No more online teaching conferences for me

I believe in keeping up in my area of expertise, or at least one of them: online teaching. Having just attended a conference on online teaching, my first in many years, I have one take-way:

The issues are exactly the same as they were twenty years ago.

The main affordance of online learning is anytime/anywhere education, as it has always been. Distance education allows people who could not come to campus to learn with formal guidance. This is the exact same benefit as correspondence courses of a century ago.

The challenges of online learning are the same also. Recent large surveys of instructors and students show that the weaknesses of students are self-discipline and time management. For instructors, it’s creating courses that are hard to navigate, and not responding in a quick and friendly manner to students.

Navigating these same issues are newly minted PhDs in instructional design, distance education, and various academic subjects. To them, it seems, all this is new. The recommendations, however, are the same: we need to help motivate students and hold their hand, get training so we create navigable courses, and answer student requests promptly.

The problems with these recommendations are also the same. Hand-holding and continual reminders undermine a student’s ability to develop their own resources of self-discipline and organization. Cookie-cutter courses undermine the creativity and academic freedom of instructors. And answering student requests promptly is mere politeness, and should not require rules other than those of basic human consideration.

In fact, the only change I saw is in the heavy-handed focus on policies, learning management systems, requirements, and training. For me, these should always take a back seat to pedagogy. And yet, there was little about pedagogy at the conference. My notes amount to half a page of large printing.

Perhaps the merging I had always hoped for is happening. Perhaps one could attend teaching conferences, and it wouldn’t matter whether that teaching took place in a classroom or online. I think I’ll give that a try.

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