Mixed Signals about Online Teaching

As many of you know, we have spend the past few months preparing for our summer institute.  Each summer, our Center for Teaching Excellence runs an intensive week-long institute on teaching with technology.  Our theme this summer is teaching online, and in concert with our Provost, we are funding twenty faculty to work with us in June at our institute, then attend the Quality Matters online  course “Build Your Online Course“, followed up with working with us through the Fall and Spring semesters as they design and deliver an online course.

As one can see from examining our institute schedule, we are going to spend the week immersed in the pedagogy of teaching online, because as we stated in our White Paper last May, we fundamentally believe that teaching online involves not just the design of content delivery, but new practices as well.

Whether one has been teaching for years or is relatively new to teaching, it is our assumption that one should not just jump into teaching online (no more than one should just jump into teaching in the classroom).  We have, I think, thoughtfully crafted a networking and learning experience for our institute participants to facilitate their development of the skills and practices needed to teach online.  Teaching online takes an investment in time, and this nearly year-long process will assist this development.

So it was interesting to see two very different references to online teaching cross my desk today.


The first was an article in the May 9, Chronicle of Higher Education – “U. of California Considers Online Classes, or Even Degrees: Proposal for virtual courses challenges beliefs about what an elite university is—and isn’t” by Josh Keller and Marc Parry”.  The University of California is rolling out a $5 to $6 million pilot project for undergraduate online courses and degrees.  They are focusing on their 25 high-demand lower-level core gateway courses.  The university plans to spend up to a quarter million dollars on each course.  The article noted that there is faculty resistance to the concept of teaching undergraduates online, although they also quote Frank Mayadas, of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, as noting that piloting online courses is “…like doing experiments to see if the car is really better than the horse in 1925, when everyone else is out there driving cars.”

While I agree with Frank, it is good to see an institution as prestigious as UC exploring the use of online teaching for core courses.  They are taking a serious look at it as opposed to just opening up a bunch of sections and throwing adjuncts into them.

One issue I do have with the article by Keller and Parry is where it mentions the open content at MIT and Yale as if they were also online courses.  They are not – and MIT is explicit about this – they are content and not meant to replace online teaching and learning.  Too many in media and administrations conflate open content with online courses.  Just as a textbook does not replace the facilitated learning in a college course, neither does the online content replace the facilitated learning that takes place in good online classes.

Meanwhile on the same day – and I am not meaning here to be disrespectful to either Magna Publications or to David Penrose, an advertisement arrived in my email:

magna ad

“With Rapid Online Course Design, your faculty members and instructional designers can arm themselves with the tools and knowledge necessary to create quality courses with maximum value in a minimum of time. If your institution is struggling with online instructional design, this upcoming training seminar is for you”


So, for only $229 and 90 minutes, you can learn what you need to teach online!


Now…I just know in my heart that David Penrose is not suggesting this (though the marketers might be and many administrators probably do).  As the many comments in the Chronicle article attest, teaching online is work.  I think that it is fulfilling work and opens access to higher education that many might not otherwise have.  But none the less, one has to approach teaching and learning online in meaningful ways.  One cannot simply take a series of powerpoints, a few multiple choice tests, and call that an online course.


I was therefore struck that, on the one hand, we have a prestigious research university “considering” online classes – or even degrees – and on the other hand, we have an advertisement for an online webinar addressing the high demand for online education and giving institutions the blueprint they need to meet that demand – NOW!

Thoughtful educators will see issues with both approaches.  Teaching and learning online has moved in much of higher education from a pilot phase to a mainstream method of instructional delivery.  As with face-to-face learning, the quality of instruction varies.  I applaud UC for taking a serious look at the design and delivery of quality online courses – an approach we are also taking here at VCU.  It is equally important that we continue to address these mixed signals.  Faculty development needs to clearly focus on processes that improve student learning and student success rather than simply loading content onto the web.

