As I connected this morning, I learned about a new research study from MIT that has discovered that humans are more important than technology in the context of learning. While you may be wondering why we needed research to discover this, I felt energized by the findings of this study, as I perceived it to be a validation of the importance of a present, engaged instructor in the experiences of online students. However, after examining the article more closely, it became apparent to me that it is more evidence of a general misunderstanding about what “online learning” can be. The Inside Higher Ed article notes, “Online education can offer personalized pathways through course content with short lecture videos and well-timed quizzes that help students retain knowledge, the report reads, but it is most effective in a blended setting where students regularly interact with faculty members face-to-face.” This description diminishes the uniqueness and benefits that online learning can deliver and indicates that blended learning is as good as online gets. This is a gross mischaracterization of online learning, which was noted by @HFMudd in the comments of the article, and evidence of the rhetoric that taints mainstream perceptions about online teaching and learning.
The nature of online classes varies dramatically, much like face-to-face classes. But, in both scenarios, the teacher matters and the teaching matters. When an online class is taught by an engaged and empathetic instructor who seeks to be aware of the needs of her students, the asynchronous nature of online learning may become a benefit to students, not a disadvantage. This is contingent upon the design of the course, which is where instructional designers or “learning engineers” can play an important role. Many instructors, however, play both roles — and those who do are often the professors who experience deep transformations in their face-to-face classes as a result of what they learned from teaching online.
Learning is a process that unfolds over time. In a face-to-face class, the actions in a classroom are a valuable part of that learning, but students don’t instantly “learn” upon receipt of instruction. This is something that teaching online can help faculty to recognize and lead them to enhancing their face-to-face instruction with opportunities for students to interact and reflect online between class sessions. An online class that is designed with scaffolded opportunities for students to engage in low stake, formative assessments provides learners with an environment that can align more closely with the rhythm of their learning. The rhythm of learning is highly variable and this is another reason why online classes can be so empowering for students, especially those who feel left out and disengaged in traditional instructional settings. The opportunity to engage with media in a variety of modalities multiple times or to read or listen to peer conversations more than once, and the ability to revise one’s thoughts over time by adding on to a conversation, engage with diverse opinions and perspectives from individuals beyond the course roster — these are unique qualities of online learning that benefit students.
The finding from the study that encourages institutions to invest in people and processes over technology is powerful. But we need to be careful about how we frame this. While faculty/teachers are central to meaningful online class experiences, faculty must feel inspired to teach online. Teaching online is not easy and the luxurious visions that faculty have of teaching in pajamas or from the beach quickly fade away. Teaching online well takes a lot of time and many iterations. But it also requires faculty to make a mind shift in order to see the unique and beautiful opportunities that an online class opens for learning. While some may begin by asking, “How will I do this without a classroom?” after teaching online many start to realize, “I could never do this in a classroom!”
Despite this, too often we hear about the online students who go weeks without a response from a professor, describe their class as a series of tasks, and have no sense of who their peers are or even what their instructor looks like or sounds like. These classes are not taught by inspired online instructors. These classes are most likely taught by faculty who do not feel they’re doing something important. And when we examine the rhetoric about online classes in mainstream higher education discourse, it’s not surprising. The perception that an online class can’t be transformative or memorable trickles down within the structures of our organizations — it’s there, but we may not see it. In the past two weeks, I’ve traveled to two higher education events. Here are two comments that have stuck with me about online learning:
I teach online, but my dean told me not to tell anyone in my program. He’s concerned that everyone will want to do it.
We offer online classes at our institution, but they are all taught by part-time instructors. Full-time faculty can teach online, but only as overloads.
These comments demonstrate just a couple of ways organizational processes marginalize teaching online. I share these to help convey that a warm body teaching an online class is not necessarily going to result in an effective learning experience for students. Yes, humans are more important than technology, but inspiring faculty should be our goal. Our organizational cultures need to embrace online learning as unique. We need to be supporting faculty by immersing them in engaging, meaningful online classes as part of their preparation to become great online instructors. When our organizational practices convey a hierarchy between face-to-face and online classes, that hierarchy will translate into the attitudes of the instructors who teach those classes.
How different would things be if teaching online was a badge of honor, as opposed to a dirty little secret?