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Teaching Mathematics Online: A Virtual Classroom - Reflections

Jim Gleason

Since I had such a great experience teaching a mathematics course online, I have wondered why more teachers do not want to teach using these methods. I have also wondered what advice I would give to someone about to teach an online course for the first time. Therefore, I have come up with the following list, which is by no means exhaustive.


  • Remember that online courses are different from the traditional classroom.

    When teaching an online course, you must view the course as something completely different from a physical classroom. This new teaching environment uses different methods and ideas. You must use computer screens and web cams instead of chalkboards or white boards. You will multi-task in new ways by teaching the class while following the text chat and watching for students to "raise their hand." You have to find new ways to get a feel for how your students are doing, other than looking at their blank faces. Most of all, you must be comfortable using computers and able to work on technical problems as you go. For some ideas on methods to use, talk to other people who are teaching similar classes, get ideas from the education faculty, and read about what others are doing. For additional ideas, I have included some interesting and informative articles on the next page (Kubala, 1998; Taylor & Mohr, 2001; Carnevale & Olsen, 2003; Engelbrecht & Harding, 2005a, 2005b).

  • Get some training with the software and hardware.

    Get several hours of training with the software you will use. Then before the class starts, take some time to run through a couple of practice sessions with someone else who will be using the same software. Finally, find a mentor who has been through this before. This will likely involve going outside of your department to the fields of education or business, which have a longer history of using distance education technologies.

  • Get to know your technical support.

    You will have problems. If you have already developed a relationship with your technical support team, then it will be easier and faster to get help when the problems occur. Most of the problems that occurred during my course were minor ones involving difficulty with my Sympodium pen or some of my students having trouble with their dial-up connections. However, there was one night that a worm attacked the server on which our class operated. It was sort of like the power flickering on and off in a normal classroom. Thankfully I was able to call our technician at home, and he was able to work on the problem while we continued having class.

  • Use text chat during the class.

    This is one area where there is disagreement. Some people have had difficulty paying attention to both the text chat and what they are teaching. However, since many of my students were more comfortable asking questions in the text chat than orally, I found that this extra effort paid off. As an extra bonus, other students were sometimes able to answer those questions without my having to stop class. The text chat also enabled me to get to know my students better, as they were more open and expressive with typing their comments than saying them.

  • Have students turn in all homework electronically.

    This will be a pain for your students, but it helps immensely with speeding up the turn around time on grading. When students faxed in their work, I had a more difficult time making comments on their work and sending it back to them. I also found that it helps to limit the number of formats for homework submission. I used only two, Word and PDF. When students used other programs, such as The Geometer's Sketchpad®, they simply copied and pasted these files into their Word document.

  • Provide quick feedback.

    When teaching a distance education course, it is easier to be not as prompt returning homework and answering students' questions as when they stop by your office. Therefore, you need to make a point of promptly returning e-mail messages to answer students' homework questions, so they can finish their assignment, and of grading their homework quickly, so they can use the feedback to make adjustments for future assignments.

  • Build in collaborative work.

    When designing an online course, there must be collaborative opportunities built into the course. Some possibilities are

    • Have students work in groups during class time.
    • Maintain a discussion board for students to ask questions.
    • Have separate class times for discussions with the students.
    • Make sure that each student has the e-mail addresses of the other students.

    Since my class was a graduate class with most of the students being part of a cohort program, most of these came naturally for them.

  • Make yourself available.

    Students will not just stop by your office, so make sure that you stay on top of your e-mail and that your students have a phone number where you can be reached. Also, with distance education students, most of their homework is done during the evenings or on the weekends when they are not at work. You need to keep this in mind when setting up office hours and due dates.

  • Set up an opportunity to meet the students in person.

    Towards the end of the semester I had a chance to meet several of my students at a conference. In the following weeks, I found it much easier to interact with these students and to know how to help them better. It would have been much better if I had been able to meet the students earlier. There are many ways to do this, including having an on-campus class meeting, meeting the students when they begin their program, or traveling and giving the class from the different students' locations.

Most of all, remember to have fun. Realize that you will make mistakes when you are trying something new -- you need to be willing to look foolish in front of your students at times. They will understand and admire you more for trying something new.

Jim Gleason, "Teaching Mathematics Online: A Virtual Classroom - Reflections," Convergence (May 2006)