Virginia Montecino

Teaching a distance learning course:
    reflections and helpful hints

January 1999 - Update Note: I am now in my fourth year of teaching advanced composition via the Internet.  I am still using Townhall.  I still have two real time classes in the beginning of the semester, which are not required, but which I find can give students a good start.  At the real time sessions they get to meet me, form their small peer response groups and brush up on technology skills.The requirements for the class, both in terms of equipment and expertise are made know to students before they register.  They must sign a form stating they understand the requirements before they are registered. I now expect my students to post their work on their Web pages and let them submit them as email attachments or hard copies only as a last resort.  My online syllabus keeps evolving.  Check out my Spring 99 syllabus.  I think this syllabus format is easier for students to use. I still opted for a version of the syllabus that can be printed out in total, without having to go to various links. I also post my non distance learning syllabi on the Web and no longer print out copies to give to students.  It is their responsibility to get the syllabus on the Web.  I now have extensive material on my Web site to help with their course work.

April 1998 - Update Note: Since this paper was written in 1996, I am now teaching a Spring 98 version of English 302, Advanced Composition for Science Majors. I am now using a web-based program (based on WebCrossing software,) which archives and threads class discussions and allows us to create and link to html documents. The GMU name for this Web-based meeting place is Townhall . This web-based program takes the place of a newsgroup and an e-mail listserv for class discussion. The class meetings on the web-based program can be restricted only to class members or open to a wider audience. Discussions and course material can be archived and the information does not reside in privatae email accounts, but on a Web server. I also have links in the web-based meeting place to on-line readings, the syllabus, assigments, student web pages, and some student work. I still use e-mail for private messages to students. I am moving in the direction of having all students post their drafts and finished products on their own web pages. Some students post their portfolios of all of their coure work on Web pages. Some still turn in a hard copy portfolio. My syllabus has become less linear to adapt to the unique characteristics of a web document, rather than a traditional style syllabus. Compare my first Web syllabus and my Spring 98 class syllabus.


Teaching a distance learning course

reflections and helpful hints

Virginia Montecino
E-mail me at

Though the first distance learning course I taught was an advanced composition course, many, if not most of my observations, I believe, will be helpful to faculty contemplating or presently teaching a course which uses computer-mediated communication to some degree, including distance learning courses. Since there are many variations on teaching a computer-mediated course, my observations are not intended to serve as "the model." My own methods and course design will continue to evolve. For those of you also teaching such courses, please share your ideas and I will be glad to pass them on to others interested in teaching using this technology. Students may also find this information helpful.

In the Spring 1996 semester, I taught my first distance learning English 302 composition course - natural science section (See the syllabus and other resources at my web site. We used e-mail, a newsgroup, a listserv; a hypertext syllabus with links to the class assignments, and various readings, including resources on-line at various web sites (such as the APA and MLA documentation styles, readings on line). My Web site includes a list of resources, including a number of references for research relevant to the students' disciplines. We did not have specialized software integrated to accommodate electronic discussion and document exchange. The good news about this approach is that it is cost effective and used technology readily available, without extra cost to the university or students. The work was turned in printed form in a portfolio at the end of the semester. I have incorporated computer-mediated communication in my composition courses for a number of years, but this was my first completely distance learning section, except for two meetings in the beginning of the semester and one at the end.

Students should know in advance if the course will be a distance learning section. A gatekeeper system for enrollment, I think, is a necessity. By that I mean students should not be able to register through the usual channels. Restricted enrollment will allow the students to be fully informed about the technology requirements and computer skills needed to take the course.

Below are some of my reflections which might help others attempting such a course.

Challenges with computer competency:

Students come to the distance learning experience with varying degrees of computer competency. Even though the course had restricted admission so students could be informed about the minimal computer equipment and computer skills requirements, some slipped through the process or disregarded it. Some students thought that because they had used e-mail at work, for example, that process could translate into using the UNIX system and pine e-mail at George Mason University. Though none of us, faculty and students, can ever know it all, since the technology is ever-changing, students and faculty alike who have to struggle with entry-level technology find that this takes time away from the course work. It's a given that technology glitches will occur, as all of us who teach using technology know. I found that if I take the problems in stride and am adaptable the students take my cue and are willing to help each other. Of course, if some of my students are highly competent with the technology and want to share their expertise, I feel quite fortunate.

