¡Viva la Differencía! Thoughts on Online Teaching and Learning

This semester, I’m teaching a fully-online course for the first time. I’ve had experience with all sorts of flipped, blended, and hybrid models of teaching with technology, but fully online? That’s a first for me. And I have to admit, in the beginning of the process which led to this course’s development, I approached the whole endeavor with a significant amount of ambivalence. I wear my tech-geek credentials proudly; and despite not really having the legs for it, have been an unabashed cheerleader for teaching with technology–as you can see here, for example. But taking the plunge into designing, and eventually having to teach, a fully online course made me realize just how much I needed to intentionally think about some of the larger questions swirling around the idea of teaching online and discern my own answers to them.

I went into this process with two basic assumptions. First, online education isn’t going anywhere. It offers too much that seduces the decision-makers: shiny new technology, scalability, and budgetary “efficiencies” (a term that I would gladly consign to the depths of corporate-speak hell, where it can burn in fire with other weasel words like “right-sizing” and “content delivery”). Second, many of us on the faculty see online education through the lenses shaped by its shittiest manifestations. Stories about shady for-profits that exist primarily to vacuum up federal aid dollars, poorly designed and mass produced course offerings, and strong-armed unethical recruiting are peppered throughout Inside Higher Ed and the Chronicle of Higher Education. And the bad TV commercials don’t help, either: “Go to college in your pajamas!” as if professors and campuses and such were just so much extraneous fluff.* And then there’s the whole MOOC movement that WILL DISRUPT HIGHER EDUCATION AND REVOLUTIONIZE LEARNING, yet also has the air of the high school coach/teacher wheeling the TV/VCR cart into the room, turning on the film, and reading the newspaper while we “learned.” So this type of pedagogy, which in many quarters of academe has a shady reputation, is being employed on a larger scale and with increasing emphasis in institution after institution–and neither trend seems likely to change course soon.

Revolutionary? Hell, I took a MOOC in 7th-grade Social Studies.

That’s not the most appealing set of environmental factors in which to begin planning a course. But fortunately, my historian training kicked in. DO THE RESEARCH (Bonus: get some new books. Woo hoo!) And while my two initial assumptions did not disappear, they were modified. I’m as convinced as I ever was that online education isn’t going anywhere–but now I understand that, if done well, the reasons for its here-to-stayness go far beyond merely budgetary and deliverability factors. I am also certain that there are enough examples of poorly-designed and poorly-done online classes out there that it will remain easy for skeptics to point to reasons that online education cannot and will not “work.” But we need to challenge ourselves to move beyond Pajamas University or Overhyped & Underwhelming MOOC. Then we’ll discover numerous and compelling reasons for faculty to see online learning as a unique and potentially transformative set of tools that could allow us to do what we do with students even better.

Really, then, I arrived at a decidedly non-revolutionary set of conclusions: sometimes courses are good, and sometimes they aren’t. This holds true for face-to-face classes, online classes, hybrid and blended classes, whatever. The key is to understand why a course is good, or why it sucks, and proceed accordingly. The same things that make us good, reflective practitioners in a “traditional” class environment make us so when we teach online. We only need to be willing to engage in them.

Ultimately, I needed to escape the stale, oversimplified dichotomy that too often sets the terms of debate. It’s good, they tell us. ONLINE LEARNING IS GREAT REVOLUTIONARY SEXY WONDERFUL DISRUPTIVE GOODNESS SO QUIT THE NAYSAYING YOU LUDDITE HEATHEN SO WE CAN LIBERATE YOUR STUDENTS. It’s bad, they tell us. YOU HAVE ABANDONED THE SACRED ESSENCE OF LEARNING AND OUTSOURCED TEACHING TO SOULLESS MACHINES YOU CORPORATE WHORE PITY O PITY THE HELPLESS CHILDREN. Well, it’s actually simpler than an either/or. It’s a neither. Online teaching isn’t inherently better than face-to-face teaching, nor is it inherently worse. It is, quite simply, different. Escaping the confines of this artificial dilemma–“will I be doing a disservice to my online students if this isn’t as good as a face-to-face class?”–was the single most important part of this entire process for me. Not better. Not worse. Just Different.

Designing this course has made me revisit and reconsider my pedagogical philosophies and decision-making in a number of ways. As Michelle Miller points out in her excellent new book, Minds Online: Teaching Effectively with Technology**, the very act of designing a course is fraught with decisions that can decisively impact students’ abilities to absorb, retain, and acquire a deep command of the course’s content and ideas. Designing an online course, for example, requires a particular attention to the ways in which attention and memory work together and deciding which tools most effectively promote that partnership. Thinking about why I use a particular assignment, how it integrates with my course goals, and which methods to use for it in an online environment is a process of discernment that goes beyond one particular course for me; I’ve found myself rethinking some of the ways in which I ask students to demonstrate their learning in my face-to-face classes. Using Miller’s insights about how we tend to overrate our abilities to focus our attention, and ways in which we can construct online environments to minimize external distractions, I’ve learned not only how to build better learning activities for my course, but gained some important insights into my own research and writing workflow. Being intentional with my design, engaging in the deep planning that online courses involve, and doing the work of researching and building a course that will get my students to where I want them to be–all of this is rich and meaningful professional development. I firmly believe that, as teachers, if we’re not developing, we’re stagnating. Student learning depends upon faculty development.

Now consider this–not only are the benefits of this process manifest for individual teachers, they are for institutions as well. In other words, developing quality online courses can–should–promote a culture of reflective practice and discernment on the institutional level that benefits all of our students. But this will only occur if faculty are willing to take ownership of our part in this process, to sit at the table as constructive participants in conversations about online learning, and to be the type of advocates for our students and for college-level learning that we claim we are. Some institutions have this in spades. Others of us, less so. But it is absolutely crucial that it occur. Online learning–which is not merely content delivery or watered-down, media’d-up curriculum–is a part of our landscape. It can, and should, be an important and valuable part.  and perhaps most essentially, the features of online education that promote better access for students, and the radically democratizing potential of this pedagogy, hold enormous promise for the things in higher education that are well worth fighting for.

But it has to be done well, and it has to be done for the right reasons. And in this sense, online learning is absolutely no different than any other type of pedagogy. Rolling out a series of YouTube video lectures with no scaffolding, assessment, or interaction isn’t teaching, any more than coach’s wheeling in the TV cart to show yet another World War II video for the eighth day in row is teaching.*** The tools we decide to use are the stuff of learning for our students. Lecture, lab, seminar, fieldwork, clinical practice, group work, online, hybrid, face-to-face–these are our pedagogical tools. Which tool to use is context- and student-dependent: I wouldn’t use a hammer to remove a splinter from my finger.

The tools aren’t inherently better or worse than each other.

They’re just different.


*I’ve always contended that whoever wrote that advertising copy had absolutely no familiarity with college campuses. Everywhere I’ve taught, if the class is before noon, MOST STUDENTS GO TO COLLEGE IN THEIR PAJAMAS.

**You should read this book. Even if you’re not teaching online, you should read this book. It is brimming with research-based insights and strategies on such areas as student attention, cognition, and memory. It’s one of the best books on teaching–not merely online teaching–I’ve read. No lie.

***And it was always World War II. We could’ve been in the Ancient Mesopotamian chapter, and it would be a D-Day video. But Mr. Pushbroom Mustache, weren’t we supposed to read about the Assyrians for today? SHUT YOUR MOUTH BUTTERCUP THIS IS THE GREATEST GENERATION