Lessons from an Online Summer Course (#1-#3)

This is part of a series of posts on what I learned from teaching an online summer course for the first time.  (See the first post for context.)  With just one course under my belt, my takeaway lessons are tentative, of course, and will be familiar to experienced online teachers.  Still, perhaps they can be of some use to other first-time teachers.

This first group of three lessons focuses on the challenges of technology.

Lesson #1. Learn By Doing

There’s no way to really get a feel for teaching online until you do it.  I tried to be as prepared as I could in advance of this course.  I talked with people who were more experienced. I read a bit.  I played around with some ideas.  But in the end, it was only through the process of doing it that I really began learning about teaching online.

By doing my course, I learned more about what worked and what didn’t for me.  I identified some of the details of technology that I needed to learn–and the many parts I didn’t need to bother with.  I realized things I’d want to do next time around, as well as things I’d drop after having tried them.  I learned that I over-thought some issues and neglected to anticipate others.  (Along the way I was reminded of the wisdom of epistemological pragmatism.)

Yes, we can and should prepare well.  But we learn by doing.  Jump in; get started.  Perhaps start small to better manage the messiness but just start.

Lesson #2: Teacher, Teach Thyself, Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying Even Though I Still Don’t Love the Technology

Teaching online for the first time means dealing with the technology that enables you to do so. Ed-tech enthusiasts can tell you about the wonders of this technology…and they’re right to a degree.  But the immediate experience as a first-time teacher is that learning and working with this tech is a time-consuming pain.  Period.  I’m not surprised that many faculty shy away from it entirely.

To me, ed-tech is a lot like my car.  I value being able to get from one place to another and sometimes I even enjoy the journey along the way.  But I’ve never been a car guy and I have no interest in ever being one.  I want to use the technology for my purposes, not learn the details of how it works.  In some ways, I think that’s what distinguishes most faculty from many ed-tech folks.  The latter are interested in the tech itself; what it can do and how it might be adapted for learning.  They get their hands greasy messing around under the hood.  Faculty want their cars to work when they turn the key. End of story.

I’m no different.  I’m not a Luddite by any means but my first instinct is not right-click “view page source” to figure out how someone created something. But working on this course reminded me of the importance of stretching and teaching myself new things, however modest. If we are to innovate, we need to have some understanding of the capacities of the tools with which we work.

I had the luxury of great support if I needed it but I tried as much as I could to answer my own questions, many of which eventually could be answered by Googling a topic or searching in the extensive WordPress Codex or support pages for help.  Instead of asking them, I started keeping a file of running questions and would try to answer them myself when I had a chance.

All of this was a great reminder that learning new things outside of our areas of comfort and expertise is not always easy.  We ask students to do this all the time and we can get exasperated when they ask questions they should be able to answer for themselves.  Yet, I caught myself wanting to do the exact same thing.  I wasn’t an expert in WordPress (or whatever aspect of the course I was dealing with) so why shouldn’t I turn to the person who is more of an expert for a quick answer?  The reason, of course, is that I’d be missing an opportunity to grow and become more independent.

If we want to help students “learn how to learn”–to develop the skills to be lifelong learners–it’s useful to put ourselves in the position of being a student.  As teachers, we need to teach ourselves to be learners.

Lesson #3: Be Honest, Especially About Not Knowing

This wasn’t a new lesson; I’ve always been very comfortable in class acknowledging that I didn’t know something.  But teaching online gave me the opportunity to be ignorant about a whole set of new issues! I tried to be up front with students from start to finish.  I cautioned that this would be a different sort of class than they’d likely experienced before; that it would require the use of blogs; that their writing would be public; that we’d be doing group work; that I was experimenting with what for me were new technologies; and that there would inevitably be bumps in the road along the way.

Technology can be intimidating for both students and faculty.  But I’ve come to believe that faculty anxiety about technology is often tied to bigger issues of knowledge and expertise. As instructors, we are inevitably making a claim that we have something to offer students; that we can assist in their learning a subject and/or a skill.  We are often used to being the “experts” in the classroom.  Not knowing can make us uncomfortable. Trying something new in the class means we have to deal with uncertainty; with not knowing. Isn’t it our job to be the local expert?

Of course, after years of study,  I know many things that my students don’t about the subjects I teach. (And they bring knowledge about many things in which they are interested that I don’t know anything about.)  But I think that part of my job as a teacher is to model being a learner, not an expert.  And one of the things good learners know is how little they know!

I used a policy of honesty this summer, explaining that part of the learning process involves overcoming obstacles.  Here was part of my simple attempt (photo included):

“I’m trying some technologies in this course for the first time, so the road is bound to get a little rough.  This first week will be the toughest for learning new tech things.  Be persistent, take a deep breath, maintain a sense of humor, don’t drive into the side of a house, and we’ll work through this together. (Or maybe I’m the only one who’s a little anxious about this?)”

“Rough Road” by Curtis Perry CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

I find a little self-deprecating humor fits with my personality.  Being honest about working problems out as they arose became part of the course zeitgeist in which we were repeatedly experimenting with new things and turning to each other for assistance.

Next: “Big picture” lessons about online learning.

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