If you plan to teach a course using computer-mediated communication and are relatively new to using the technology, you might want to start with adding small components of distance learning to your more traditional course, such as adding an e-mail discussion component, or having students sent one assignment via modem for peer response and teacher response. Then you can gradually build upon your repertoire of technology skills and be more comfortable before going completely distance.

Since students will be using various communications software, either from the office or at home, you may not be able to help them with individual upload/download protocols. Check with UCIS (University Computer Information systems) for Kermit software which may work when all else fails.

I find that some students expect that the real-time sessions in the beginning will be able to bring them up to speed with the computer technology - an impossible task. But the real time technology demos can introduce them to the basic technology requirements for your class. Some students catch on quickly - others may be hopelessly overwhelmed. If they agree to take the course it should be their responsibility to get the necessary support. I do recommend, however, that the instructor provide basic instructions or point students to where they can acquire basic instructions for using e-mail, downloading and uploading files, etc. Some students, with little background in this technology enjoyed the challenges of a distance learning class. Most of the students, in my exit survey, said they would take such a course again. A few found out that they were not ready to take such a course, either because of lack of self-discipline in this virtual setting, or because they couldn't learn the technology and keep up with the course demands at the same time. The class profile and grade spread, however, at the end of the semester, did not differ significantly from my non-distance sections, which covered the same material the same semester.

I expected that everyone enrolled had an e-mail account at GMU. One of the first tasks I gave the students was to upload and download a short file. This process was essential to my course design, since this mechanism was the way they send their paper drafts to me and their small peer response groups.

The culture of the computer-mediated class

In the beginning of the semester, when we met face-to-face, the students formed small groups. We discussed various forms of grouping (by subject interest, major, proximity to where they lived) and they primarily chose to group by major. These small groups were maintained throughout the semester for peer response to each others' papers, for the group project, etc. Close friendships, in some cases, formed from these groups. The students came to the final class (real time) comfortable with each other and worked very well together to present their final group project to the class as a whole. I admit I was a bit apprehensive about what the class dynamics might be in a class which only met twice in the beginning of the semester and was now meeting real time at the end of the semester. I was pleasantly surprised at the comfort level and sense of community. I wondered how much interaction they were really engaged in, since, although I required periodic updates on group activity, the teacher can be largely left out of the conversation. I don't think that this is necessarily a bad thing. In fact, the more learning is the responsibility of the students, the better it is.

It is more tricky than in a face-to-face classroom to establish the comfort level with peer response and help guide students to make appropriate responses to each other's work. This is a subject faculty and students always struggle with, but which I consider an invaluable part of the traditional class and the distance learning composition class.

Many students may never have engaged in a writing class in which students provide peer response to each other's writing. Many students may not have used e-mail or had only used it for personal messages, not to engage in student/student and teacher/student discussions or conference with their teacher regarding their writing and other classroom discussions. So if you tie together learning how to respond to drafts, in general, learning how to respond to drafts over e-mail, plus the skills required to upload and download their drafts, this involves complex and sometimes frustrating dynamics. Clear guidelines for e-mail response and an end of semester student/student evaluation (for the teacher's eyes only) can stimulate response. I have them evaluate each other on whether or not the student submitted drafts for response, whether or not the student took the time to respond to the writer's questions about his or her own text, etc. Asking students to evaluate the depth of the response or the value of the response is a bit too tricky, and probably not fair. A good effort is certainly expected, however.

Students whose writing skills may be marginal could be hesitant about engaging in on-line discussion of writing and readings for discussion. Some students, even with marginal writing skills, see e-mail writing as more of a conversation than a composition and feel quite comfortable with this medium that has an intimacy/distance paradox. On the other hand, students who are fluent in written English, but, for whatever reason, have difficulty with oral expression often find e-mail a great vehicle for expressing themselves. I find that assuring students that their e-mail journals and e-mail discussion are more spontaneous forms of writing allows them more freedom to express themselves without fear of being held accountable in the same way as more formal texts they produce.

Some of my students also chose to meet in person, at their convenience, in their small peer response groups. Some found it helpful to come see me in person. Occasionally a student would drop his or her draft off at my office if he or she couldn't get the upload file function to work. I think allowing this flexibility is important.

Some students find it difficult to discipline themselves to keep up with due dates for drafts of papers. I find this is more of a problem without the presence of a teacher as a constant reminder. At the last meeting some students expressed the feeling that since there was not a class to go to on a set schedule they did not have the visible reminder to keep on schedule, even though the syllabus spelled out definite due dates. Time slipped away and many students found themselves trying to play catch up, even though I sent timely e-mail reminders about due dates. How much of their inability to keep up was linked to the difficulties of taking a distance learning course, which requires more self-direction, is not clear. I find that if I don't set strict guidelines for submissions, however, I and the student can get overloaded with too many papers to deal with at one time. At times I did feel the need to be flexible with due dates.

