Five Lessons in Online Teaching
William Woolrich, LA&PS
Fourteen years ago I was invited to develop a social work course on mental health. This was unusual for me in that it was to be my first foray into postsecondary teaching; but more importantly, it was unusual for the school because they’d never offered anything online before. These were still fairly early days for online instruction at York University—case in point, I was advised that streaming video lectures might be a challenge for many students due to bandwidth limitations. That said, infrastructure was already in place for a smooth development process; and smoothly it went. Now, years later, I’ve been asking myself what I’ve learned about teaching online. Here are five lessons, Buzzfeed style.
One: Students have busy, complicated lives.
Online instruction is different from classroom teaching in that students squeeze material into unbelievable schedules. I’m well aware that students do this in regular classes too but with those, they’re forced to make a choice between attending class and working (or whatever). With online courses no such choice is expected. There’s an implied understanding that “you can do it all”. Just got off a midnight to 8am shift? Well now’s the time to engage with this week’s lecture. Much like online shopping, which puts no breaks on our consumerist impulses, online courses suggest that there’s no time or place that you can’t be learning. I’ve had several students from overseas, mostly Hong Kong. I had one student in Cirque du Soleil. We think that the students in our classrooms are busy—and they are—but the online cohort seems to attract a whole new breed of busy. If you decide to teach an online course, being mindful of the many demands our students are under will make you a more compassionate teacher—and students do sense that.
Two: Students don’t read course outlines so you need to repeat key instructional material.
“It’s all there in the course outline”, you say. Well that’s a bit like saying that the terms of your cellphone agreement are clearly outlined, and in Section A; Subsection 2.3, it clearly states you’ve agreed to pay a pound of flesh for roaming.
No one reads those things and no one reads every word of your course outline (maybe not even you). The difference in a physical classroom, is that you can read it aloud to your captive audience on the first day of class, whereas, with online, the best thing to do is cherry pick key points to put into emailed reminders. I suppose you could post a video of you reading your course outline aloud. Let me know when someone watches it.
Three: Group work is painful but worthwhile (maybe)
About three years ago I thought it would be a good idea to incorporate some form of group work into the course. As many of us know, small groups facilitate active learning by encouraging students to articulate and mentally manipulate ideas relevant to the course. Moreover, groups are essential part of social work as a discipline. The vast majority of social workers work in teams of one kind or another; and in recognition of that fact, part of social work training isn’t just enhancing content expertise but the development of so called soft skills—whether that’s teamwork, appropriate time management, or project planning. However, knowing that group work is important and implementing it is quite another. As you may already know, in-class group work is a bit of a pain. You assign groups, but not everyone’s there on the first class. You provide time to work on group projects in class but only rarely are all group members present. Groups have fights and you, the instructor, must mediate. Students drop but don’t tell their group, the remainder of whom are frantically trying to include everyone and distribute work fairly. Peer evaluation helps keep everyone accountable, but it’s not a panacea. These problems are only compounded in online environments. No one sees each other and there’s something to be said for the accountability that develops with rapport. Furthermore, students have to find a virtual space in which to collaborate, which has its own challenges. Yes, one is built into the LMS which students do use; but it’s awkward. And there’s always the “I don’t check that email address” problem that seems minor yet is somehow insurmountable. However, though it presents many challenges, group work still meets many pedagogical goals (as above) that are difficult to meet with individual assignments. They also give students opportunities to demonstrate their knowledge in a medium, other than the standard academic essay. This is very important for some students who may still be struggling with the development of that skill. Finally, we should be honest and admit, marking a fifth of the assignments is a welcome reprieve from the full compliment of essays.
Four: You don’t get to know the students as well as you’d like
You don’t see them. You don’t get to know their names. Avatars help, but many students, despite repeated requests, won’t upload an avatar. Moreover, online classes tend to be large. Mine tops out at 100, but I gather that’s just quite intimate compared to others. Large classes again mean it’s extremely difficult to build relationships, and relationships are key to learning success. I feel like this is the greatest weakness to fully online classes. If you have discussion areas, it helps to break everyone into groups so that students only see the posts for people in their group. They can handle getting to know nine other people but not 99. However, you then experience different problems (see above re: groups). When you don’t know your students and they don’t know you, it’s incredibly difficult to identify where the learning gaps are. Are they understanding the material? Sure you might see they didn’t, when they bomb an assignment; but that’s way too late. In class when you lecture and hear crickets, you can check in. There’s a dynamism that’s possible in meatspace, but challenging to create in cyberspace. You can also be sensitive to the nuances of tone and facial expression in ways that aren’t possible through a computer screen. Yes, I recognize that that’s old news. Anyone who’s been on email for long, knows that it’s rife with miscommunication. When you multiply that times 100 though, it’s both a quantitatively and qualitatively different experience.
Five: Teaching online has its rewards.
I’d recommend trying it out. Aside from the obvious, “Hey, I don’t have to go to class today!” perk, teaching online allows you to connect with students you wouldn’t have ordinarily had the opportunity to teach. While it’s true that, as above, you don’t get to know them very well, you do see a huge diversity of thought—some of it quite enriching—in papers and discussion boards. The accessibility of online education is responsible for the hybrid vigour that comes with including people that are often marginalized. Shift workers, single parents, consumer/survivors, students in rural areas; all of whom would struggle, for one reason or another, with the expectations of a traditional classroom, are provided with an opportunity to participate. That alone makes it all worthwhile.
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