It may sound gimmicky and a bit too obvious but when I was recently asked to share my views of how we (as educators) can be better at online teaching, it was a no-brainer. Simply put, there are three key ingredients for facilitating powerful online learning: caring, sharing and a dash of daring.
Part I: Care more.
This really means what it says. I think this ingredient could be broken down even further into these components: be present, be responsive, be a teacher.
While this all sounds like stating the obvious, I think it deserves to be said and, reflecting on my own practice, I can certainly identify a few times when I could have been more present. I’ve been known to sneak a cheeky glance at my asynchronous forum after being occupied with other things for over a week (very bad practice, by the way, unless you’ve designed a savvy online protocol that does not require you to check in often!). I have experienced that intake of breath, that waiting for the screen to load, that exhale of relief when it appears nothing much as occurred during my time-out.
But, that’s wrong. We WANT things to occur in our online learning spaces, with or without us being there. Online learning tools are not proxies for being present, nor should they merely serve as an alert mechanism for teachers to check whether their students are having problems. Would a teacher in a face-to-face learning environment leave the classroom for seven days, only poking their nose through the window to see whether any disasters had befallen the students? No. I doubt it.
We need to be present so that we can be responsive. I like the word responsive. I’ve seen words like intrusive, authoritative, pervasive, used to describe the dark side of virtual presence. We want to stay away from behaviour that could be described in these ways. However, students need and expect support, even in online environments. Some may argue that students need even more support in virtual learning contexts because they feel isolated.
This transactional distance of which Moore (1993) theorised may represent the often-large, geographical gulf (and temporal, modal gulf if we consider more flexible pedagogies (see Gordon, 2014)). As Moore suggested, one role of the distance educator is to reduce this gap. One way to do this is to enhance the learners’ autonomy: providing tools and developing students’ metacognitive capacities to work in self-regulated ways. Another way to reduce this ‘distance’ is to be present and to be responsive to the needs of distance learners.
Be a teacher.
In a paper I wrote with colleagues (Alden Rivers, Richardson and Price, 2014), I highlighted some literature to support the notion that principles of online and distance teaching should be no different from the fundamentals of face-to-face teaching (cf. Johnson and Aragon, 2003). So, really, the misconception (and subsequent bad practice) that online teaching involves a few posts on a discussion board and a few PowerPoints uploaded as content is simply bogus. Sure, those things are nice (and often important) to do, but they are no where near enough. Just as you would do in a face-to-face session:
- Design learning activities that introduce students to key concepts in a variety of ways. Check out Baillie et al.’s (2013) Threshold Capability Integrated Theoretical Framework and think about all the different ways you can help students explore concepts.
- Help them to explore ways of applying new ideas to real-life experiences through collaborative problem-solving. Have a look at online teaching protocols in McDonald et al.’s (2012) book ‘Going Online with Protocols’. Find or create online protocols for joint meaning-making.
- Encourage the development of their epistemological beliefs by working on critical thinking and reflection. Baxter Magolda (1996) promoted a constructive development pedagogy whereby teachers seek to understand their learners as knowers and then to support the development of their epistemologies (or views of knowledge) throughout the learning experience. In 2014, I developed the Knowing and Reasoning Inventory (KARI) to see whether we could reliably create an epistemological profile of a learner (see Alden Rivers and Richardson, 2014). The study looked at how, armed with these insights, educators could devise learning opportunities (tasks, experiences) that would be more suited to learners’ individual epistemological positions. Perhaps we don’t need to go as far as diagnostic testing (or should we?) but certainly, it is plausible (and in line with Perry, Belenky, Baxter Magolda, Kuhn, Schommer, Lucas and Tan, and many others) that learning can be designed in a way to develop capacities for critical reflection and more sophisticated view of knowledge.
Care more. The return on investment when developing high-quality, impactful online learning protocols and engaging in actvities to support the advancement of critical thinking will be far more rewarding for your teaching practice and for the student experience.
Caring more, in this respect, involves more time: at first. But, well-designed learning activities can engage students as co-producers of ‘content’ and can be presented to students in a way whereby the teachers’ actual presence happens very efficiently throughout the week. See more about this in McDonald et al. (2012).
Alden, B. (2013) Book Review of McDonald, J. P., Zydney, M. J., Dichter, A. and McDonald, E. C. (2012) Going Online with Protocols, in the Journal of Interactive Media in Education, April. Available online at: http://jime.open.ac.uk/jime/article/viewArticle/2013-13/html
Alden Rivers, B. and Richardson, J. T. E. (2014) ‘Illuminating the student experience within the liminal space: exploring data-driven learning design for negotiating troublesome concepts’, paper presented at the Higher Education Close Up Conference, 17 July 2014, Lancaster, UK.
Alden Rivers, B., Richardson, J. T. E., Price, L. (2014) ‘Reflection in asynchronous learning spaces: tertiary distance tutors’ conceptions’, International Review of Research into Distance Learning, Vol. 15, No. 3, pp. 215-235.
Baillie, C., Bowden, J. A. and Meyer, J. H. F. (2013). Threshold capabilities: threshold concepts and knowledge
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Gordon, N. (2014). Flexible pedagogies: technology enhanced learning. York, HEA. Available online at: https://www.heacademy.ac.uk/sites/default/files/resources/TEL_report_0.pdf.
Johnson, S. and Aragon, S. (2003). An instructional strategy framework for online learning environments. New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education, 100, 31-43.
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McDonald, J. P., Zydney, M. J., Dichter, A. and McDonald, E. C. (2012) Going Online with Protocols.
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