If students didn't read their e-mail regularly , check in on the newsgroup, and keep in touch with their class member, this was the equivalent of missing classes. As with missing too many traditional classes, the students get behind.

I recommend setting firm ground rules for submission of papers. For example, I would not accept research papers if the students did not send me a draft for response a reasonable period before the due date. I wanted to see the students' work in progress and their connection to their writing.

Asynchronous Anxiety:

I and the students at times experienced what I call "asynchronous anxiety." In a real-time class setting you can't be sure if a student is listening to your direction or student presentations, or engaging in assigned small group discussion or assignments. This problem is compounded in a computer-mediated setting. When I sent out a message I wondered when the students would decide to read their e-mail, if the students received it, or if they would respond. To keep engaged with the class activities and to clarify objectives or head off any problem areas, I asked students to send me periodic e-mail messages about their work-in-progress, reflections on their journal writing, and reports on their group class-related activities. Occasionally a student would send out an "urgent" message and expect an unrealistic turn around in response. I have to admit, I am probably guilty of that same expectation.

Because I had never before taught a completely virtual course, though I have been using e-mail and electronic document exchange in my classes for many years, I had a tendency to send too many e-mails to my students early in the semester. I was concerned about keeping in touch with them and letting them know that I was there. Also, there were many things I thought about sharing with them that I felt there wasn't time to share during the two real-time sessions in the beginning of the semester. The frequent e-mails made some students felt more comfortable knowing I was there guiding them. Others felt that there were so many e-mail messages that they were overwhelmed. Students who are quite literate in using e-mail are not bothered by the profusion of e-mail they receive from other students or faculty. Students new to e-mail used for learning purposes, rather than for sending messages to family and pals, in either a virtual or traditional classroom, take time to get accustomed to the culture of the computer classroom, mail management, and responding in an appropriate and timely fashion.

When we had the Spring Break, I sent a reminder to students about a paper due when they came back. One student expressed the feeling that she felt I was intruding on her break by sending an e-mail message. Others felt grateful for the reminder. The student who objected, I feel, did not fully appreciate the fact that one of the plusses of e-mail is that you can choose to log on or not, or save messages to read at a convenient time. The asynchronous quality of e-mail does give students and faculty a way to send messages without having to worry about whether or not that person is "in" at the moment. But, that student's remark gave me pause to reflect on whether or not I, in my zeal, should be sending e-mail messages during a break. After all, in a traditional classroom setting I would not and should not have that access. Though students need to get in the habit of logging on at regular intervals to not miss important class matters that may come up, sending too many messages by faculty and students alike can be a turnoff and can be overwhelming.

I found that it is important, especially since we didn't meet in person on a regular basis, that my e-mail messages be positive and encouraging, especially when there were technology or other glitches. I tried to avoid just sending "teacherly"' reminders and assignments. I occasionally sent inquiry messages to individuals and the class, asking how things were going, or sharing some ideas I thought might be helpful.

Newsgroup participation:

You can request UCIS (University Computer Information Systems) here at GMU establish a newsgroup for the duration of the semester. The advantage of using a newsgroup is that messages can be archived and they do not reside on the users' e-mail accounts, taking up space for other correspondence. Some newsreaders can archive messages and thread discussion related to that theme. Students had varying degrees of success using the newsgroup. Some news readers can be "clunky," making it difficult to access earlier messages or keep a discussion threaded. I used our class newsgroup to post copies of all major assignments and technology instructions. I also required that students engage in newsgroup discussions about some readings, including some readings on the Internet. Participation was sporadic. One disadvantage of the newsgroup is that students have a tendency to forget to use it, since accessing the newsgroup requires some extra effort. One way I will try to overcome this lack of participation in the future is to establish newsgroup participation early on as a necessary way to conduct class discussions. Since I didn't require using it early on, students had a tendency to forget about it. Perhaps I will use the newsgroup for introductions of class members. Setting up a few specific questions to stimulate newsgroup discussions helps get the discussion started.

I created a hypertext link to the newsgroup in my hypertext syllabus (called a syllaweb) to make access more convenient, but it was not prominently displayed. Next time I will make it more visible. Students could click on the hypertext link to the class newsgroup from the web syllabus. [note: Since I taught this first distance learning section, I have moved to a web-based discussion program, Web Crossing, which archives the messages, and is more user friendly. The students and I can also insert hypertext links into the messages.]

