With winter weather taking a larger-than-normal bite out of school calendars, some rural districts have adopted “virtual snow days.” That’s where students do lessons online to keep from having make-up days added to the school year. But school districts aren’t the only ones in rural areas looking online to meet educational objectives.
Online classes make it possible for rural adults to spend more time studying course material than traveling to and from more traditional settings for instruction. Need to learn foundational concepts of chemistry to prepare for advanced hazmat training? Do it online. Want to learn if you can become a sign language interpreter or event planner? Do it online. Need to learn how to write killer grant proposals? Need a course in poultry production? Or beekeeping? Or basics of programming Android apps? All online. Some of them are even free.
Online teaching has even become a way to earn income for some people like me. I’m a fiber artist from rural northern Wisconsin. For the past 15 years, I’ve packed up class supplies and traveled coast to coast teaching textile techniques to adults at guild events, conferences and museums. It’s been easier for me to fill classes when I’m the one traveling than to bring students to my neck of the woods, especially in winter.
Teaching workshops online has helped me reach a broader geographic audience for my narrowly focused specialty — an ancient textile technique called looping. I’ve had online students from all over the United States plus Canada, Brazil, Australia, New Zealand, Taiwan, Japan, Russia, Norway, Netherlands, Belgium, the UK, Iceland, Israel, Greece and Spain.
My students log in to a private course site. They watch video demonstrations when it’s convenient for them. They work suggested samples on their own schedules. There’s a class forum where they can post photos of their work and ask questions. It may be a few hours before they get a reply, since we’re in so many different time zones. But no one (including me) is traveling on icy roads.
From Dial-Up to Global Enterprise
With no special skills or training in information technology, I would seem an unlikely candidate for teaching online. Until late 2009, we were still on dial-up. It took hours to download pictures attached to emails. We had heard of YouTube, but never seen it. My husband, a small manufacturer, and I both could feel the digital divide getting wider. But high-speed internet service seemed out of our reach, both financially and logistically because of our rural location.
Then a neighbor signed on with a wireless provider that had just installed a receiver on the tower in the White Lake, six miles away. Our neighbor had them mount his antenna on their windmill, and it worked. So we asked them to evaluate our site. It surprised all of us when the answer was “Maybe.” Because this is a line-of-sight system, we had to install a mast that towers over our small ranch-style home. Our receiver is mounted on that mast and pointed toward the village.
The week we made the decision to pay for that installation and a monthly charge for high-speed internet, I received a mailer from the technical college. They were offering an online course in blogs and podcasts. On dial-up, we’d never seen those things. But it sounded like a class that could help me feel less like Rip Van Winkle waking up in the digital age. And it did. So in late 2009, as part of that online class, I started a blog using the free Blogger platform.
About a year later, I went through those class materials again to review units I had only skimmed during the class because I was on the road teaching. When I started working through the material on video podcasts, I discovered that my simple point-and-shoot digital camera could actually take video. The response to the first video I posted online was encouraging enough to get me thinking about teaching a whole course that way.
About this time, a number of online platforms dedicated to craft instruction were emerging. They all looked great, but none offered the combination of features I wanted or long-term control over my work product. So I decided to produce videos and lesson materials on my own, and cobbled together a presentation platform using free resources like Gmail, Blogger and Vimeo. Then I offered a free pilot course via my email newsletter (I use Mailchimp). The pilot group gave me valuable feedback, and a chance to learn how to adapt my teaching style to an interface where you can’t see students’ faces. The pilot group also answered surveys that helped me develop a plan for marketing paid courses. For those surveys, I used forms created for free in Google Docs (now Google Drive).
The success of the pilot convinced me to make the move to paid courses. For that, I needed to switch from free video hosting so as not to violate the terms of service. Vimeo Pro is still the largest annual out-of-pocket expense for my online teaching enterprise. I market my paid online courses through my web site and blog, on Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest, and on Etsy, which is where students pay for courses and receive their handouts as digital downloads.
Last year, I moved my courses from Blogger to a platform better suited to online instruction. Moodle, which is open-source software used by many schools and universities, was suggested by a friend who is a tech consultant for an area education agency in Iowa. While the software is free, I pay for web domain registration for my eCourse site. Two Red Threads is a subdomain of the site for our manufacturing business, so there isn’t a separate hosting fee for it.
Learning to administer a self-hosted Moodle site was a huge challenge, but the effort was worth it. The new course site has a notification system that makes sure I know when students have posted questions. And it’s more friendly to the growing percentage of students who use mobile devices instead of laptop or desktop computers.
Still, since I’m not fluent in the language of web developers it usually takes me several tries to find answers to my questions in the Moodle forums. Eventually, though, when I phrase the question properly I find what I need to keep things running smoothly.
This year I finally hired a consulting firm to help me resolve some lingering concerns. 3W Media in Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin (population 9,000) assessed security, did a behind-the-scenes clean-up, and set up auto-back-ups on their server. I’d learned enough in the past year to specify where I needed their help, so they were able to complete my job in a few hours at a very reasonable price. It’s worth far more than I could afford to pay for the peace of mind I get from knowing I now have IT professionals I can call if, after working on a solution on my own, I can’t figure something out.
A Bootstrap Business In The Basement
Now that I’m more comfortable with the Moodle platform, I’m able to spend more time actually producing new content. In February I launched my third paid online course, Freeform Looping, which is geared to returning students. I’m now at work on the next course in what I hope will soon be a full catalog.
This is all done with a digital point-and-shoot camera and a jerry-rigged video studio that consists of a card table draped with painted muslin, two lamps I got at Menards, and a can light we took in trade for doing some work on a canoe. I sit on my late mother-in-law’s sewing machine bench, straddling a tripod with the camera between me and the work the work in my hands. To edit videos, I use Windows Live Movie Maker and the Sound Recorder utility that came with my laptop. I do all this tucked into a small space in our basement between the cold pantry and the canning supplies.
One of the hardest aspects of the process for me is producing key demonstrations that show me stitching left-handed (I’m right-handed). Demonstrating fluidly left-handed with a camera between my hands and my bifocals is much more difficult than doing it in person. But it’s important that my left-handed online students see the techniques clearly since I can’t see them to spot who may be struggling. It’s also important that my videos and class handouts can be understood by people for whom English is a second language. My marketing clearly states that classes are presented in English only, but my classes still attract a global audience.
Not counting planning, false starts and left-handed do-overs, it takes me six to eight weeks to shoot and edit a course that should run for several years. I’m getting a bit faster at editing, and becoming more efficient at planning my shots. Still, the work it takes to produce quality content is substantial — and that’s after learning all the component skills I’ve picked up since 2009.
But everything we’ve ever done to make a living in a rural area involved hard work, sustained effort, constant learning and long-term commitment. That was true when my parents farmed, it was true when Bill and I had our whitewater paddling school, and it’s true now. So I haven’t approached online teaching as a way to get rich quick. I doubt if it makes us rich slowly, either. But since I was able to get started using mostly free or inexpensive resources and a lot of unpaid labor, we felt it was worth taking a risk.
We found that producing online courses complements the mix of activities we put together to make a living in an area where you kind of have to make your own economic opportunities. And with a winter like we’ve had, I’ve been very glad to do some of my teaching from home.
Donna Kallner writes from her home in Wisconsin’s Northwoods, where she has lost track of the number of below-zero days this winter.