Friday, August 11, 2006

Is teaching online really that different?

Many people who know their stuff argue that teaching online is radically different from teaching f2f (such as Beth Hewett and Christa Ehmann, who believe “there is something fundamentally different about teaching and learning in the virtual medium” [xiii] [1]).

I don’t agree.

Now let me be clear: When people say online teaching is different from f2f, they say that for several good reasons. The skills are indeed somewhat different. Also, they are discouraging teachers from taking their lecture-based, teacher-centered f2f class, which probably isn’t that good anyway (as DEOS-L poster Brad Jensen put it, “sage-in-a-rage-on-a-stage-with-students-in-a-cage learning” [2]), simply posting bland Powerpoints online—maybe even without voiceovers—and calling that teaching.

But I think teaching online isn’t different foundationally from teaching f2f. I believe a key to teaching online is to examine closely your teaching style and then to find one of the many online tools that correspond to that style. I’m talking about translating your core philosophies to the online setting.

I’ll use myself to demonstrate. Fundamentally, in a writing class (I’m drawing here on my statement of teaching philosophy, by the way), I have several guiding principles. Here are a few:
-Peer review
-Accountability for readings
-Collaborative work

Here’s how I have accomplished those things online:
-Conversation—Simply put, message boards are a huge component of my courses (see earlier posts about message boards). Students converse all term via message boards with me as part of the conversation, and we build the knowledge of the course in this way.
-Peer review—I found effective ways to migrate my peer review experiences online using a Web-based software I helped create, Waypoint; message boards; and/or carefully posted criteria.
-Accountability for readings—I’m a big, but friendly, quizzer (3). I think giving user-friendly reading quizzes is a great way to boost students’ grades and morale while encouraging reading. I use WebCT’s quiz function to give a ridiculously easy timed five-minute quiz every Thursday (and I can use quiz sets to vary the questions). Students who read get a 100% almost all the time in a low-stakes environment that encourages them to stay on top of their reading.
-Collaborative work—WebCT Vista is my CMS, and it offers many student collaboration opportunities. A favorite for me is to set up students in groups with team message boards and have them create Website arguments. I have been floored at how good some of these have been (I’ll dedicate an upcoming post to this).

Teachers whose classes have always been highly teacher-centered may indeed find that teaching online requires a radical re-thinking of their core goals and philosophies; the e-environment seems to lend itself to student-centered approaches. But let’s value that re-thinking process. One of the best things about starting to teach online is that you will have a chance to question your established practice, much as you would if you began teaching students at a different level or in a different geographic area. Such questioning was helpful for my teaching, but when I migrated to the online environment I focused mainly on translating things that I felt (and my students have said) are effective and solid about my pedagogy.

When training new faculty for online teaching, I try to start with asking questions: What’s your philosophy? What do you do well? What do your students like? Then we find ways to migrate those teaching foundations to the online environment. Sure, teaching online is different, but this does not require that you alter fundamentally who you are as a teacher. That alteration my happen, but only because your self-appraisal lead you to realize the need for such change. Embrace the process; you and your students will be better for it.

1) From their 2004 Preparing Educators for Online Writing Instruction: Principles and Processes.
2) From his February 5, 2005 post “Re: Lack of creative thinking among lecturing faculty” on DEOS-L - The Distance Education Online Symposium.
3) If you’re interested, see my article, “Quizzes Boost Comprehension, Confidence” in the March 2004 issue of The Teaching Professor.