Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Help! I am teaching online

I thought about adding these 5 words (my blogpost title) to the trending hashtag in Twitter, #ScaryStoriesIn5Words. Those tweets made Halloween Day somewhat more Halloween for me, lots of drama and jokes. Scary? Not so much at the ALT Lab where I was stationed for livestreamed sessions from the Online Learning Consortium's International Conference (OLC). Which is a good thing.

The turnout wasn't ideal but a real and urgent need of some faculty or future faculty members emerged from conversations with some attendees. Some major questions were:

"I think I'm going to be teaching online. Where can I find training resources to prepare me for this role?"

"I have faculty who have been teaching face-to-face (F2F) classes but are now going to start teaching online courses. I can't train them all by myself. Help?"

"We have adjunct instructors who work fulltime and are unable to attend any of the ALT Lab's programs." 

At the ALT Lab, we have programs and events to help faculty get started with online teaching: OLE, Agora, Online Learning Summit, live-streaming of OLC sessions ... Together with the other programs and resources we offer, we hope the variety of formal and informal learning opportunities will help enhance faculty online and F2F teaching experience. 

But I will be honest and confess that I don't have an answer to all three questions above. I understand that most people lead busy and full lives. But rather than wait to learn from a formal course, I would advise new online instructors to regard informal self-directed learning as a significant learning path to professional development for online teaching. I am not going to write about the institutional support instructors must have to get started with online teaching. This blogpost focuses on individual first-time instructors of online teaching and 3 broad suggestions I have for getting started with informal learning. (Disclaimer: These are purely my suggestions and views, not my employer's):

1. Learner Empathy: Take an Online Course

Experience it for yourself, no matter how busy you are. It's about developing learner empathy (Parrish, 2006). It would help the instructor to understand what it might be like when teacher-student roles are reversed. There is an incredible number of open access online courses available. Try the MOOCs (e.g. Connected Courses). 

Image Description: A woman jumps off the cliff and dives into the ocean of online teaching. There are people standing in the online ocean waiting to receive her.
Face the Fear.
Image Description: A woman jumps off the cliff and dives into the ocean of online teaching. There are
people standing in the online ocean waiting to receive her.

2. Face the Fear: Start Learning and Connecting

There is much to be said about building an arsenal of digital tools and sharpening the tools you are going to be using in your online course. Online communities and communication are mediated by technology. The 3 Ws (World Wide Web) might sound scary, and overwhelming, with its infinite possibilities for learning and also, abuse. But I don't see any short-cuts to becoming an effective online teacher and facilitator. I am not one to prescribe specific steps, but joining a community of folks who share your interest might be the best place to start learning about online pedagogy and tools. For examples,
  • Read, watch, listen. Articles, e-books, blogs. Hybrid Pedagogy; what better place to start than in the in-between space? Consider this article by Jesse Stommel on Online Learning: A Manifesto. If you find a chance, talk about it with some other instructors from your program. 
  • Post blog comments, AND, then start blogging to share information and news with your students and colleagues from near and far.  
  • Create a Twitter account (My colleague Tom Woodward shared this interesting article about Twitter, Why I Use Twitter)
  • Join Google+ communities of your interests (You need a GMail account)

I believe teachers have to carve out a safe online space for themselves to experiment and learn with others continuously, thus modeling for their students what it is like to learn from a global audience. We can no longer think of learning as something that is solely confined to a classroom. Or wait to enter a formal space to learn with others. Learn what you can with what time you have. Deliberately, on the go, just-in-time. Learn to steal away for microlearning moments. Develop learning habits that suit your schedule and learning disposition.

3. Keep Learning and Tweaking Your Course: Perfection is Not a Requirement

Someone told me she wouldn't teach online until she has learned enough about online teaching.  "Enough" is a subjective term. It is wise of her to give herself time to prepare adequately for online teaching and not try to replicate a face-to-face class online. In fact, a radical change in mindset is a must for new online instructors. Armed with this readiness to embrace change and some knowledge of how to make the change, one can begin to take the plunge to decide to teach online. However, we need to recognize that no course is going to be perfect from the get-go. Although we may have a plan and a course ready by the time we are in a position to push off from the starting-blocks, the course will be subject to some minor (?) revisions as it progresses through the semester. I don't know any teacher with a heart for teaching who doesn't improvise as s/he teaches throughout the semester.

This post is necessarily a simple reductionistic post about getting started. It does not pretend to be a solution that responds to all the complexities involved in preparing faculty to teach online.

I welcome comments anyone may have to help new online faculty get started through informal learning.


Parrish, P. (2006). Design as storytelling. TechTrends, 50(4), 72-82)

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