It is one of the reasons I look forward to the next two days at University of Mary Washington. Their Faculty Academy 2010 will once again help me learn processes that indeed do just that.

{Photo Credits: foomandoonian, gagilas, ZeroOne}

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Who Let This Disaster on My Reading List?

I just finished reading Cassandra Smith’s Who Let This Disaster in My Classroom?: A Practical Guide for Online Instructors and Some Funny Stories Along The Way (2009: Resource Publications).

Who Let This Disaster cover

Who Let This Disaster cover

What a disaster!  And not in a good way.

I bought this book because I was intrigued by Tony Bate’s review in his blog.  Tony had noted that he was not even sure he should have reviewed the book, but the author had sent him a copy, so he did so.  He noted what he liked about the book (Smith let it all hang out and bared her soul), what upset him about the book (the fact that she was hired to teach when her only credentials were a degree and having taken courses online), and what was bad about the book (the continual whining about her students and the lack of any research regarding best practices for teaching online).

Tony was spot on for all three categories.

One of my first thoughts was wondering how this book ever survived the peer review process.  So I checked Resource Publications.  It turns out that they are a part of Wift and Stock Publisher, who publish “new works in theology, biblical studies, church history, philosophy and related disciplines.” Their vision is to “publish according to the merits of content rather than exclusively to the demands of the marketplace”.  So not a vanity press she published herself, but also not an academically rigorous publisher either.  It explains why while reading this book, I could not figure out whether it was a guide to online teaching told by someone very religious or a religious guide book told by an online teacher.  There definitely was no blurring or separation of church and state in this book!

Cassandra Smith has only taught online for a couple of years, yet she sees it as her life calling.  I could not help but feel sorry for her students, and hope she grows into a better teacher.  Her book was entirely about control.  She noted in several places that she was the expert because she had her degree and blasted her students for daring to try and help each other out.  This book so flew in the face of building a community of learners that I had a hard time finishing it.

In the review I left at Barnes and Noble, I stated that the subtitle was A Practical Guide for Online Instructors and Some Funny Stories Along The Way – and that Smith delivered neither.  I suggested that if online instructors were truly looking for best practices, they should check out Susan Ko’s Teaching Online, Palloff and Pratt’s Building Online Learning Communities, and Shirley Waterhouse’s The Power of eLearning.

As Tony noted, the book is more a damnation of hiring practices that throw adjuncts at online courses with no preparation.  It was apparent that she was teaching off of a pre-written course with no guidance.  Her “disasters” are symptomatic of what happens when an institution focuses on instructional designers building courses but not on their delivery.  She worked through her disasters, but not necessarily in ways that made sense from a good technological pedagogical content knowledge basis.  I commend her for writing a “how-to” guide, but she needs more experience, more training, and more research before she should do so.

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CTE White Paper on Online Teaching and Learning

The delivery of courses online is nearly as old as the web itself, but as with any innovation, some faculty members have been early adopters while others have watched the development with both interest and skepticism. As publishing and managing content on the web has become easier, and as the delivery of online courses has become increasingly more popular, more faculty members have begun exploring ways to offer their courses online.

There is a common perspective that moving a course online is primarily about designing and sequencing course content. While content is important, we also believe that recent changes on the web – toward a more social and interconnected space – have necessitated the rethinking of what it means to make the transition to online teaching and learning. The unprecedented access to information coupled with the ability by anyone to publish online are disrupting how one teaches and learns, raising questions in the minds of faculty as to whether their own practices should change.

Jeff Nugent, Bud Deihl, and I at the Virginia Commonwealth University Center for Teaching Excellence where I work have authored a white paper, Building from Content to Community: [Re]Thinking the Transition to Online Teaching and Learning, that is intended to serve as a resource for faculty who are teaching online or are considering making a transition. We hope this paper serves as the starting point for conversation, and invite you to share your ideas by leaving a comment at our CTE blog or here.

We look forward to hearing your thoughts!

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