January/February 2002 // Case Studies
You Want Me to do What? The Cultural and Psychological Struggle of Putting a Course Online
by Sharon K. Anderson and Val Middleton
Note: This article was originally published in The Technology Source (http://ts.mivu.org/) as: Sharon K. Anderson and Val Middleton "You Want Me to do What? The Cultural and Psychological Struggle of Putting a Course Online" The Technology Source, January/February 2002. Available online at http://ts.mivu.org/default.asp?show=article&id=1034. The article is reprinted here with permission of the publisher.

I was driven, literally and figuratively, into online education. For five years I have traveled to numerous mental health agencies and psychotherapy practitioners to teach courses in mental health law, but after several thousand miles on my car and many hours away from family I began to contemplate the idea of an online course. My case is hardly unique.

The combination of emerging technologies and the increasing educational needs of counselors, teachers, and other applied-science populations has put pressure on colleges, universities, and individuals such as myself to deliver courses and workshops through online instruction. A central feature or oft-repeated selling point of online education is its convenience and accessibility. Advertisements for academic advancement and specialty degrees using celebrity endorsements, catchy jingles, and promises of greater earning potential crowd our favorite television shows, radio programs, and magazines and attempt to persuade us that such courses fit smoothly into our already busy schedules. Indeed, for many individuals who work full-time, these options are attractive, especially when attending a local college or university is impractical.

Although I initially resisted the idea of an online course by citing the need for human interaction in the learning process (e.g., discussion and question-and-answer opportunities), I was prompted, ultimately, by a number of considerations to step into the net of Web-based instruction. First, there was a clear demand for the course. The state regulatory boards mandate that licensed and unlicensed Colorado psychotherapists take a jurisprudence course and/or an exam as part of the licensing or registration process. Second, I would save both time and money in travel, paper copies, and other materials. Third, I would meet a university goal for faculty to become both technology literate and adept at online instruction. Faculty are confronted with the reality that Web-based instruction is quickly becoming the norm rather than an anomaly.

Encounters with the Culture of Online Instruction

Preparing myself to become an online instructor was an experience most easily understood by reference to Alvin Toffler's concepts of "culture shock" and "future shock" (cited in Dodd, 1998). For Toffler, "Culture shock refers to the transition period and the accompanying feelings of stress and anxiety a person experiences during the early period upon entering a new culture"; while "future shock" refers to cultural change related to rapid technological change (Dodd, 1998, pp. 157-158). The cycle of entry, emotion, and adaptation, is described as the V-curve. In this cycle one typically starts at a high point of looking forward to the experience (although somewhat warily), drops to a lower "this is not as great as expected" point, before regaining a point of adjustment and level of acceptance. As this model suggests, I approached visiting this new culture with both excitement and apprehension.

My first step was to sign up for online course instruction through an online registration process. After typing and clicking my way through the form, I reached the bottom of the document and paused before selecting submit. Several questions crossed my mind: "What if I am too dumb to understand how to do this? What if I get poor evaluations from the students? How will this course affect my face-to-face courses?" I took a deep breath and clicked. I was rewarded by a "submission sent" message. That small reward was enough to convince me that this was something I could do; after all, I had become adept at e-mail and actually enjoyed surfing the Internet.

A short time later I embarked upon my first task—taking a "live" course on online instruction through Instructional Services for Faculty Development. The first hour of the course went smoothly (the high point). We worked on simple tasks such as getting onto the Web and looking at online courses constructed by other faculty. In my head I was thinking, "This isn't so bad." Then the instructor encouraged us to try more complicated tasks such as creating html files, editing html files, creating a course-specific homepage, selecting and changing backgrounds, selecting gif files, and zipping and unzipping files. As our tasks grew more complex, I grew considerably more confused and intimidated. I had entered a new dimension with a language and culture all its own, and I began to think, "This is not as great as I expected." In addition to challenging my abilities, the course also challenged my convictions about communication and knowledge, in particular my belief that the instructor was the source of information and needed to have all the answers. Duchastel (1996-1997) suggests that online instruction moves the instructor from presenting knowledge to requesting the production of knowledge and building and shaping a global community rather than a one-classroom community. As we worked through the rest of the afternoon, I dropped to lower point on the acculturation curve and the psychological struggle intensified.

Classic Conflicts in the Computer Age

In psychological literature, Kurt Lewin (1890-1947) is credited with being one of the first persons to classify conflicts by type (Benjamin, Hopkins, & Nation, 1990). One of these types is the approach-avoidance conflict, in which a person is concurrently drawn to and repelled by the same activity, event, or object. One complicating aspect of approach-avoidance conflicts is the relationship between emotion and distance; the attraction is stronger than the avoidance so long as the activity, event, or object remains at a distance, but the avoidance is stronger than attraction as one approaches the activity, event, or object. In my case, I would make sure to allot time for computer work when I planned my day. I was excited and motivated to work on my online course. However, I would find anything and everything else to fill my computer time (e.g., answer e-mail, work on a letter, or check the stock market) when I sat at my computer.

