Seven things I’d want to know as a new online teacher

This started as a “things I wish I knew” list, but these are the biggies I’ve learned in 12 years of teaching online:

1. Save everything on your own hard drive.
Course management systems, and access to them, come and go. I now create all quizzes, discussion prompts and extensive directions (the things I plug into a CMS) in plain text files, then use copy-and-paste to put them into whatever system.

2. Serve yourself.
Serve your creations from a server where you rent space rather than the college’s server — link to or embed everything. You never know who’ll decide they own your stuff, or when resources won’t be available. And that “Web 2.0” company (think Ning) could go premium or be gone entirely tomorrow.

3. Trying to reduce workload can lead to better creativity.
Most online classes at public institutions contain too many students. Learning techniques of grouping students, clustering assignments, and using templates for activities is invaluable.

4. Online teaching is its own discipline, and we need to study it.
It’s not just a “method of delivery” or a “format” — it’s its own field, with a whole community of practitioners in K-12, college, training and consulting. It pays to be in touch with people who know the latest trends. Entire careers are being built by people who know nothing about teaching, but get advanced degrees researching it so they can get jobs and tell you what to do. Not knowing the jargon or the research, and being able to critique it, could mean less autonomy in your own work.

5. Knowing HTML will be a boon more times than you can count.
Entering (or copying and pasting — see #1) text into WYSIWYG editors inside various systems does not give you enough control. When something goes wrong (the text looks bad, the paragraph doesn’t indent correctly, the bulleting is mixed up) , clicking on < > and fixing it saves loads of time. Also, knowing just a bit of code means you can use other people’s cool ideas and plug them in yourself.

6. Sharing is important.
Current trends show that the “wild west” nature of the open web is moving toward more closed applications (think Facebook). Large media companies now dominate the web, but so far, access is low-threshold. This means we can share our work with each other just by putting it on the open web. Innovation, help, ideas, and reflection result from doing this.

7. Content isn’t a course.
More and more universities (Harvard, MIT, Berkeley) are offering their lectures freely and openly. But content isn’t a course — just plugging in someone else’s material doesn’t make it a class, much less your class. This is also true of publisher-created content. Student’s highest priority remains learning from the teacher, whether directly or through the pedagogy designed by the instructor. If you’re not creating the content pathway and facilitating the learning at every step, you’re not the teacher.

4 thoughts to “Seven things I’d want to know as a new online teacher”

  1. Lisa, I’d like to hear more on your thoughts of online teaching being a field in itself. I can’t quite follow your rationale, whether you think it’s a “good” or “bad” thing that entire careers are being created by people who know nothing about teaching…… etc.

  2. Well, if you sense frustration at being told what is the “best practice” and “the way” to educate students online, it’s definitely there. There are many ways to skin this cat, and I’ve seen “studies” where n=7 used to justify telling teachers how to teach. I have also seen a number of people get PhDs and MAs based on such studies, who then come in to institutions (not mine, yet), collect “content teams” and set up canned courses (think not only National University and Rio Salado). Online teaching has thus become its own discipline via Instructional Design and Educational Technology as professions, but it’s possible (and, I think, desirable) for online instructors to keep up in the field so they can talk back to power.

  3. Ah ok. No I didn’t sense any frustration really. I just didn’t have a sense of where you were coming from. I do however agree with your assessment of the landscape, even as one of those ed techy people, who didn’t btw base her phd research on crappy studies ;). I think ID and edtech are vital though to the design process, and a lot of design has to take place for online teaching and learning to be effective, like I’m sure you know. So to frame onlineness in terms of primarily “teaching” doesn’t work for me, simply because the word conjures something that looks very different online for most people. I also though don’t rely solely on id discourses, but have found a wealth of understanding in the online research literature. Now that’s a field in itself too, one that has a lot to offer educating online.

    Association of Internet Researchers

  4. Yes, exactly – and I’m so glad you didn’t misunderstand! My best friends these days are educational technologists, and there is so much to learn. I’m sorry if it seemed I was trying to frame all of being online, or even sharing online, but my own emphasis is teaching, which I think I may see as more organic than some. And that wealth of understanding is something I think teachers should be exposed to firsthand.

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