I have been teaching online courses for more than eight years now. I was one of the first at my previous institution to transition a face-to-face (F2F) course to a 100% online course and now, in addition to my F2F courses, I also teach for two fully online institutions. However, I still find many of my F2F colleagues reluctant to make that transition.
I realize that some courses do better lend themselves to being taught online. For example, I don’t teach biochemistry, but I can see where this might be a difficult class to transition to an online format; although I know some schools have done it. There are pros and cons to online courses, just like F2F courses, but for me, transitioning many of my courses online made me think in a different way about teaching and learning. Here’s why.
For one thing, the infrastructure of an online course is not the same as a F2F course so it does require different thinking around how best to design your course. In the traditional F2F course, the instructor typically stands in front of the class and professes. Many instructors have spent years accumulating knowledge and countless hours preparing and refining their lecture notes, and they feel it’s their job to lecture and the students’ job to take notes. To be sure, instructors can and do integrate active learning strategies into their classrooms but, by and large, the classroom dynamics haven’t changed all that much. In the F2F model, students are often passive consumers of information. They “consume” what the class —primarily the instructor—has to offer, memorize what they can, take a test, and be done with the information forever.
Online teaching is different. First, all those lecture notes the instructors have prepared over the years become useless. On a positive note, instructors can still use their PowerPoints as a teaching tool, and many of the same assignments can be adapted and applied. Second, what becomes more important is the ability to establish high-quality group discussions and manage them effectively in an asynchronous environment. This can be difficult because it forces the instructor to zero in on the heart of the course, and they have to ask, “What are the core pieces of information the students absolutely must understand and how do I create a question around it that can be discussed in depth?” The questions become vitally important. And isn’t that what learning is about? Aren’t the questions and the type of thinking they generate more important than the answers?
In the online environment, it becomes less about the instructor being the expert who professes and more about guiding the students in connecting what they are reading to the bigger picture. Now honestly, in doing this for my online courses, I became a better F2F instructor as well. Once I let go of “me” being the expert and thinking that “I” had to provide all of the relevant content and information, I began to see and trust that students can learn in a largely peer-based model with me guiding them through the process. I also was able to incorporate more and more of that type of learning into my F2F classes as well.
Now instead of the usual lecture-centric assignments and assessment model, I rely heavily on peer-based learning techniques and online assignments that force independent thinking and information gathering. My lectures have become shorter, more interactive, and less frequent. I find that students really like this approach, although some do struggle because they are accustomed to passively consuming the information as opposed to becoming active participants in their learning.
Still, overall, teaching online has made me a better F2F instructor because it forced me to think outside of my comfort zone — something I expect of students every day.
Dr. Tiffany M Reiss has more than 12 years in higher education as an instructor, scholar, leader and administrator.