Philosophy of Teaching in a Distributed Networked Environment
I was once asked what I looked for in students, and my response was “I want students to be as excited about learning as I am.” I have been teaching face-to-face and online for over four decades…but I am most energized now by teaching in a distributed networked way online. One of the exciting aspects of teaching with the web is that the possibilities continue to grow, and with these possibilities come endless opportunities for learning. Yet I am also mindful that I am teaching and you are learning in the midst of a crisis of huge import – the global pandemic. I am also mindful that many students feel stresses today that never existed when I first started teaching. To riff off Paulo Freire (1970), students are not empty vessels waiting to be filled, they are co-creators of knowledge … and it is co-discovery of this knowledge that makes teaching online so exciting … even in this stressful time!
My philosophy of teaching has evolved from years of teaching in both face-to-face and online in military, two-year college and university settings. As I reflect on my beliefs regarding teaching and learning, I find that my approach is threefold:
- to promote positive learning, modeling what I teach and learn;
- to spark learner enthusiasm for learning and peer-teaching; and
- to provide a strong foundation for lifelong reflective practice.
To accomplish this, I apply a variety of strategies based on essential educational principles encompassing learning theory, collaboration, technology application, strategic instructional planning and assessment, constructivism, and reflective practice. I believe that learning is always evolving, and that I learn as much from my students as they do from me. I am a co-learner with my students as we examine existing paradigms and explore new ones. The world is not a multiple-choice test but rather one that requires higher order thinking skills. It is an oft used phrase, but I truly believe that we are in this together!
My teaching approach looks to engage students to think in new ways. I also believe that learning is best when students see the relevance of the learning. I intend for my ‘passion’ for teaching and learning to always be evident, building a learning community through enthusiasm and empathetic connections with learners. As a result, my teaching will positively impact the learners, ultimately connecting them to their ‘passion’ and lifelong learning. While relevance is critical, we also learn better in interdisciplinary settings. I concur with Palloff and Pratt (2007) that the formation of a learning community is essential in online courses. If students see me as a real individual, with social, cognitive and teaching presences evident in the online environment…and I see them as individuals and not nameless students, and equally important, they see each other as well, then a community of learners can develop.
Joseph Aoun in Robot-Proof (2017) noted that we have to move beyond the usual literacies to higher-order cognitive skills if we are to be “robot-proof” in the future. To me, this means relying increasingly on a network of learners (Twitter, Diigo, and blogs) for my own and my students’ personal learning. In my classes, this network demonstrates the power of social processes for learning. The reflective nature of blogging for instance requires students to think about thinking, which leads to metacognition and the higher order thinking that I seek. Each student brings unique perspectives to bear, and when this reflection occurs on the open web, it invites other perspectives from outside the course to push, prod, and provoke new reflections. My classes are less about “grades” and “testing” and more about learning through dialogue with trusted peers. You will be graded…but that grade is impacted by your engagement (or lack thereof) with your peers and me. Flipped classrooms have been popular for years now…and I am twisting the concept to be a flipped professor – my job is not to “teach” you but rather to “learn with” you. That means that you take responsibility for your own learning and for sharing that learning…and since we all have access to the combined knowledge of human-kind on the web, self-learning and shared learning should be our norms.
That said, I believe that good teaching is good teaching, whether one is online or face-to-face. My teaching has been informed by Chickering and Gamson’s Seven Principles of Good Practice in Teaching, which while dated still hold equally true online or on campus (Chickering and Gamson, 1987):
“Good practice in undergraduate education:
- encourages contact between students and faculty,
- develops reciprocity and cooperation among students,
- encourages active learning,
- gives prompt feedback,
- emphasizes time on task,
- communicates high expectations, and
- respects diverse talents and ways of learning.”
Aligned with these are the seven research-based principles espoused by Susan Ambrose (2010) in the book How Learning Works: Seven Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching:
- Students’ prior knowledge can serve to help or hinder learning.
- Students’ organization of knowledge impacts how students learn and apply what they know.
- Motivation determines, directs, and sustains what students learn.
- To develop mastery, students must develop the skills, practice integrating them, and know when to apply them.
- Goal-directed practice coupled with targeted feedback enhances learning.
