Avoiding the Trap of Online Teaching

When I began my PhD program, I left the traditional high school classroom I had been teaching in for nearly a decade and transferred to my school district’s virtual school so that I could work from home and have a more flexible schedule. During the interview process for that job, I was asked how I would feel about teaching a class where I did not design the assignments or the curriculum. I chuckled upon hearing that question because my interviewer had addressed head-on the biggest concern I had with the new job: I tend to be a bit of a control freak, and the prospect of teaching a pre-developed curriculum made me fear the loss of my creativity as an instructor. In the interview, I confessed that concern and then explained that my creativity was a sacrifice I was willing to make so that I could worry about my own coursework, rather than creating coursework for my students.

Two years later, while collecting data for my dissertation, I heard echoes of that interview conversation when talking to my case-study instructors. Each of them has years of experience working at our institution and is quite familiar with the expectations of our curriculum. They have refined their classes to be unique expressions of both their experience with and philosophy of writing, and they believe strongly in the appropriateness and benefit of each assignment they give their students. But neither of them had taught a writing course in what our campus calls the “mixed-mode” format. Known elsewhere as “hybrid” or “blended” classrooms, a mixed-mode course uses online components to reduce the seat time students spend in a traditional classroom. The two instructors I worked with had experience teaching a fully online writing course, but never one that had to balance online and in-person components. I got to interview them about their philosophies for creating the course and adapting content, and I came to realize that they took drastically different approaches to making this transition.

Approach one: transfer face-to-face to online

One of the instructors decided that his goal was to replicate the in-person elements of his course in the online environment, essentially attempting to duplicate the classroom experience inside our LMS, which at the time was Blackboard. This instructor believes very strongly in his abilities as a teacher and the necessity of the in-class activities he asked his students to complete. To him, being in his class meant doing certain things, having certain conversations, and engaging with certain materials. When presented with the challenge of adapting a class to the mixed-mode format, his answer was to transfer what he believed in from one environment into another. Essentially, his philosophy was, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

I have to hand it to him for his determination. His heart was in the right place, and he acted on what he felt would lead to the greatest success. At the beginning of the semester, he was determined and confident. He knew that re-creating all his course material would be tedious, but he wanted to ensure fidelity and trust in his years of experience as a successful classroom teacher. The urge to duplicate is the essential trap of online teaching. The concept of a “classroom” changes drastically when it is re-created online. Those who are skilled in navigating and managing a classroom on the ground face much different challenges when teaching students on the computer. There is little reason to believe that processes that work with a group of students in the same room together should work when those students are distributed across time and space, yet the instinct of a teacher is to believe that our teaching, done in the best interest of our students, should be able to work anywhere we find students.

Checking in with this instructor part way through the semester, I listened while he explained how he watched his plan unravel as the semester progressed. The first great challenge was a difference in understanding regarding mixed-mode classes. Whereas the instructor believed it meant that one (of the typical three) days of class meetings would be held online, students registering for the course believed it meant their class met only two days a week, providing extended weekends. There is no good way to tell a college freshman that they do not have the weekend they expected to have. The second-rate challenge involved time: converting materials from in-person to online often took longer than simply delivering the material live would have taken. The instructor was constantly frustrated by self-imposed deadlines for putting materials online and simply how long it took him to get them there. His normal success and comfort in the classroom eluded him online, and he knew it:

“The techniques I use to [help students learn the course outcomes] are being compromised online.”

By getting caught in the trap of believing that online teaching can replicate in-person teaching, this instructor surrounded himself with frustration.

Approach two: reinvent for online

The other instructors of a completely different approach. He decided that he wanted to try something new given the new delivery mode, so he began to explore what he might be able to do online that he couldn’t normally do in person. He ultimately settled on creating a class blog. He would use this site to hold discussions, post assignments, and generally serve as the virtual hub of the course. This instructor chose not to use the institution-supported LMS for his class, opting instead to use Google’s Blogger platform to host his materials. As he began assembling materials for his course blog, this instructor became increasingly convinced that the blog would serve a pivotal role in the nature and development of his course. Continued development showed him that the blog would play a central role in this class and provide an opportunity for students to share openly with one another. He then decided to use the course blog in his face-to-face class, as well. Essentially, this instructor worked backward, applying the new ideas that grew from mixed-mode instruction on to his traditional in-class instruction.

Rather than relying on his reputation as an excellent teacher (which he is), this instructor decided to rely on his enthusiasm for becoming an excellent teacher by using new innovations. His new class blog became the centerpiece not only of his students’ work during the semester but also his enthusiasm and effort in creating the course. His enthusiasm carried throughout the entire semester, and he never seemed to lose the energy he got from the creative process. This instructor avoided the trap of online teaching by using the delivery mode has motivation to rethink his course design. Rather than creating more work — which this approach sounds at first like it would — rethinking course design created more energy and determination for the instructor.

As the semester progressed, his conviction persisted: she remained unfailingly dedicated to the course blog as the best tool to help him be a successful instructor, in both formats of his course.

“They are going to benefit from blogging in the face-to-face class.”

This instructor avoided the trap of online learning and use the new format to his advantage, reducing his frustration and enhancing his enthusiasm for the work he does.

My take-away: it’s an opportunity, not a chore

What I saw in these two instructors echoes my sentiments when applying for the job with the virtual school. I didn’t like the thought of giving up my creativity to teach an online course developed by someone else. The prospect of moving a course into a new delivery mode can be an intimidating challenge, which can be tedious or even dreadful, depending on perspective, enthusiasm, and energy level. It’s easy for a teacher to fall into the trap of believing that their existing course will be difficult to make work in a new environment. That concern is very valid: most in-person courses cannot translate directly into an online version. But we can easily avoid that trap by looking not to convert to reinvent. By using the online space as an exciting opportunity to try something new, instructors can take a fresh approach to their courses, find something new that excites them, and enjoy the creative process of making a course that works for them.

When designing a course for a new delivery mode, we need to realize that it is indeed a new course, one that needs reinvention, not translation.

[Adorable photo with obvious title courtesy pasukaru76 on Flickr.]