Becoming the Teacher You Really Want to Be – Online

Teacher and children in front of sod schoolhouse. Woods Co., Okla. Terr., ca. 1895.
Teacher and children in front of sod schoolhouse. Woods Co., Okla. Terr., ca. 1895.

Most people think they know what it takes to be a good teacher; in particular, most college instructors think they know how to do it and feel confident that they’re pretty good at it. Except for those few of us who have received formal education in how to teach, we model our approach to teaching on how we ourselves were taught. Almost every successful academic has had teachers that they loved, from grade school through secondary education to college and graduate school. Most of us revere the best teachers, the ones that changed our lives and gave us the motivation, skill, courage, and persistence to succeed. We want to be like those teachers that we respect and love, and we want our students to feel about us like we felt about those teachers that we loved and we believed loved us in return.

Now, toss into the mix the discontinuity in human history called the Internet. The fundamental nature of how we create, store, access, synthesize and share knowledge has undergone radical change within the lifetimes of nearly every college instructor; these changes have had profound impacts on music, on libraries, on retail commerce, on medicine. We know more about how people learn than ever before, and the tantalizing possibility that we can build machines that can collect data and adapt to human behavior in real time is constantly touted as just on the horizon. And yet, despite the constant drumbeat of disruption, the vast majority of post-secondary instructors teach in ways that are more like the way they were taught than they are different.

At the same time, there’s more online instruction than ever before, and the amount grows yearly. In this environment, the combination of economic and social pressure as well as student demand has provided incentives and pressures – positive and negative – for instructors to teach partly or fully online. A few hardy souls jump at the exciting possibilities afforded by teaching in the online environment, but it’s more common to find a combination of reluctance, dread, fear, uncertainty and even downright hostility.

When this happens against the background of tightening university budgets and the continued growth in the dependence on contingent faculty, it’s easy to attribute the negativity to fear of losing one’s job or being marginalized as a mere attendant to the teaching machine, and such fear is not unfounded. Attacks on tenure, tightening academic budgets, growing student debt, and aggressive competition from profit-motivated competitors are all real, and present threats to faculty pay, prerogatives, and independence. Online education has become associated in many people’s minds with these economic and political forces, and the myth that online models such as MOOCs will destroy traditional models of higher education, within a short period of time, is promulgated by lazy media and self-promoters.

But leave all that aside for a moment if you can and put yourself in the shoes of an experienced faculty member becoming an online instructor. Assume that navigating the technology is not that bad, that the interface is decent and the system doesn’t go down when your students have an assignment due, and that they all have devices that will let them access the online system when and where they need it. Assume there’s good training and technical support, that the instructor can get answers to her questions and friendly and talented help with her course design, and students can get answers to their technology questions without having to chase after the instructor. Even with all that, there is a fundamental and difficult shift that each instructor has to make.

Every post secondary instructor has had those teachers whose memory they honor, and that form the models for how they teach. But how many of today’s instructors have positive memories of being successful online learners, of the wonderful online instructor who cared about them, knew them by name, stood (virtually) by them and helped them to succeed? Where are the online instructors that can use as their models, the people they want to be for their students when they teach online?

Success in a new endeavor depends on a belief that you can succeed. The first step in becoming a successful online instructor is to be able to imagine yourself in that role. When you never had the experience of being a successful online student, with an online instructor who motivated you and cared about you and believed in you, you are going to have a really tough time believing you can be that kind of teacher yourself in an online environment.

This is the biggest thing that we do for instructors at CI to help bring them into their new roles as online teachers. Through our “Humanizing Online Instruction” course, we give them the opportunity to be an online learner with a talented and caring teacher. They find that they can develop a deep and meaningful personal relationship with Michelle Pacansky-Brock, our brilliant online learning specialist. We’ve seen the results and we know it makes a difference. There’s still many challenges and barriers to becoming a good online teacher, but I believe that the first step – being able to imagine yourself as successful in that role – is of great importance and that it helps ease our instructors through the challenges that will be ahead.

In ten or twenty years it will be a lot different. We will have faculty who will remember that online instructor in high school or college, the one that really cared. The one they chatted with about their deepest fears and hopes, the one that believed in them when no one else did. And those teachers will not find it odd in the least to become online teachers – it will be a natural progression. But until we get there we will have to help give our instructors great online experiences and models if we expect them to be effective at teaching our students.

photo credit: Marion Doss via Flickr (CC BY-SA-2)

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