What’s So Special About Teaching Online?

For some reason, over the last four to six months I’ve gotten a question about online learning that kinda goes like this:

In what ways do you think it is different to teach in an online space as opposed to a face to face one?

I don’t think I have ever answered that question well — at least not to my satisfaction. But as it kept coming up again and again I started to think about it more and more until I finally decided to respond to it here.

The truth is, I’m confused by the question. I don’t think I really approach teaching differently in an online space, and I’m not convinced that the question is worded in the best way. And also, to be fair, I have yet to teach 100% online. My masters classes are 50% online and 50% face to face. That’s the way it is.

So here’s the thing….I don’t think we need to concern ourselves with how teaching online is different from F2F. What I think is more important is recognizing that teaching online allows for us to engage with students differently. My core principles, values, and overall philosophy for how I teach are going to remain the same. The context is what is changing.

When the context changes I get to use tools differently. I might use these same tools in a F2F class, but not having a F2F connection means that the context changes. How we use the tools might stay relatively the same. For example, I’ve got my students in my hybrid courses involved with using twitter in a number of ways. I don’t think that would change much if I went 100% online (assuming I decided to continue using twitter).

What does change — and I think significantly — is the importance of building community and connections. It is easier to build community and connections when you have met and interacted with people in person. You lose that in a 100% online class. So in a pure online class you will have to find ways to build community and help people connect with each other. When we are together as a class, we can share stories about our lives and work much easier. We can laugh and cry and help each other in ways that are instant and allow for community to be built and relationships to grow between students and from teacher to student.

You’ll notice I haven’t had to give this any thought on my blog because I have not entered into a 100% online space yet with my instruction. If I did, that would be one of the first things I would be thinking of and working on during that initial run. Students have to care about each other, and they have to have a relationship with the instructor. Otherwise, I think things can easily go bad.

The next thing we have to consider is organization. In a F2F class it is much easier for students to stay organized. There are specific meeting dates and times. There are specific readings due on specific dates. Things are more bound.

In an online class, you can still structure and bound things for students. However, the potential exists for things to be more free-flowing. For example, in my post on getting rid of classes (which is designed for an online environment) students might have more latitude in terms of how they use their time and when they complete things. Some students will be great at organizing themselves, but they will be great at this in any context. Some students will utterly fail because they will not be able to create a structure for themselves. Some will fall in between. I think more students will struggle to some extent than not.

Now, I’m not suggesting that in an online class you hold everyone’s hand. But I am suggesting that we need to be mindful about helping students plan how they will accomplish whatever it is they want to get out of the class. We need to talk to them about how to think things through, how to structure their time, and encourage them to revisit their approach at least once a semester.

Finally, the way students participate in school will shift dramatically in an online space — or at least it has the potential to. If I just make you answer quizzes online about the readings then nothing much has changed, and you’ll probably be just fine. All I would be doing is mimicking traditional practices in a new space. But I think we all know that I personally won’t be doing that.

What this means is that there is a significant cultural shift in terms of what it means to learn and participate in one’s education when that education happens online. And this can be difficult and frustrating for some students, and I think it’s to be expected. Learning online changes everything you knew about school and what you have to do to demonstrate your ideas. However, as an instructor, you have to be prepared for this and expect it to happen. Learning in an online environment can be a huge shift for some (if not most) students. It’s imperative to think about how to help them through this shift.

The above things are the major issues/challenges I think we have to consider in moving from F2F to purely online. For me, it’s not about how I teach or even the tools I use. Those things are obviously important and need consideration. But in an online environment I think what I have highlighted above would take precedent for me — at least at first. I am comfortable using tools and thinking about how I teach in an online space.

For me, and I imagine many of us, the real initial challenges are going to come around fostering community and relationships, helping students stay organized, and considering what students experience when they go through a cultural shift around what it means to learn. Those are all new territories I would have to navigate. How about you?

One Year Ago

Two Years Ago