Reconceptualizing Teaching for Online Environments

When I see yet another survey asking faculty their opinions about whether online teaching can achieve learning outcomes as well as face-to-face teaching, I immediately ask why they are using face-to-face teaching as the standard of quality education. Why are they not asking whether face-to-face teaching can achieve learning outcomes as well as online teaching?

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When I see yet another survey asking faculty their opinions about whether online teaching can achieve learning outcomes as well as face-to-face teaching, I immediately ask why they are using face-to-face teaching as the standard of quality education. Why are they not asking whether face-to-face teaching can achieve learning outcomes as well as online teaching?

One of the benefits of online teaching is that it illuminates the various ways in which the constraints of space and time in face-to-face teaching influence instruction and in doing so frees us from the assumptions of that instruction. For instance, when we are given our class schedule, the first thing we look for is the times and dates that the courses will meet, such as Monday, Wednesday, Friday, 9:00–9:50 a.m., for 41 sessions. We then mold our curriculum to fit that schedule, perhaps dropping a topic or two if this semester's schedule happens to involve fewer classes than last semester's schedule. We might also change how much time we spend on topics to fit the class length. Whereas we normally spend 50 minutes on a topic, if we are given a schedule with 75-minute classes, we instead spend 75 minutes on it and drop another topic.

The constraints also influence our choice of activities. If I am given a class in the morning or after lunch, I might include more student activities to overcome their likely sleepiness. Many of the questions faculty ask during classes are not meant to get students genuinely thinking but just to wake them up by breaking the monotony of a lecture, scare students into paying attention, or even to give the instructor a break from speaking—after all, who wants to speak continuously during a 2-1/2-hour evening course?

The classroom space also imparts assumptions. All classrooms are set up with chairs in rows facing the front, implying that the instructor will speak while the students listen. Even if a teacher wants students to discuss a topic, the students are still facing front and so are really speaking to the instructor rather than one another. Worse yet, the instructor feels the need to cover a certain amount of material during a particular class period and so needs to cut off a particularly good discussion to move ahead. 

Students also worry about speaking for too long and losing other's attention. In fact, we have a natural tendency to shorten our comments as the group we are speaking to gets larger. Think about how you might talk for a couple of minutes while speaking to someone at the dinner table or in a car, often going deeply into a topic but just make short one-sentence comments in a large group as people throw out comments that skip from topic to topic. Large face-to-face groups are simply not conducive to deep discussion.

Even the ubiquitous blackboard at the front of the class begs for bullet point–type notes every few minutes because, apparently, students cannot be trusted to write notes without guidance. One instructor told me that the purpose of a blackboard is to force the instructor to move around to keep students awake. I also think its purpose is to eat up time so that the class does not end early.

But these constraints disappear in an online environment. Students can write or speak using video or podcasting for as long as they wish in an online discussion without fear of being interrupted, and the added thinking time allows for deeper reasoning. Moreover, the instructor does not hold a privileged position in online discussion—there is no “front of the room”—and so students do begin genuinely speaking to one another.   

The instructor also does not need to create the course content in an online course. Faculty are used to being content creators by delivering the instruction in a face-to-face course. But in an online course they can become content curators by finding the best existing content and directing students through it. As I like to say to online instructors, “If someone can say it better than you, let them.”

The best way to get faculty to shed their assumptions about teaching when taking the leap to online education is to ask them to begin with learning outcomes and work backwards. Robert Talbert puts it well when he says that everything in an online course is a resource to meet learning goals (2017). Nothing is there just to get us to the end of a 75-minute class, wake students up, or give the instructor a break from speaking.

If the goal is to learn the causes of the Civil War, then the faculty member should think about what the best way to do that might be. Maybe it is to have students view a series of videos on the Civil War on YouTube. Many faculty assume that they must avoid YouTube at all costs, but YouTube is probably the greatest teaching resource ever created. Numerous channels such as the SciShow produce exceptional educational content; the instructor just needs to look around a bit to find it.

The same is true for discussion. Once we eliminate the need to wake students up, force them to pay attention, or give ourselves a break by asking questions, we are left to ask what the purpose of online discussion is. Even online courses can lead to unquestioned assumptions. Many institutions give faculty a template to follow in developing online courses, including two discussion questions with each student required to provide an original answer and a reply to another student. But might some topics be best left to solitary contemplation?

If the point is to get students to pay attention to the learning content—which, in a face-to-face classroom would be the lecture but, in an online course, could be a video, website, podcast, or long-form article—a quiz, ideally delivered during, or immediately after the student goes through the content, would better accomplish that.

A big mistake I see is when instructors craft discussion questions as mini essays on the material. Discussion should be just that: students thinking about content and contributing their thoughts. A sure giveaway that the purpose of a question has drifted away from reflection is requiring references to discussion posts. Now students are merely reporting what others think, not what they think.

By contrast, an online instructor might decide that the purpose of learning about the causes of the Civil War is to get students to see that the same debates about states' rights and federal power are still playing out today in numerous ways. If so, that instructor might require students to come up with examples of modern issues that draw on those principles and debate those issues with others.

Talbert also points out that “in a fully online course there is no ‘before/during/after class' hierarchy.” In a face-to-face course, students are expected to do something before class, such as read a textbook chapter, then to do something during class, such as listen to a lecture, then to do something after class, such as write an essay on the topic. But in an online class, students just do whatever is required to fulfill the learning outcomes. I might start my Civil War unit with my own introductory video on the topic, then send students to a website to learn the content, requiring them to answer quiz or discussion questions at various points to reinforce their learning as they explore that website. I might instead decide to begin the lesson with a short quiz on the topic and tell students to focus on those areas where they got the answers wrong in the quiz, thus putting the assessment before the content.

In these ways online teaching can—and should—be a liberating experience for the teacher as it illuminates the hidden assumptions that guide face-to-face instruction and allows the teacher to return to the roots of teaching as producing learning rather than filling up class time. However, as I have noted, online learning can impart its own assumptions when institutions require courses to be driven by templates determined by the limitations of the LMS or restrictions on what instructional designers are allowed to do. As in the case of any kind of effective teaching, effective online teaching is about starting with learning outcomes and finding the best tools to meet those outcomes, rather than being given a tool and asked to come up with its application. Only with this mind-set will teachers truly use the online medium to produce outcomes that are not only as good as face-to-face teaching, but better.

Resources

Talbert, R. (2017). Is flipping an online course possible? The Chronicle of Higher Education Online. May 14, 2015. Retrieved from http://www.chronicle.com/blognetwork/castingoutnines/2015/05/14/is-flipping-an-online-course-possible