Using a WEB Page for syllabus, assignments, readings, student publications

Hypertext syllabus:

There is much discussion going on among those of us who teach on-line about the changing nature of a "syllaweb." If the format and graphical look of the on-line syllabus changes in any significant way this can be disorienting students. I compare it to going to the grocery and all of a sudden finding all the food is rearranged and you can't get oriented. You can't find some items or you go home after shopping and discover you forgot some items. The syllabus is the contract the students agree to abide by when they take a course. If you change the graphical look or format of your syllabus while the course is in progress, I recommend going over the changes with students to reorient them. In a linear on-line syllabus information can get "lost" since only portions of the text are visible at any give time on a scrolling text. You might want to have a "spot" on your web site, but not in the body of your syllabus, where you post due dates, spontaneous assignments, readings, reminders, etc.

Students can access the hypertext syllabus using a graphical web browser, like Netscape, or by using a non-graphical browser like lynx (which can be accessed from the>prompt. The students can access their assignments and print them out without your having to send them as attached files. Some faculty teaching on-line have no printed assignment handouts, only those posted on-line. The hypertext syllabus or faculty web page can also have links to readings on the Internet, and other resources such as the MLA and APA style guides, and other resources such as on-line journals, sites with useful information for their research, etc. (See my list of useful web sites and my syllabus at

Syllabus design:

I chose to design my syllabus so that it basically looked like a traditional syllabus which students could print out. I incorporated links to the full texts of their assignments, which sometimes included links to the full texts of a reading related to the assignment.

A disadvantage to the on-line syllabus which follows the linear pattern of a traditional syllabus is that students have to scroll through the document to get to the part they need at any particular time. An advantage is that they can have a complete syllabus at hand if they choose to print it out. Though linear, my syllaweb did have a number of hypertext links to various readings, assignments, and resources.

An on-line syllabus which is composed of separate hypertext lines to all major components of the course syllabus is less cumbersome to scroll through; however, since the bulk of the material is hidden, students may not attempt to uncover the linked components. And they would have to access each link and then have to print out the various information.

There are so many styles of on-line syllabi (syllawebs) you can create. I am still experimenting with what will work best for me and my students.[note: In my Sp 97 distance learning course my syllabus is in a table form.]

Student web pages:
Some students choose to post their drafts in progress and the final versions of their papers on their own web sites. My students posted the results of their group projects (to critique and report on web sites related to their major). One concern of posting on the web is other students plagiarizing that student's work. The plagiarism and the Internet issue is of major concern for all who publish on and use the Internet. See my list web page for information on plagiarism and the Internet.

Student use of web pages for class projects or for publishing their writing provides an excellent opportunity to reinforce the necessity of appropriate language for specific audiences and purposes, and the importance of appropriate design and graphics. Publishing student work on the Web gives it importance and a ready audience. Link student Web pages to the course page on the Web provides the teacher and students a convenient way to access all class projects on the Web.

Typos, incorrect spelling, grammar, punctuation, and awkward sentences stand out when documents are published on the Web.

Guidelines for student Web pages:

Copyright issues:
- The issue of copyright and the Internet, with the ease of copying text and graphics with a click of the mouse button, needs to be addressed with students. Many issues regarding copyright and the Internet are still being worked out. In general, at this time, linking to sites is okay. Copying whole texts and distributing to students is probably not. Letting students print out their own copies for personal use is okay. I have included some links on my Web page to sites dealing with copyright issues.

I find I need to reinforce that copying a logo or other graphic from another Web site is a form of plagiarism - stealing someone or some company's intellectual property. Some sites give permission if students ask (It can be a form of free advertising - if students include a link to a particular site in their Web pages).

At the risk of sounding like I am anti free speech, students, for their protection and yours, should be given clear guidelines as to what kinds of sites and information you consider acceptable for your educational goals and which sites violate acceptable university computing standards and practices. Some students don't always have a clear idea of what constitutes good taste in a particular context, or what is an appropriate site to link to their course related web pages. You can avoid embarrassment if you check to be sure that you are not unknowingly giving sanction to sites that are offensive for various reasons by inadvertently linking your web page to pages that include such links.

Some instructional uses of the WEB Page:

Syllaweb - Link to on-line readings and resources: Instead of a "dead" linear document, you can use hypertext links within your syllabus to on-line readings, full texts of assignments you created.

