GOING THE DISTANCE: the marathon of Distance-Learning Training


On September 4, 2012, I launched into an adventure — Distance-Education training, a course that would last almost a semester.  Although I had to learn a new vocabulary, including the difference between an item and a file, I was optimistic about my race to the Finish Line.

Units I and II started out with the basics: learning my way around the Distance Learning home page, familiarizing myself with the “landscape” of Blackboard, interacting with peers on a discussion board.

“Hey, this is fun!” I thought, as I zoomed from one activity to another. “I might even finish in time to start  in spring, instead of summer.”

Yes, my first month in Distance Learning was like Christmas morning and a honeymoon at the same time. I was fascinated with my new “toy”. Just for fun, I composed PowerPoint lectures and devised interactive true/false and multiple-choice quizzes that student could complete on their iPhones or iPads.Working to Create Lesson Plan

Suddenly, the treacherous terrain of Unit III, “Building Content” caused me to stumble.  Sprinting ahead of the others, at first, I began moseying along at the speed of mud. As Unit III dictated, I built a course menu, devised a storyboard, composed a syllabus, and created lesson plans. Each step in the process was a study in trial-and-error, requiring me to submit and re-submit some assignments, and check my grades, only to see “Not Passed” beside the activity I had worked so hard to finish.

I marveled at the irony. After twenty-three years of teaching “Freshman Comp”, I have learned to bang out lesson plans in my sleep.  To pull them, like rabbits from silk hats,  out of thin air. To walk into a classroom, car keys still in hand, and start “professing”.  In a fit of frustration, I collared Self. and asked her, “Why am I running into these roadblocks?”

“Simple,” she said, “Welcome to Blackboard.”

Even in traditional, face-t0-face classes, we have had to begin keeping our gradebook on this mystifying new tool. We who have never used it before still don’t understand why we can’t use its predecessor, Campus Cruiser, anymore. Life was so simple, then.

Or not?

Two days ago, after submission number-four, I  passed “Adding Content” at last. My next step, “Preliminary Review” — an event in which my lesson plans and course menu are previewed and evaluated by peers. Yawning ahead are Units IV through VII, all due before November 30. James, my instructor,  assures me that I will have jumped over the steepest hurdle. I’ll take his word for it while holding my breath.

However stressful it seems now, this course is a gift from God. I’m thankful it is self-paced (to an extent) and that my instructor has been patient and encouraging with my daily phone calls to him.  Having passed the halfway mile-marker, I’m determined to limp along until I finish this marathon. My fingertips may be calloused; my spirits, trampled, and my nerves, frayed, but I’ve waited too long for this opportunity and the freedom that teaching online offers. 

I can picture myself now: ninety years old,  arthritic fingers typing out lessons  for a whole new generation of students.



It’s a virus that spreads with availability of technology and sources. It slows down teachers’ progress while they are grading. Despite the alarming number of occurrences and recurrences, its discovery is always unsettling.

Its name is Plagiarism, a term referring to claiming as one’s own the ideas and even sentence structure of someone else by not acknowledging that source as the original. While plagiarism can be unintentional through, for example, an innocent mistake in documentation of a source, it is too often intentional and the offenders’ explanations, almost comical.

” I just got in a hurry and didn’t know what else to do” is one alibi I hear from some students I confront with the evidence: Exhibit A — the highlighted portions of their essays that line up with Exhibit B, the exact but unacknowledged highlighted words of the original source.

Another misinformed excuse? “Yes, I did paraphrase in places.”

My favorite? “Aw, man! How did that happen?” (Here, insert a bewildered glaze over the eyes, a frenzied scratching of the scalp.)

In the Dinosaur Days, I typed into Google suspect words and phrases sounding a bit too erudite for their authors — students who struggled with stringing subjects to verbs to create the simplest simple sentences. With the click of a mouse — BINGO! — up popped the exact phrase on multiple links.

