Thursday, January 21, 2016

10 ways online learning could make you a BETTER TEACHER

Time and time again, when dealing with teachers and academics, who have been seriously involved in online learning, I have found that they gained enormously from the experience. They become better teachers.

1. Makes teaching visible
Every professional can benefit from deeper reflection on their skills and practices. Participation in the design, development and delivery of an online experience will broaden and deepen the process of reflection. This not only leads to better performance but to the acquisition of new teaching skills. This is an example of what John Hattie called Visible learning, when teachers make things ‘visible’ to enhance their role through the evaluation of their own teaching. Hattie thinks that Visible Learning and Teaching occurs when teachers see learning through the eyes of students and when students, to a degree, become their own teachers. Online encourages a more evidence-based approach to both the profession and process. When you’re at a distance from learners you need to be a better teacher.

2. Crystallises content
Online learning lies naked on the screen, open to scrutiny in a way that is rarely true in the classroom or lecture hall. This forces you to be clear, precise and accurate. It also forces you to consider attention, chunking, elaboration, deliberate practice and other principles in good teaching that you may never previously taken to the wire. Invariably, the design, development and delivery of online content improves the quality of the content. Adaptive systems now even identify weak and erroneous assessment items. When thousands of students got an algebra question wrong on Coursera course, it had to be changed. Content production crystallises learning.

3. Media mix
If you’ve delivered largely chalk and talk in the classroom or lecture hall, you will now have to use text, graphics, diagrams, images, animation, audio and video to deepen understanding. This means cutting your text until it bleeds and lots of other editorial skills around the use of different media You will become more adept at understanding the power of different media in learning and finessing your media mix. See these lists of tips, some counter-intuitive, to understand the sheer range of these new media skills.

4. Free to actually teach
As you sit at more of a distance, it gives you the opportunity, not to be the transmitter of knowledge but more of a facilitator. Free from the task of repeated exposition, you can become a true teacher, attentive to the problems learners have on specific issues. If you doubt this, try it. By automating some of your good teaching practice on the exposition side, you can focus more on the art and practice of teaching. You are suddenly free from the repetitive tasks of repeating the same basic expository content to become a true teacher.

5. Fulsome feedback
For a number of years I have been involved in online degree courses, where the online students never meet their tutors or other students. Yet year after year they outperform their campus colleagues on the levels of degree they attain. This is down to the detailed, structured, archived and frequent dialogue and feedback they receive from their online tutors, who are forced to use online structures. Keith Devlin, Professor of Mathematics at Stanford, and MOOC veteran notes that many students feel intimidated in speaking back to academics as they have “insufficient confidence” and thinks that “there is good reason to believe that human connection through social media may be enough to have whatever effect is provided by the real thing”. In truth, he thinks that “shy students can perform much better in an online environment”.

6. Closer connection
The fact is, a student taking my MOOC can make a closer connection with me than if they were in a class of more than 25 or so students, and certainly more than in a class of 250” says Keith Devlin. He reminds us, that “in a large class, the student is not going to get my individual attention, so there is no loss there in learning in a MOOC, so a MOOC seems to offer more of me than a student would get in a regular, large class”. Interestingly, Devlin designs his courses and the style of presentation around this sense of intimacy. “I set out to create that same sense of the student sitting alongside me, one-on-one. If you can pull it off, it’s powerful. In particular, if you can create that feeling of intimate human connection, the student will overlook a lot of imperfections and problems.” Far from being a disembodied experience, learners often report intimate and good teaching.

7. Better assessor
Online delivery forces your hand on assessment. You can’t get away with primitive and destructive ‘hands up anyone’ strategies. You often have to identify, and tackle, common student misconceptions, as you have to counter them with concrete strategies. This is particularly true in adaptive courses, where you have to be explicit in the dependencies and networked structure of the knowledge. In addition, online automatically produces data. These analytics allow you to diagnose issues and take action, as a teacher, to improve the motivation and attainment of your learners.

8. Enhanced teaching
Try running a webinar online and you’ll soon learn to acquire skills on the use of the tool, monitor chat and questions, improve your presentation and teaching skills (see some tips here). In Arizona State University’s Biology BIO100 course, Susan Holechek, their most experienced instructor saw attainment rise from 72% in Spring to over 92% in the Fall, using an adaptive learning system, to enhance her teaching, “I think we had the perfect combination of a good system and good teacher” said the subsequent report. It is this combination of good teacher and good tech, in technology-enhanced-teaching, that makes a real difference to even experienced teachers.

9. More relevant
Like it or not technology, especially the internet, is a massively relevant cultural phenomenon. To ignore the online world, as a teacher, is to ignore the reality of changes in the world outside of educational institutions. There has, in my view, been more pedagogic change in last 20 years than last 2000 years, through the use of technology. Technology is more than a tool, it is part of every teacher and student’s life. In terms of relevance alone, it benefits teachers to understand and use what their learners are likely to use in their personal and working lives.

10. Teach more students
A point so often missed is that the online teacher and academic is likely to teach many more students that they would have in classrooms and lecture theatres. A school teacher over a lifetime will only teach a few thousand pupils, a lecturer far fewer. If your profession is to teach, then reaching the minds of tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, even millions, is surely a noble goal.


Sure, there’s the intimacy of the classroom and the human side of face-to-face teaching. But rather than being behind closed doors in a classroom or lecture hall, online teaching forces you to become a more visible and, in my view, a better teacher. You hone existing skills, enhance others and learn new teaching methods. That stretches you as a professional.

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