If you are teaching a course on art, history, or science, for example, you might want to include links on-line museums, or historical documents, or a "virtual fly lab" to study genetic probability. I usually, as a courtesy, let the originator of the site know that I intend to link to his or her site. The response so far has been very positive. Sometimes the originators choose to link their sites with mine.

I have included some links on my Web page to various sites in different disciplines, including distance learning, virtual libraries , cyber journals, technology resources, and Internet search engines.

Ideas for student projects using the web:

--- Student critiques (individual or small group) of Web sites on a particular subject relevant to the course:

  • Critique of content
  • Critique of audience/purpose
  • Critique of layout/graphics
  • Critique of credibility of Web site (is it maintained and reviewed by a reputable organization or institution? Can the author's credibility be established?
--- Students can post their written critiques or discussions on Web pages. I made this requirement optional, since I wasn't sure how well they could accomplish this task with little guidance from me, except my written "how-to on creating a home page. The students posted their group Internet projects on one web site, maintained by one group member, or put the same web project on their individual web pages. I included links to their Web pages on my Home Page

Record Keeping:

Since teaching and attending a virtual composition course requires the exchange of a large number of compositions, it is a challenge to manage and keep track of all the documents. Occasionally I had difficulty in knowing whether or not I had zipped a student's paper back with my comments. I devised a system whereby I saved the students original texts I downloaded in my word processing program and made copies under another related name on which to respond. Occasionally a student would say he or she "lost" my response and could I please send it again. I tried to make sure I kept all the originals and responses in files in my computer for my own record keeping and in case of computer glitches.

I used a communications program called Procomm for Windows and downloaded the student text files from my UNIX account directory to my word processing program. I would create directories and subdirectories for the student work . I would save the document under another name to preserve the integrity of the student's original text. On the renamed text I would first make general comments at the top of the student's text and then, if necessary, would type comments within the student's text, placing my comments between brackets to keep it separate from the original text. Then I would upload the document back to the student.

Possible ways to categorize student files.

--- Keeping files according to name of assignment, with a separate sub directory of the students' original texts, and another sub directory my responses. I always named the student's texts and my responses with a variation of the students' last name to readily see which text belonged to which student.

--- Keeping students' work under files labeled by the students' names, with subdirectories related to particular assignments and my responses.

--Plusses and minuses:
It is easier to keep all papers for one assignment together to keep tabs on who did or did not send in his or her paper, and to check and see which ones you responded to or not. Filing according to assignment makes it harder to keep track of the individual students' work. I found that, for me, filing under specific assignments worked best to track student work.

I found that, with so many papers and responses zipping back and forth, it was easy to lose track of whether or not I sent a document back after I responded to it. You may want to keep a record of student work and grades on a spreadsheet or other record system to check off whether or not students completed the work and whether or not you responded and sent the response back. I also recommend asking for student confirmation that they got your response back. I also e-mail the students that I received their work. This back and forth affirmation, if kept simple and to-the-point, helps reduce the asynchronous anxiety of whether or not student/teacher and student/student are really receiving drafts and responses.

See my first computer mediated composition syllabus , subsequent composition courses.   My Guidelines, Education and Technology Resources, plus a paper presented at E-Mail, the WEB, and MOOs: Developing the Writing Skills of University Students in Cyberspace by the Consortium of Universities of the Washington Metropolitan Area may also be helpful.

Here are a few resources for computer-mediated teaching/learning: (1996 biblio)

Hairston, Maxine, John J. Ruszkiewicz. Teaching On-Line: Internet Research, Conversation and Composition. 4th ed. Austin: Harper Collins. 1996.

Harasim, Linda, Starr Roxanne Hiltz, Lucio Teles, Murray Turoff. Learning Networks. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press (1995).

Hawisher, Gail E., Cynthia L. Selfe. Evolving Perspectives on Computers and Composition Studies. Urbana: NCTE. 1991.

Landow, George P. Hypertext: The Convergence of Contemporary Critical Theory and Technology. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP. 1992.

Selfe, Cynthia L. "Computer-Based Conversations and the Changing Nature of Collaboration." New Visions of Collaborative Writing. Ed. Janis Forman. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook, 1992. 147-169.

Stull, Andrew T. English on the Internet: A Student's Guide, adapted for English by Barbara Johnson. Prentice Hall.

Tuman, Myron C., ed. Literacy Online. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press. 1992 . 

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