Then, Turn It In rode in on its white horse. A plagiarism detector, Turn It In helps teachers by searching Internet sources, student repositories, and database articles for “similarities” (a delicate phrase) between students’ essays and original sources and even rates them by percentage, using a color chart. Red and orange flag the essays with the greater “similarity indices”, while yellow and green mark the lower percentages. Since I began requiring my students to upload their own essays to Turn It In, I have not only saved myself valuable time in the grading process but also returned the essays to my classes sooner.

Then, last week, while discussing with colleagues the benefits of sites such as Turn It In, I heard an undisclosed source say that some bleeding-hearts group [my words, not his] have alleged those sites as “detrimental to student success”.

Say what? Somebody, please help me understand this convoluted reasoning. Should our students be allowed to copy the hard-won words of unsuspecting writers and, by failing to recognize them as the original sources, claim those words without penalty?

This morning, while I was setting up my new classes on Turn It In, I caught an article listed among on the site’s “White Papers.” The author pointed to some commonly-plagiarized sources. The first three were no surprise: essay mills, the Internet, Wikipedia. The shocker? Some were copied and pasted from articles found on teacher-sanctioned subscription databases such as Ebsco Host.

As a rule, Composition I instructors include the concept of plagiarism within the first weeks of their coursework and, often, require each student to read, sign, and date a scholastic dishonesty document. Besides for teaching students the proper techniques for citing the original source , they also cover ways of recognizing and preventing plagiarism.

But what about remedial students and second-language learners? Why has someone not come up with a basic way to teach them how to give credit to whom it is due?

In what way is not teaching a student of any level how to prevent plagiarism or, even worse, allowing him or her to cheat furthering that student’s academic success?

In conclusion, plagiarism, simply worded, is scholastic dishonesty. For those who still do not understand the meaning of those words, plagiarism or scholastic dishonesty, then let’s sum it up in one basic word: stealing.


Fall of 1989.

Clutching the attache with my newly-minted graduate degree, I, a fledgling college professor, walk into my first-ever  English class,   Masterpieces of Literature.

On the days I didn’t attend classes at University of North Texas, I was a substitute teacher for high school where I put up with inattentive and unruly teens. It was a higher level of baby-sitting, only some of those babies were six-feet tall and others, pregnant with their own babies. In short, I had enough experiences with secondary school to know it wasn’t right for me.

Now, as I look at the sparkly eyes and attentive posture of these college students, my heart slops over with hope.

For the most part, these students are adults with families and day jobs. Their attendance hinges upon finding sitters for their children and engaging their supervisors’ cooperation in coordinating their work schedules with their class time. Both deliberate, proactive steps require effort. .

During the sixteen-week term, I administer frequent reading quizzes, three to four themes, and a final examination. Some who pass the class leave rejoicing. A small percentage, for one reason or another, don’t. Still, both groups assume the same responsibility for their success as in the beginning of the semester; they accept the grades they have earned.

The key word, here?  Earned.  In The Merriam-Webster Dictionary, the infinitive, to earn, means “to receive as return for effort and especially for work done or services rendered.”

Another operative word? Effort. Defined by Merriam-Webster, effort is “conscious exertion of power: hard work.”

What is absent from these two  words? The implication of privilege, especially when it is undeserved or unauthorized. That leads to the final word, entitlement.

According to Merriam-Webster, entitlement means right or privilege, “a belief that one is deserving of…certain privileges.”  A store coupon entitles a consumer to save fifty cents. A will entitles beneficiaries to take possession of  property bestowed upon them by the deceased.

But  warming a seat in a classroom, buying a paper from an essay mill, completing only enough work to avoid  breaking a sweat, and sending Mom or Dad to harass the professor when students don’t receive the grades they ordered?

No, those actions do not entitle students to pass.

Fast forward from the class in 1989 to those of 1990-2011.  To some of today’s students, there is only one passing grade: an A. This standard is  good as long as the quality of work, the level of dedication is commensurate. Sadly, for some, there lies a discrepancy between the grade students believe they deserve and those they actually earn.

Diligent students get it.  They arrive early and stay late. They are present on test days, even if they run 103-degree fever or have a flat tire on the way to school.  They contribute to class discussions, ask questions during and after class and assume responsibility for their own progress.

Today, there are still  good students in my classes. Enough to keep me returning to the classroom, heart slopping over….