- Level of learner development interacts with “course” climate to impact learning.
- To become self-directed, learners must be able to monitor and adjust their approaches to learning
My online teaching has also been informed by Randy Garrison’s (2017) E-Learning in the 21st Century and Michelle Miller’s (2014) Minds Online. Garrison’s Community of Inquiry model suggested that teachers and students each come to learning with three presences – cognitive presence, social presence, and teaching presence. We need all three of these if we are in this together! I recognize and respect the teacher in each of you…and I recognize the real need for the social side during these times of lockdown.
Miller refuted many myths about teaching online (such as the notion of “digital natives”), providing instead clear processes for teaching that incorporate what learning science has discovered about human attention, thinking, memory and creativity.
And finally, Dee Fink (2013) suggested a taxonomy of significant learning that included foundational knowledge, application, integration, and three very human dimensions – learning about oneself, learning how to learn, and caring for others.
While good teaching is good teaching, I strongly believe that the practices one uses for teaching are quite different online. Twelve years ago, I co-authored with Jeff Nugent and Bud Deihl a White Paper, Building from Content to Community: [Re]Thinking the Transition to Online Teaching and Learning (May 2009). Our line in the sand then remains true…that access to information is not enough for learning, that we learn best in socially mediated environments, and that learning should take advantage of the unique individuals within a class, each bringing differing learning preferences, background knowledge, and biases. These diverse perspectives can enrich the learning environment. My role is to create a safe environment in which this sharing of learning can occur.
My first online class was in 1995. The web has evolved in the past two decades to be one that is participatory (just look at Twitter, Instagram and TikTok) – what danah boyd in It’s Complicated (2014) called “networked publics.” It therefore makes sense to create active learning opportunities that take advantage of the affordances the new web allows, such as blogs for reflection and new video tools that allow anyone to publish multimedia. Yet, the past few years have also shown us the dark side of the web. The unauthorized mining of Facebook data by Cambridge Analytica, the manipulation of elections by foreign bots, and the polarization of thought in web dialogue suggest that one has to approach learning on the web with an open mind and healthy skepticism. Part of critical thinking is thinking critically about sources and biases. With the recent cries for social justice superimposed on a global pandemic, these are stressful times…and the web reflects that. Yet, the beautiful diversity of the web – if embraced – can make us more mindful about our learning.
We teach, learn and work in a distributed online environment. This environment allows for multiple means for communication and collaboration. My role is to be cognizant of my role to model effective learning practices while I actively engage my students. Together we can learn more than any of us could learn by ourselves.
Ambrose, Susan A., Bridges, Michael W., DiPietro, Michele, Lovett, Marsha C., and Norman, Marie K. (2010) How Learning Works: Seven Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching. Jossey-Bass.
Aoun, Joseph (2017). Robot-Proof: Higher Education in the Age of Artificial Intelligence. MIT Press.
boyd, danah (2014). It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens. Yale University Press.
Chickering, Arthur W. and Gamson, Zelda F. (1987) “Seven Principles for Good Practice in Undergraduate Education,” American Association of Higher Education Bulletin, March 1987, 3-7.
Fink, L D. (2013). Creating Significant Learning Experiences: An Integrated Approach to Designing College Courses (revised). Jossey-Bass.
Friere, P. (1970) Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Bloomsbury Academic.
Garrison, D.R. (2011). E-Learning in the 21st Century: A Framework for Research and Practice (3rd ed.). Routledge.
Miller, M. (2014). Minds online: Teaching effectively with technology. Harvard University Press.
Mishra, P., & Koehler, M. J. (2006). “Technological Pedagogical Content Knowledge: A new framework for teacher knowledge,” Teachers College Record. 108(6), 1017- 1054.
Palloff, R. M. and Pratt, K. (2007) Building Online Learning Communities: Effective Strategies for the Virtual Classroom. Jossey-Bass.
Watwood, Britt; Nugent, Jeffrey; and Deihl, William “Bud” (2009) Building from Content to Community: [Re]Thinking the Transition to Online Teaching and Learning, VCU, https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B6lhbAlGWX-IZC04V01MSHllRHc/view?usp=sharing