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Holding the Virtual Self Accountable
An Online Educator's Obligation

By Brett Hicks / October 2010

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Holding the Virtual Self Accountable

An Online Educator's Obligation

October 14, 2010

Online educators enjoy a unique and rewarding experience. From their computers, they develop the personal and professional skills of students worldwide. The educator-student relationship is an honored arrangement. The student comes to learn, welcomed by the educator.

In his book, The Virtual Self, Ben Agger coined the phrase "worldly selves" (see below for more on this book). He states that an individual "plugs into the world via extensions such as the Web and cell phones. The 'more' they learn about things that come and go, the less they know about what really matters. Information and entertainment tradeoff against real depth of insight, the ability to reason and skeptical inquiry."

I believe this description epitomizes today's online student. These extensions allow students a vast amount of access to all the information they desire, when they desire it. I believe this on-demand authority can create a complex educator-student relationship.

Today's virtual students have decided to include formal education in their hectic lives. They accept the role of student among their daily multi-tasking duties as parents, leaders, workers, and members of the community. Online education appeals to them because it is convenient and offers self-paced learning, learning that fits into the busy schedules of today's professionals.

However, a small percentage of students may bring a "worldly self" lifestyle or attitude to the classroom by believing that "self-paced" is code for "when I get around to it." Educators must be aware of and proactive toward dispelling this belief.

Most troubling are students who are upset with instructors who deduct points for late assignments that have not been pre-approved. Often, these students are experienced online students. They are not just starting out. They are third- and fourth-year undergraduates and graduate students.

This is where educators must ask themselves some tough questions. Have educators taught or encouraged this behavior or even perhaps fostered it? Have they educated students on proper academic etiquette? Are educators to blame for this general disregard for timeliness? Have they reinforced students' behavior by not holding them accountable?

Distance learning presents unique challenges for educators. For example, without face-to-face interaction between faculty and learners, students present only their virtual selves to the instructor and classmates, which makes accountability difficult. Educators must judge attendance and intent in a virtual world where students provide unverifiable reasons for absence or late assignments via email, phone, or text message. Without body language or eye contact, the instructor only has a student's previous performance in the course to gauge sincerity.

For the student, the virtual self provides an opportunity to stretch the truth. "My dog ate my homework" takes on an entirely different meaning when a student does not have to present himself or herself in person. The ability of some students to hide behind their virtual selves adds a tricky complexity to the educator-student relationship. In this environment, an instructor must adopt an all-or-nothing approach to classroom attendance and participation. If faculty members do not universally apply this approach, the hard-line professor runs the risk of alienating these students over a perceived unfairness due to a departure from the norm established during the student's tenure at the university.

Accountability is critical for online education. Many of the detractors of online education argue against asynchronous learning based on a triad. The points of this triad are a lack of academic rigor, qualified faculty and accountability. If we design this triad in the shape of a pyramid, accountability would represent the base.

In my opinion, student accountability is paramount. In order for distance education institutions to overcome the stigma of online education, faculty must act as gatekeepers, protecting the integrity of their respective institutions. This defense begins in the classroom. Distance education institutions distinguish themselves in the same manner as traditional institutions of higher learning. They produce educated, student professionals—even virtual ones.

About the Author

Brett Hicks is a professor of Homeland Security, Emergency and Disaster Management and Public Health at the School of Public Safety & Health at American Military University. He has more than 17 years of professional experience in health care, public health, and emergency/crisis management.

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  • Thu, 22 Dec 2011
    Post by Otea Leonard - Students Are People Too!

    Most of Us Try Our Best to Succeed Online!

    As a student of American Public University / American Military University; I find that it is not easy to juggle all that I do throughout my daily life. In addition, this year I just happened to get sick ( which never happened before) and I have just begun to recover.

    I believe it takes much more discipline for an online student to be successful at online learning. It takes dedication and will power.

    Yet of all the things I read and have learned about online learning, I have yet to see or hear that instructors regularly pick up the phone or email or even text students when they've not logged on for a few days.

    That's not to say instructors should become baby sitters yet when things get tough for us as students, that same information and access to US in a digital sense such as email, cell phone, and text- become ways for the instructors to reach out to their students.

    It's something to do with the digital realm or our digital self image. We can feel as if we are just a number sometimes and make no mistake about it; when an instructor calls texts or emails, all they need do is send a copy of the communication between themselves and the student or students to their email account for later reference as to exactly what was communicated. This should be done for legal reasons and after that... full steam ahead!

    Students are people too and when we get lost in the digital world and are floating outside our digital classroom like that of an astronaut outside the space shuttle, it would help for an instructor to sometimes engage us; this would most likely reel us back in!

    Ms. Otea Leonard, Digital Student Communicating in Worldly Form Information Systems Security Major Forensic Science Minor American Public University System American Military University

  • Fri, 15 Oct 2010
    Post by Terry Weatherford

    Late in my career, distance learning became the most common delivery method for professional education within our corporation. I spent countless hours reading, digesting and passing tests on many technical subjects learned at a distance. I can remember a few times when I was tempted (and succumbed) to delay distance learning until the day before the deadline. I paid the price of completing the course during the night before the last day. What knowledge I did ingest overnight did not last very long. I found myself going back to some distance courses for review when I could not remember what I had "learned" well enough to pass the test. In a professional world, no excuses are excepted for a late finish. Too many late finishes can effect your annual performance evaluation which can impact your short term compensation and long term career goals adversely. I applaud the author's willingness to share with distance learners that, ulimately, distance learners are accountable for their own success or lack of it.