If you don't mind, would you take a few minutes to explain to me how you're going about teaching an online course? That's something I've been interested in for some time...
A friend of mine recently emailed that question. A writer, editor and poet, he's written a number of books, several of which are for writers. He's also an experienced workshop facilitator, yet he's correct to ask about how online classes work, considering they're a whole different beast than in-person courses.
While I wrote about online classes last February when teaching my first one, I've since processed the experience and am motivated to explain the specifics, given I'm sure online classes will only increase in popularity. Why? Compared to in-person workshops, online classes are:
2. involve no transportation time or fee for either students or the instructor
3. can be completed at the student's own pace
Remember that you don't have to be an experienced writer to teach such workshops. Rather, you need an expertise other writers need to make their stories better. For example, crime writers need information on forensics, law enforcement and weapons. Mystery writers need knowledge about investigations and poisons and other potential means of death. You can also shape classes around a knowledge of martial arts, marriage counseling, travel, mountain climbing or cooking.
In-person workshops can cost anywhere from $60 to $500, depending on their duration (parital-day, all-day, two-day, once a week for so many weeks), how many people take the course and what organization is hosting the class and where.
In my case, the Wine Country Romance Writers, a Romance Writers of America chapter located in California's Central Valley, hosted my online character development class and set the price at $20 for WCRW members and $25 for non-members. WCRW didn't have to rent a venue and so was able to pass on most of each registrant's fee to me, while keeping a share to fund future club events.
Even so, my per person share was so much lower than an in-person workshop and was spread across an entire month, rather than one to six days total, that the online class would not have paid off if for one factor: in-person workshops are usually limited to 10, maybe 20 people, whereas the online class had no space limitations. So rather than have only 10 people, the class had 45.
I didn't have to travel anywhere for my online class, which can be a big commitment for instructors, especially if they have to fly to a conference. But I did have to create the content for the class and respond to questions.
How you structure the class is between you and the hosting organization. For WCRW, I stuck to the eight-lesson model the event coordinator sent to me. I posted a lesson every Tuesday and Thursday for four weeks. Each lesson was four single-spaced pages. This process took me about 26 hours. But remember, once you've developed the content, you can find another organization to host the class, or even host the class yourself. (The advantage of the former is you hook into a ready audience in an organization motivated to market your class, while the latter requires you to recruit students.) For example, I'm currently running Martha's Online Critique Group through my own efforts, while I'll be teaching an online character development class in September through Women Writing the West.
Once posted, it's up to you, the instructor, to determine how much feedback you encourage from students. Some instructors limit their access by only responding to messages left on the class website, rather than giving out an email address.
Because this was my first class, and because I enjoy talking about writing and seeing writers flourish, I gave students full access to me and encouraged them to email anytime and told them I would respond within 48 hours. Although I included exercises to help students develop their characters on their own, I welcomed the opportunity to have them share their work. With 45 enthusiastic romance writers, you can imagine the response. I answered roughly 20 emails a day, which came to 500 over the course of the month.
An online class lives or dies by the quality of communication. If you set up the rules by which you handle correspondence and stick to those guidelines, students should be happy with your work. If you don't follow-up, or are curt in your replies, students will not only drop out, but submit a negative response to an after-class satisfaction survey, email one another of their bad experience and even post negative comments on message boards. And so word will get out that yours is a class to miss.
One other pitfall to watch for regards spam filters. I directed messages posted on the class website to go right to email. That way I didn't have to check the website, but rather could just answer the emails that came to my inbox. I didn't realize, however, that due to spam filters used by my Internet service provider (ISP), some of those messages weren't coming through to my email. One student got discouraged and dropped out. I was able to follow up with her and apologize for the confusion — and we now keep in contact — but have since changed to an ISP that allows me to check my spam folder and so catch any legitimate messages that get wrongly culled.
WCRW set up a class website where students can post messages to the instructor and one another. I could then post my lessons as PDF files. To make sure everyone got my lessons, I also emailed the lessons every week. WCRW also assigned me a class moderator, a member who monitored all the correspondence to make sure people were being polite to one another, while helping solve technical glitches, like people who couldn't get through to me due to spam filters.
Since that class, I set up my own virtual classroom via yahoogroups.com for an online critique group. The process takes about a half-hour.
I could write another five paragraphs on the technical aspect of setting up the classroom, but that would be doing you a disservice. You need to get in there and mess around until you understand the setup. I'd strongly encourage you to do this exploration, while working out all technical problems, at least a month in advance so when that first day of the class comes, you're calm and can deliver what you promised. If you do your job right, your students will thrive and in turn, support you by buying your books, subscribing to your blog and taking any future classes.
Questions? Let me know.