One of the aspects of community college teaching I enjoy the most is the autonomy the work provides me. I am the boss in my classroom, whether it be a physical or virtual space. I have the privilege of setting my own schedule, for the most part, and teaching when and where I want to teach. I guess that’s not exactly true, because where I used to want to teach was fully online; however, that idea was blocked by the instructional deans at MSJC. I was not the only one who was prohibited from teaching 100% online as the maximum load a full-time instructor was permitted to teach was 60% in a semester. This was an interesting interpretation of an MoU between the MSJCFA and the District. In the MoU faculty were permitted to teach 120% of their annual load in the online format. Two hundred percent makes up the annual load, 100% per semester. The administration interpreted the language of 120% being split between semesters versus its intent to be used in myriad increments, e.g. 100% online in one semester and 20% in the next; 80% in one semester and 20% in the next etc. Of course there was no minimum amount of online teaching required.
In retrospect I am thankful we have not been able to teach 100% of our load online. Although I am an introvert and enjoy spending time with myself, I do have a social need, probably not as great as many others, but I still feel a need for human contact with my faculty peers. I find that I still get energized from other community college professionals who desire to improve their practice of teaching. This is contrasted with the flexibility and autonomy I was receiving from online teaching. I enjoyed working in my silo more than I desired to be involved with collaborating with my peers. Although working 100% online would have still required attendance at convocation, graduation, district, site and departmental meetings, the idea of living wherever I wanted was VERY appealing to me, if I was permitted to teach 100% of my load online. I envisioned falls in the Berkshires, winters in NYC, springs in Paris, summers on a lake in Washington state. I could be a vagabond. I would simply have to have an Internet connection and I would be set. I could fly in for faculty meetings secretly hoping some would get cancelled; I could work at 5am, noon or on weekends… whenever it was convenient for me! I thought this idea was totally plausible because I knew of firefighters who lived far away from their home stations and would fly into the area where they worked to fulfill their eight, 24-hour workdays each month. Upon completing their shifts, they would return to their cottages in the woods or ocean front condos far from their station houses. I think the teaching profession could be similar, but I believe there is a real need for teachers to collaborate, if they want to improve. Although collaboration at a distance is totally possible especially with HD quality video conferencing software, e-mail, asynchronous chat programs, etc., there is still something that is difficult to replace when there is a separation of either time and/or space. I hoped I could accomplish both– live at a distance and collaborate with my peers, but I found I was doing little collaboration with my peers and the prohibition of teaching 100% load online prevented me from being a gypsy. I was at a crossroads.
Human contact– the need to see people, hear their voice inflections, shake their hands, for some people give hugs, observe and interpret gesticulations that would typically not be observable via a webcam make face-to-face meetings invaluable… at least in my opinion. As an aside, I have been a traditional student, undergrad and graduate, a completely online student, online teaching certification, and a hybrid student, doctoral program. Hands down, the hybrid program worked best for me. I was able to complete much of the work required for my doctorate in the comfort of my own home, in a vehicle traveling to a child’s sporting event, or at a local coffee shop. The face-to-face meetings held monthly were a great way to connect and after the first meetings reconnect with fellow doctoral students going through the same sequence of courses at the same time as me. Our face-to-face meetings were often followed by communal activities at a local bar or restaurant. We enjoyed the time together to commiserate and grow in our understanding of how technology could be used to change the teaching and learning paradigm. It was an exciting time.
I finished by doctorate in 2004. Sometimes I miss the learning that took place during those years… the readings, the discussions about the readings, the hypothesizing and philosophizing and the energy that came from sharing an experience with others. I felt I could institute some of what I learned in my doctoral program back at MSJC. I soon found my enthusiasm was not matched by many of my colleagues, It almost felt as if many of them wanted to be left alone to supervise their silos with little or no desire for outside ‘interference’. I felt alone. Where were the teachers who wanted to change the world? Where were my colleagues who wanted to jump at the chance to try something new and exciting? There were some, but not enough to gain the momentum I was hoping for to reinvent higher education. I became disillusioned. I retreated back to my silo and stayed there for a few years. Like Punxsutawney Phil I would pop up out of my burrow occasionally, but with little motivation or vigor to engage my peers in improving our practice of teaching and learning.
I can’t say for certain why I recently left the comfort of my silo, but I know it has to have something to do with the excitement and energy our new Dean of Academic Computing, Technology and Distance Education brings to the position. Micah and I have had an opportunity to discuss the seminal phases of our online program during our first few months working together. He often communicates to me his recollection of the community of online teachers who started the online program at MSJC and who were deeply involved with each others’ professional development. I’ve told him I thought this community of online practitioners had to develop, if the online program was to survive. In the earliest days there were many naysayers questioning the validity of online learning… some of them are now online teachers themselves. We bonded together, Micah’s predecessor, Pat James, developed a wonderful academy model where fledgling online instructors who could work alongside more experienced online teaching peers. We attended conferences to learn as much as we could. We returned to campus to share what we learned with our peers. The academies grew from a once a year phenomena to biannual events. The online program grew from two courses in the spring of 2001 to over 200 courses in 2015. The explosive growth in the program has resulted in some fracturing of the online teaching community. There are no more brown bag lunches. There are seldom opportunities for mass attendance at conferences focusing on online teaching. The community perhaps grew too fast to stay together. I’m sure there are many of my peers who are at a similar crossroads in their careers– stay in their silo or come out and get involved.
It is my hope to rekindle the community of online teachers whom I hope still have a little gas left in the tank and want to be a part of the changes that are a comin’. In the next several months we will most likely face the most significant changes to our online program we have ever encountered since its inception. We may be adopting a new course management system which will require substantial orientation and professional development; we will possibly be looking towards a model for online course offerings that will centralize some of the ways we offer online courses and programs and there will more than likely be a reworking of the MoU to incorporate online teaching and learning issues that affect our working conditions. It is an exciting time. For me, I wish not to set on the sideline and let others make all of the decisions. I have come out from my silo to be involved in this exciting time for distance learning at MSJC. I hope others will join me and we can utilize the power of community to make the changes we hope to make as educators.