Faculty Spotlight: Sarah Mason Eck, Ph.D.

Dr. Eck earned her Ph.D. from Dartmouth College in 2009, where she studied breast cancer at the Norris Cotton Cancer Center at DHMC. Sarah and her husband have a daughter (3 years old) and son (1 year old).  To satiate her intellectual curiosity while staying at home with their children, Sarah co-founded and manages Science Café New Hampshire, serves on various boards and committees in her town, and teaches for Granite State College.  She loves sharing her passion for science with students.

Toolkit:  YouTube, Kaltura, Camtasia, screen capture, Jing

Teaching Biology Online

Sarah Eck has been teaching biology courses at the college since 2010.   She also participated in the 2011 University System of NH (USNH) Academic Technology Institute along with 39 other USNH faculty who learned about ways to incorporate rich media technologies to enhance their courses.

In the past year, Sarah has been teaching online courses.  The flexibility of the online course delivery was appealing not only because she is home with her two children but also she enjoys the challenge of providing a rich learning experience complete with a human biology laboratory component for students who also need a flexible schedule or who live afar. 

When she first began teaching online, she tried to transfer the assignments and discussions that transpired in her face-to-face classes to her online class.  However she quickly learned that what works well in the face-to-face environment doesn’t translate to the online classroom.  This proved to be true when she had students post reflection journals on the assigned reading then pose two discussion questions for peer learners to discuss. While this method encouraged students to develop thought-provoking questions and to “own” their discussion, it also resulted in tangential conversations.  So now she uses discussion forums as a means to provoke deep learning and reflection by providing students with questions that promote deep thinking and that result in the construction of new knowledge.  She warns, “The important thing to remember is not to have a discussion board without a focus or goal.  If discussions are well facilitated, then I believe that this means of discourse is more powerful in the online environment than in the traditional classroom.”

Sarah finds that it’s particularly important to state student expectations clearly in the online classroom because such an environment precludes immediate feedback, such as the bewildered expression on the student’s face.  She found that simply stating the expectations in the syllabus isn’t enough.  She also reiterates them in the descriptions of major assignments and again within the individual assignment page.  The expectations include such things as concrete examples, directions, due date/time, frequency and the appropriate length.  In addition, Sarah uses Camtasia to record her voice as she walks through the syllabus and expectations and then posts this to her Moodle course using Kaltura, the college’s streaming video server.

The Online Learner

Sarah has found that the characteristics of the students in her online courses can differ from the face to face student in the following ways:  Because responses are written and presented in an asynchronous manner, the students have longer to assimilate the material and contribute meaningful discussion in their post, whereas in the classroom, comments can be less thoughtful.  Online learners are more likely to cite external references to support statements that they make in an online discussion.  This enhances the depth of discussion, and maintains objectivity, while it discourages the use of anecdotal evidence.

Meeting the Challenges

When asked about the challenges of teaching an online course, it was clear: TIME.  She explains here:

When designing and planning a course in digital format a teacher must consider the process, organization, and assessment, as well as the interactive components of the course, which is extensive and time-consuming.  Although I constantly tweak my online course from term to term, I believe that the initial time commitment in setting up the course may be similar to that spent by a teacher starting to teach in the traditional classroom.  Responding to students is also time-consuming.  I have learned to respond simultaneously to multiple students in a discussion forum, rather than spend time responding to each individual post.
“This takes practice and experience and has become easier with time.”

Tone is another challenge.  She explains that, “Because this method of education is predominantly based on communication through the written language, it is imperative that my responses are well thought-out, my words are chosen carefully, and my instructions are explicit.  This takes practice and experience and has become easier with time.”

Adjusting to a New Teaching Environment & Creating a Presence

Teaching online is not just like teaching in the classroom.  It requires new skills and new teaching strategies.  During Sarah’s first online teaching experience, she responded to every student (50+ at the time) in every discussion forum, so they would “feel her presence.”   She said, “This was exhausting and required hours and hours of time.”  She quickly came up with new strategies that were achievable from her end and effective and meaningful for students.  Here are a few of her strategies:

  1. Post a welcome letter in Introductions forum of the Introductory Module for my students to check out before class starts.  In the future, I plan to use Jing and provide a video welcome for students, so they can see who I am, too.
  2. Responding regularly and in a timely manner, especially to discussion board posts but also to emails and messages from students. 
  3. Respond to every student in the first module week, but then in an announcement, I inform students that they will be “owning” future discussion forums and I will simply facilitate discourse. 
  4. In the forums, identify areas of agreement or disagreement, prompt discussion, and encourage student contributions.   I find it effective to synthesize repeated themes in a conversation amongst students and posing a question to encourage deeper thought into the subject.
  5. Weekly Announcement to wrap-up one module, as well comment on class progress and introduce the upcoming module.
  6. Change biology cartoon at the top of our page weekly.  This seems small, but just seeing that the instructor has changed the website and freshened it up with something fun, may show students that I care and keep them interested or at the very least give them a chuckle when they sign-in.

Advice for other faculty who are thinking about teaching online:

In Assessing Teaching Presence in a Computer Conferencing Context they compare today’s online teachers to those in the one-room schoolhouse in an earlier pioneering era, noting that these pioneer teachers dealt with many challenges and frustrations and that it is similar today, as we build an entirely new medium for learning and teaching.  Sarah explains, “I find it exciting to be a “pioneer teacher” of the twenty-first century in the online learning community.” 

And this is some advice she has for others who are beginning to teach online: 

“I find it exciting to be a ‘pioneer teacher’ of the twenty-first century in the online learning community.”
First, approach teaching online as an entirely different ball game than teaching in the traditional classroom.  I recommend learning not only about the technology that you have available to you, but also how to use it effectively to design, guide, and facilitate the class based on the objectives of the course.


Anderson, T., Rourke, L., Garrison, D. and Archer, W., (2001). Assessing Teaching Presence in a Computer Conferencing Context.  Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, 5 (2), 1-17.

Bains, Ken,  (2004).  What the Best College Teachers Do.  President and Fellows of Harvard College.

Mandernach, B.J. et al. (2006)  An Examination of Online Instructor Presence via Threaded Discussion Participation JOLT, 2(4).

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