I have the privilege to serve in a great discipline called Education. It is a wonderful, complex mix of theory and practice aimed at connecting a teacher’s knowledge of subject matter to the needs and potential of learners. The art and science of connecting teaching with learning is called pedagogy. As educators we should know pedagogy, and across time societies have placed varying demands upon how we must best engage our learners. Online education is the latest challenge we must meet.
I think we must carefully use our pedagogical knowledge in navigating our construction and implementation of online courses. I am a rookie, having just finished my first fully online course, but this much I think I have learned about online teaching and learning:
- I went into my first online teaching with the expectation that I would be able to at least simulate my face-to-face classroom ethos and practices. I did not expect duplication of such. I discovered that simulating but not duplicating face-to-face pedagogy may be more than good enough if the technology works. (And, with a lot of help from my friends, it really worked.)
- Personal but challenging learning can be done online.
- Personal means that very early in the course we allow students to see a positive instructor response to something they have written. I accomplished this through a worldview question in my course, Faith and Ethics in Educational Leadership: “If you were able to ask God one question and knew you would receive an audible answer, what would you ask?” It is of course a very personal, emotional answer, and it allows positive, personal interaction with the student.
- Personal means that we pay attention to what we write as teachers in MoodleRooms, as though we are talking to the individual learners who are sitting right in front of us. I found that the most vital place to focus my attention was in thinking through process detail in my syllabus, especially the organization of topics and assignments on a weekly basis. Each week had to have a certain self-contained closure but also flow into the following week. And, each week needed assignments that were carefully thought through. For example, I decided to have a difficult first assignment that was collaborative in nature. This choice did two desirable things: It forced the students to work with a partner, and it allowed me start them off with a good grade that would boost their confidence and motivation.
- Personal also means that we must think carefully about what the students will read, write for assignments, and discuss for forums. Does the assignment connect to their prior-course experience (past), and will it connect to their on-going course experience (present)? For example, my discussion forum each week is from “Shaping Questions” in Transformational Teaching (2011). Students are asked to write what “squares” up with what they already knew; to write three points (“triangle”) of significant new learning; and to write about thoughts that are “circling” in their heads as result of their study. Timely reinforcement is an essential part of our students’ learning. And, seeing learners’ responses on a weekly basis is reinforcing and motivating to the teacher as well.
- Personal means that our responses as teachers must be both individual and group, always communicating that we care about their learning and about the students as persons. Students want to know and feel that their teacher knows them and their work personally. I find that I can serve as a teacher-relater and communicate caring as I assess individual work, and as I respond to group forum discussion. For example, I can compliment a student for the way she consistently and smartly synthesizes thoughts or offers insight into the content of the course. And, with the group, I can do at least two things: I can summarize some points that the students have just worked through—such a synthesis is critical to their learning. And, I can pre-warn my students that the upcoming readings and assignments are dense and time-consuming. I think the communication of teacher-empathy trumps concerns about creating uber-anxiety in students.
- Challenging means that we set up the course so that it requires a variety of student responses like watching video, analyzing case studies, analyzing the ethics of a professional decision, responding to textbook study guide questions, writing research papers, and taking an exam. A variety of activities for students also means a variety of assessments, which is ultimately fair pedagogy.
- Challenging means that we actually pay attention to our learning goals for the course as we construct the course, create assignments that connect to the goals and to the students, and not add superfluous work in an effort to compensate for the absence of face-to-face teaching. Busy work is a motivation-killer in any format and at any level.
- Webinars seem like a no-brainer way to begin each course. One synchronous interaction with online students is not too much to ask or require of teachers or students. The webinar can be like walking into the first class meeting with students: We can set a tone for personal and challenging learning.
- By doing my course lectures on video, we were able to accomplish in effect a flipped classroom. After recording my lectures, I am free to focus on students’ responses to what I have said and to what they have read. This model is future-directed and we must embrace it not just for the future, but because it fits the kind of learner-centered teaching that we all want. What I think we all want is to engage our students in higher level thinking so that our students can be more self-directed learners. I want to ask questions and create assignments that lead my students to develop the “strategic learning qualities” we write about in Transformational Teaching (2011): openness, skepticism, civility, persistence, imagination, and curiosity. These qualities are by-products of the work of active engagement, and they lead to a life-long learning ethic.
The discipline of Education with its blend of philosophy, psychology, and pedagogy can enable all of us to be effective teachers whether it is face-to-face or online. I think our pedagogical knowledge, if we use it, can confront the “information age” electronic-correspondence-course dangers of online teaching and learning. This knowledge can move us from informational teaching propensities to focusing on transforming students who enroll in our classes.
Rosebrough, T. R., & Leverett, R. G. (2011). Transformational teaching in the information age: Making why and how we teach relevant to students. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.