher.  The difference between the mix of Wikipedia + textbook + Google and an online course is the teacher or instructor (how to be an Active Teacher, and do not turn into a machine or a robot). We will talk, using the Dave Merril’s Five First Principles, about what kind of activities we could encourage from our director’s chair to keep a course alive.

Online and especially long term courses have the quality of the constant presence: your course exists each day of your students’ life, so the right way is to keep that presence alive. In short and flexible periods, but with several, easy and entertaining activities to do (and not all of them in front of the computer).

The secret weapon to maintain this life structured is organization. We will approach this by using the metaphor of a stair: what (and where) are the teachers’ steps and what (and where) are the students’ steps. How to keep flexibility and freedom in a structured course. The key is always pointing to maintain an active presence (and does not mean an invasive presence, which is easier): regular posting, feedback, engagement, personality and predictable access.

And the last words should be dedicated to the after-life course, i.e. what happens to your writing students at that point. Because until here we could apply all of the ideas exposed before to any kind of online course, but at this point it is good to remember we are teaching writing. What about after the course? Can we consider we have had a good course if our students keep writing after… us? When they should finish their process from worm to butterfly? What about the group, in what kind of being could it evolve?