What the Best Teachers Do Online


I did a full day this week with faculty at Raritan Valley Community College as the first day of their three days of faculty technology and teaching days.

They were offering a lot of ways to supplement and expand the physical classroom with a learning management system and tools like Twitter, Google Drive, Pinterest, Google tools beyond Google search and YouTube. Some of this is aimed at online and hybrid teachers working on developing online components or flipping their classrooms with resources to do it like those mentioned and screencasting and Khan Academy.

The person who asked me to facilitate the first day said that she wanted to offer a kind of a National Great Teachers Movement retreat that brings teachers from different teaching fields together to explore teaching and learning, innovations and solutions. I was not familiar with that movement, although it goes back to 1969 when David Gottshall started it. It is not about teaching in a specific discipline, but rather on the art of teaching.

What I found appealing about the day - from my point of view - was that I was not being asked to give a talk or a presentation. I wasn't supposed to bring PowerPoint slides. I was to facilitate discussion using the collective wisdom of the group, their experiences and the creativity of the group.

Of course, that's also scary. What if people don't want to talk, share and do activities?

I suspect we all want to renew ourselves professionally and personally, but how much effort are we willing to put towards that?

I was familiar with Ken Bain's What the Best College Teachers Do which also examines what makes a great teacher great. Bain did a 15-year study of a hundred college teachers in a wide variety of fields and universities trying to figure out what the best teachers do.

If there is a short answer to the question, it might be that it actually is not what teachers do, it's what they understand.

He believes that the plans and assignments and lecture notes matter less than the way the best teachers comprehend the subject and value human learning.

I don't think that in the five hours I would have faculty in a room with me, that level of transformation could occur, but I did think we could start people down the path.

But the twist in my day beyond either of those other approaches is that we were talking about being a great teacher online.

Some of the topics we discussed were:
  • What is instructor presence in the online classroom? 
  • How do we best engage students? How do we, as teachers, stay engaged too?  The best teachers I ever had were engaged in their subject and that's why I was engaged in their class.
  • The importance of feedback to students and to teachers.
  • What does teaching online offer us a teachers that we don't get in a physical classroom? I like that because most of the time I hear teachers talk about what they can't do online that they can do face-to-face.
  • What can we learn from MOOCs? I don't think they will replace college courses or even online courses, but I know they will change how we do online learning and how we teach on and offline.
  • We all shared our own best practices of online pedagogy/methodology and of using the technology. We also shared the challenges of teaching online that persist even after doing it for years.

I did have some prepared materials in case the talk slowed down.  But it didn't slow down, so I gave out those materials on academic integrity online, prevention versus detection, and pedagogy compared to andragogy as readings to take away. They are good topics and ones teachers like to discuss, but we had plenty to talk about with the earlier topics.

And that's the way it was supposed to happen.