Resolution Through Rebuilding

Several steps helped me break through my approach-avoidance conflict. First, I recognized the connection between my thoughts, my emotions, and my behavior. Albert Ellis, the developer of Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy, proposes that we feel a certain way (e.g., anxious, sad, lonely, depressed, or angry) because we think a certain way or have irrational thoughts (Corey, 2001). Ellis's basic premise is that people disturb themselves by how they think, and, if they want to be undisturbed, they have to think differently or rationally. The following is an explanation of the approach and how it applied to my situation. Ellis uses the letters ABCDE to explain the process. "A" is the activating event, the situation a person is upset about. "B" signifies the person's irrational beliefs and statements about the activating event. "C" represents the emotional and behavioral consequences of the interaction between A and B. In my particular situation, the activating event (A) was sitting down at the computer to work on my online course. My irrational beliefs (B) were expressed as, "I can't do this"; "I'm not smart enough to figure this out"; and "I'll really look stupid if I ask that question." The consequences (C) included anxious feelings and avoidance behaviors: I avoided working on the online course and used my computer time for other tasks. In order to overcome the avoidance, the "A," "B," and "C" of the situation have to be identified, and the irrational beliefs (B) need to be disputed (D) and replaced with rational beliefs. The disputing process is effective when a person can see that the self-statements/beliefs are irrational and unproductive and can replace them with rational statements. If the disputing process is successful, the person will experience a different emotion and exhibit different behavior (E) when confronted with the same activating event. In my particular case, I needed to replace my irrational statements with rational ones like, "I'm smart and can figure this out"; "It's okay to ask questions, even if they seem silly"; and "Others like me have put courses online; if they can do it, I can too." In essence, I changed what I was saying to myself so that I stopped creating my own anxiety. I found that I could sit down at my computer desk and work on the project with little or no anxiety. This was a major breakthrough in my acceptance of this cultural experience.

Lessons Learned

In reflecting on my online endeavor and listening to the comments of my on- and off-campus students, I realized that we shared many of the same trials, tribulations, and emotions relative to the online experience. For example, students groaned with displeasure when I suggested using the Internet to facilitate out-of-class discussion and made objections like, ?¢‚Ǩ?ìI am not computer literate" and "Do we have to be part of this online stuff??¢‚Ǩ?

As I work to improve my online instruction, I need to keep in mind where I came from and what I went through so that I can act as a resource for my students. As the creator of the course, it is important that I facilitate the comfort and success of the consumers of the product. The following themes have emerged as requirements for providing positive consumer experiences.

  • Encourage and facilitate a philosophical buy-in for the method of instruction. For example, during a course orientation, I need to present sound reasons for using Web-based instruction so that students see the advantages to this approach.
  • Allow consumers opportunities to acclimate and acculturate to the online process in a reduced or stress-free situation. For example, I need to provide opportunities for students to practice navigating the system. Although stress can motivate us to perform, too.
  • Provide opportunities for successful interaction with online processes. Knowing that initial success encourages students to persevere, we instituted an orientation workshop to the online program, so students received instruction and developed skills integral to online courses.
  • Acknowledge and address approach-avoidance behaviors. In order to illustrate the connection between irrational beliefs and self-statements that create the anxieties and fears that impede success, I share my own story of approach-avoidance conflict. Students appreciate hearing about my struggle and then feel more comfortable sharing theirs.
  • Identify and utilize internal and external motivators by building them into the process. Help and reward structures (e.g., "submission sent," "correct answer," help tools, and resource links) offer both comfort and aid.
  • Identify and provide areas of and avenues for human interaction. Students often need human contact for problem solving and confidence building. With some courses, I found that students need and value immediate feedback or direction. Therefore, a monthly meeting is part of the course delivery format.

One year into my online course experience, I can honestly say that I enjoy online instruction and look forward to future opportunities with the Web-based instructional culture. The feedback from my off-campus students has been positive. In the majority of the unsolicited e-mail messages that I have received, my students state that the information is comprehensive and easy to understand. This kind of feedback has encouraged me to consider additional online instructional opportunities. I still believe that, for some courses, there is no substitute for human interaction, which has prompted me to modify some Web-based instruction with monthly face-to-face class meetings.


Benjamin, L. T., Hopkins, J. R., & Nation, J. R. (1990). Psychology (2nd ed.). New York: Macmillan.

Corey, G. (2001). Theory and practice of counseling and psychotherapy (6th ed.). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth/Thomson Learning

Dodd, C. H. (1998). Dynamics of intercultural communication (5th ed.). Boston, MA: McGraw-Hill

Duchastel, P. (1996-1997). A Web-based model for university instruction. Journal of Educational Technology Systems, 25 (3), 79-113.

marble popper gamesmahjongadventure gamessimulation gamescard gamesword gamesmanagement gamespc gamesbest pc games
View Related Articles >