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Online teaching works best when a learning community is nurtured
Teaching online is, in many ways, the same as face-to-face teaching. It is about engaging your students and inspiring them to do well. However, to think that online teaching is simply about transferring the material you’d use in face-to-face teaching to an online mode of communication is to misunderstand what online learning is about; it also reduces teaching to material(knowledge) transmission. But that’s not why students learn with you – they learn with you, because you inspire them to engage with material and to take the steps towards learning.
The key about delivering teaching online is not about the technology necessarily (though obviously being comfortable with the tools you have to use helps), or about how much material you’ve made available. It’s about thinking about everything you lose by being online and not having face-to-face contact, and carefully thinking through the student’s learning journey online – and, crucially, what can be done to guide them in this.
When we were told a few weeks’ back that all of our teaching would have to be delivered online, I was one of the lucky ones. I didn’t know that well the specific technology my current University uses, but I was very familiar with the principles of teaching online, having led (and taught) for ten years an MA entirely taught online and having done my own postgraduate qualification in online teaching. So, I went back to core principles in online teaching: keep it simple, keep your students with you, and don’t forget that learning is about far more than material(knowledge) transmission. But I know that the reaction has been mainly about “moving” material online for students to access. This is understandable seeing how quickly most of us had to do this.
But as we move towards a term where we may need to carry on teaching online, it may be worth reflecting on what is different about online learning and what can be done to make sure students learn just as well online.
Think about what you lose by going online – the university physical space, students bumping into each other in corridors, students meeting up outside university, facial cues which may tell you a lot about how a student may be feeling, the simple fact of everyone knowing which classroom they’re likely to be going to, and what to do to take notes from a lecture. By moving teaching online, we’re moving to a new space and a different mode of learning. To assume that students know exactly what this will be about and what the associated expectations are, is to take for granted all that we do instinctively day in, day out, when we teach in a face-to-face class.
But if you consider the online space as a new space, and the online learning as a new mode of learning, then you’ll start getting a feel for what needs to be done to guide your students in their learning. In many ways, it is about a similar experience to an overseas student’s first experiences with our teaching in the UK; for many, it is a new way of learning.
This is why I’d say that the two key elements for online teaching are to communicate clearly and regularly with your students, and to include the non-academic into the teaching.
In practical terms this is reflected in things such as giving your students clear instructions on the tools you’ll use for teaching, and what for, where to find materials, how classes will be delivered, what will be expected from all involved, how the online tools will work. Short, regular and frequent messages/instructions works best, providing a continuity of contact. This can be done via email, can also be done via messages in the actual online space you’re using – most include a feature for Discussions/Forums, which could be used to explain the mode of teaching, queries from students about assessment etc (this also reduces the individual email traffic, and is more helpful to all students). It’s about scaffolding the teaching material with all the elements that we would usually take for granted, but that online need to be more explicit to make sure you’re taking students with you, you’re keeping students engaged.
But the continuity of contact, the messages, the forums about the process of learning, are all also about keeping a learning community. Students learn best if they feel they are part of a community. In the same way then it may also be worth having tasks, spaces, that are not purely about academic work; a simple task such as asking about people’s pets, goes a long way to make people feel they belong to a group (she says, cat owner;)).
Think also though about what you gain. For instance, by moving online, you don’t need to deliver all of your classes synchronously, as you do with a traditional seminar. You can do it over a week, asynchronously, and make the most of the time this allows students to think better about their responses, to develop more thought through discussions, better critical analysis, more reflection. A written based discussion forum can also build into a very useful resource for students. Though the key to make them participate are those clear and regular instructions, and the feeling they belong to a group and that they want to be part of it; as they would do in a physical classroom at the University.
Teaching online isn’t therefore simply about “moving” content online. It is about scaffolding learning and nurturing a learning community. It is about creating a learning environment students become familiar with, are comfortable with, and want to engage with.
Cristina Leston-Bandeira is Professor of Politics at the University of Leeds. She is also an HEA National Teaching Fellow. She tweets @estrangeirada.