Reflections on My First Great Online Teachers Seminar (GOTS)

About 13 years ago, I attended a 5-day retreat in Santa Barbara, called a Great Teachers Seminar. At the time, I was teaching full-time at Sierra College, a California Community College, and had two small children. I heard about this opportunity through my institution’s staff development center and was intrigued. I was required to “apply” for the opportunity to attend and, if I was selected, my travel, accommodations, and registration would be funded by my college. I applied and I was awarded the opportunity to go. Receiving the chance to attend  felt amazing, but little did I know the event would leave a lasting mark on me.


The 5-day Great Teachers Seminar in Santa Barbara started in 1979. With support from the Faculty Association of California Community Colleges, it attracting about 50-60 educators each summer. The Santa Barbara event is just one node in  the National Great Teachers Movement, which originated back in the 1960s by founder David Gottshall. Click here for more about the movement and its history. For me, the history of GTS  didn’t really matter at the time. What mattered was being given the experience to immerse myself in an intensive multi-day experience with dozens of other educators, as we searched for the great teacher within us. The seminar was entirely grassroots. There was a leader and several hard working facilitators, but the event itself had no pre-prepared content. It was presented to us as an empty bowl — it is here for you to fill with your own ideas and needs.

Over the years, as I grew into an online instructor, I often reflected on my experiences in Santa Barbara. During the seminar I attended, online teaching was not raised at all in the context of the seminar conversations.  I nudged some peers who attended more recently and they noted that the conversations at the GTS they went to were explicitly focused on teaching in a classroom. Last June, my institution funded me to attend an International Great Teachers Leadership Institute in Bryce Canyon. This gave me to opportunity to convene with a group of faculty developers who organize GTSs. That experience gave me a place to put out the idea of starting Great Online Teachers Seminars (GOTS) and receive ideas about how to get started.


This past Monday, June 19th, I had the honor of facilitating my first Great Online Teachers  Seminar at the Online Teaching Conference in Anaheim, CA. It was attended by 24 faculty (23 from the CCC system and 1 from the CSU system). The event was one-day long, providing room for a rather curtailed version of a GTS, but it was still wonderful! I went into this event with a concerted effort to integrate the use of technology in a mindful way. Technology typically is not part of a GTS and I wanted to ensure that I respect the culture of the seminar, while using technology to enhance participant learning. As such, the participants were invited to access a Google Site I created to view a brief introductory video from me, review the expectations for the day, and complete a set of “pre-work” items. Prior to attending, they complete a form that provided me with their Google Account email address. I then shared a Google Doc and a Google Slide presentation with them. In their individual Doc, each participant shared a “Trick of the Trade,” which was intended to be something about their online teaching that they feel proud of and want to share. Each person also was given edit access to Google Slides, in which they customized their own slide and contributed to the creation of a group directory.

notecard agenda for GOTS

On the day of the event, I clutched four note cards (shown above) that included my scribbled agenda for the day. This was a shift for me, but I kept replaying a piece of advice in my mind that I received at the Bryce Canyon event last year, “Trust the process.” I did. And I’m glad I did.  The agenda was not shared with participants in advance, as I expected it to be fluid  to accommodate the needs of the group.

When the day began, I had a sense of who each person was as they entered the room and so did others who took the time to review the pre-work items. Participants  spent the morning engaging in some fun and simple ice breakers, discussing  an online teaching problem in small groups, engaging in an activity that I called “two corners” (which I expand on below), and sharing individual Tricks of the Trade in a large circle. After lunch, in our large circle, we shared qualities of an individual who has inspired our online teaching in some way and then continued with sharing Tricks of the Trade. Each person shared a reflection on the day before we departed at 4pm.

Sharing in large-circle. By Michelle Pacansky-Brock CC-BY

Sharing of online teaching practices and problems was the core of our day together. But I wanted to ensure that participants had opportunities to identify and discuss institutional aspects of online teaching too. These are the topics I am always thirsty to learn about at conferences, but rarely feel fulfilled about at the end of the day. The “Two Corners” activity gave us the platform to reach this objective.  For this activity, faculty stood in a central location in the room. Then I spoke an opinion-based statement and faculty went to one of two corners, signaling whether they agreed or disagreed with the statement. I had pre-scripted statements and got started with them, but as I listened to the conversation during the activity, I made some shifts based on the interests of the group. Topics I shared included: Teaching is valued at my institution. Online teaching is valued at my institution. And after a hearty conversation about accessibility surfaced, I added: “My institution provides me with adequate support to create accessible courses.” I am not sharing explicit details of the faculty viewpoints here to respect the privacy of those who attended, but I will summarize by saying most participants felt online teaching is not as valued as “teaching” in general at their institution and very few felt they receive adequate accessibility support. Also, all participants agreed that teaching online has made them a better face-to-face teacher.

After the event, I asked participants to complete a feedback survey. So far, I’ve received 8 responses. When asked, “What was your favorite part of the event,” here’s what faculty shared (this is unedited):

  • Being given the opportunity to share and listen to others. Having the material after I return home.
  • The sense of community since we are often so isolated in our work as online educators.
  • The format provided time for deep discussion.
  • Do I really have to name just one?
  • Collaborating with my peers.
  • The opportunity to network with other online instructors and share practices and ideas – because it’s lonely out there… I liked the “affiliation” corners and the conversations they sparked (this side for yes and that side for no, etc.) I liked the pre-work prep – once I got to it. It makes a great resource.
  • Hearing from other instructors. Instant polls. Michelle.
  • Sharing individual Tricks of the Trade

When I asked, “What is one thing you’d like to change,” here are the unedited responses:

  • I can’t think of anything.
  • More time 🙂
  • Multiple days.
  • Maybe make it more Canvas specific, since all or almost all of us will be using Canvas by next June.
  • I can’t imagine that there would be time for this but I would have really enjoyed seeing a few exemplary classes in their entirety. I think you did a really good job with the Tricks of the Trade idea but I would have really enjoyed seeing how these innovations fit into the larger course schema.
  • Nothing in particular.
  • Nothing
  • I would extend it over more days

As I move forward after this event, it is my hope that this is the first of many Great Online Teachers Seminars. We are all participants in this endeavor, as GTSs and GOTs can come in all shapes and sizes. Higher education is lacking a culture that celebrates great online teaching and I believe GOTS can play a powerful role in doing so. I am grateful for the opportunity to share a day with 24 dedicated online instructors.  And I look forward to co-facilitating a GOTS in  Asheville, North Carolina this October with Steve Smith (there’s still room if you’d like to join us).

In closing, I’d like to thank Teaching and Learning Innovations at CSU Channel Islands for supporting my attendance at OTC and the opportunity to facilitate GOTS. And thanks to the OTC planning committee for including GOTS as a pre-conference seminar.


2 Comments to “Reflections on My First Great Online Teachers Seminar (GOTS)”

  1. Awesome write-up Michelle! As I travel around to various colleges, the need for deep discussions about online teaching is apparent. Our October 2017 GOTS in Asheville will truly be a cutting edge event in promoting a positive culture in celebrating & highlighting online teaching practice.


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