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The Unexpected Reason Why Teaching Online Can Be So Challenging

The Unexpected Reason Why Teaching Online Can Be So Challenging

As a consultant who helps organizations develop meaningful online learning experiences, I find that there’s a lot of resistance towards moving programs that have worked in face-to-face environments into an online-only delivery platform. I hear “you just can’t do X online” multiple times a week, where X is usually “teach this kind of content” or “foster community” or “get the same results”. While I reject that any of this is true -- in my experience, you can teach any kind of content, foster amazingly diverse communities and get even better results online with the right design -- I do acknowledge that there is something different about teaching online. It’s a simple difference, but it’s one that has big implications for online learning designers.

Tina Seelig, a professor at Stanford and a pioneer in the online learning space, says that teaching in a classroom setting is sort of like surfing. You’re out there, on your board, reading the waves and tides, changes in the wind and the surf. If something happens, you can respond in the moment, quickly changing direction or responding to an unexpected challenge. Teaching online, Seelig says, is actually more akin to piloting a cruise ship. You spend much more time planning your course ahead of time, and, if you do need to make a change in direction, it takes much longer to turn that big old boat around. You simply can’t respond in the moment to the needs of all your learners, especially if you’re teaching hundreds or thousands at a time.

For educators like myself who began their careers teaching face-to-face, surfing is all we know how to do. We’re comfortable with it. And for some of us, we actually love the rush of living on the edge; just like unpredictable mother ocean, no one knows what your learners are going to throw at you next. But if we want to get good at teaching online -- and we must if we want to scale our work and meet the needs of wildly diverse and distributed learners -- we have to become not just comfortable with but excited about the possibility of being cruise ship captains. We have to learn to spend our time differently -- in charting the course, ensuring the ship is in tip-top shape, and building out a crew to support us. And we have to learn to change our expectations about what our relationship will be with our learners.

This is challenging, but I find that it is actually a healthy exercise for  many traditional classroom educators. It helps us confront assumptions we have about our own efficacy and impact (maybe we don’t matter quite as much as we think we do?) and about how committed our learners have to be in order to actually learn (maybe it’s okay if someone only accesses half the course content, if they still meet the learning outcomes?). Taking on the challenge of teaching online might just make you a better all-around teacher in the long run. And isn’t that what we all want, if we’re committed to a reflective practice?

Does this metaphor ring true for you? Or are there other ways in which teaching online is different from teaching face-to-face?

 

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