Online teaching and excellence

Image of a globe on a light, McGill University. Photo by Smallman

I’ve been teaching online for several years now, and it’s become not only the only way I teach, but also the impetus for some of my research. For me, moving my teaching online led me to change my pedagogy. I have become an advocate of both Universal Design and the Negotiated Syllabus, which not only create more inclusive classes, but also engage students in their own learning. I began to use Turnitin not so much to catch plagiarism, but as a tool for students to learn how to paraphrase and cite correctly. It also became one part of a lengthy process of peer review that I now use to teach students that by adopting an iterative process they can transform their writing. I’ve also revamped my assignments so that they develop particular skills, such as the ability to locate, manipulate, and interpret data. When I look at my syllabi now, they are far different than they were a decade ago. Even though I had more than once won teaching awards for my face to face teaching. I think that my online classes are better than their face to face (F2F) predecessors.

Yet, what is interesting is that not only do many of my colleagues not believe that online classes have academic rigor, but also people that I meet outside of academia are confused by the idea online teaching at all. When I tell people that I teach online the most common response is “Don’t you miss your students?” I always reply that what I like about online teaching is that I come to know my students so much better. In a regular class you come to know six or seven students well. These are the students who talk the most. In my classes, however, forty percent of the grade typically is based on discussion. So I come to know everyone, because they are required to engage in the class. Friendships are born on the discussion board. And there is always an introvert the first week who writes: “I don’t normally have this much to say but. . . “I also believe that we are living in an era defined by digital globalization, in which digital citizenship skills are critical. Being able to express yourself carefully online, to know how to use digital research tools, and to be comfortable with spreadsheets and other technology are life skills. These skills are central to my courses. Lastly, the negotiated syllabus is a tool -I think- that most faculty should use in upper-division and graduate classes. While it’s certainly possible to use this approach in a face to face class, there are far more possibilities in an online course.

Yet I am constantly struggling with colleagues who think that face to face classes are the standard, and that online classes should be measured against them.  The fact that online classes typically enroll better only makes these classes more of a target. It can become dispiriting. For this reason it was a delighted when an old friend shared with me this article by Kevin Gannon, “Teaching Online will make you a better teacher in any setting” from the Chronicle of Higher Education.

The reality is that most public universities have access as part of their mission, and that online classes fulfill this core value. The universities with a strong online presence are also those that are growing their faculty. If you are a graduate student hoping to find employment, this can be a dispiriting time. One small liberal arts college after another is closing in New England. And there have been similar trends in other regions. While private institutions are closing, public institutions are consolidating. In this climate, Southern New Hampshire University is thriving and growing, mainly because of its online focus. The university has been moving from one piece of good news to another: “U.S. News & World Report announced today that SNHU has been named the most innovative university in the north for the fifth consecutive year.” This transition is happening, and there will be jobs for those who are prepared to teach online. And this change is a good thing. As Gannon’s article shows, online teaching creates a space for new pedagogies, innovation and creativity.

We recently had an external review in the department. At the end of their visit they met with the department faculty to share their findings. One point the committee chair made was that during their meeting with students the outside reviewers had heard how students felt a deep sense of engagement in my online classes. They were curious how I achieved that.  The secret is centering discussion in the course structure, building the course around Universal Design principles, and adopting a negotiated syllabus. Indeed, I take the latter approach even further. Typically, all of the work in the course shell for the final week is the material that the students have created in the class. Every time, the students are delighted by the papers, slideshows, videos and other digital artifacts that their peers have created during a lengthy process of peer review and revision. This process of peer review itself creates student engagement and a sense of community. Online classes don’t fail to engage students, or just teach rote learning. They are a wonderful opportunity to rethink old pedagogies in the digital era, and to empower students to achieve extraordinary things.

Curious about online teaching? Read my tips for administrators seeking to develop online offerings. Or read my post on the politics of online teaching. Or you can read my syllabus for an online class on digital globalization. If you’re thinking about trying online teaching, my one piece of advice is to not to try to simply recreate your old course in an online environment. Your class and your students will thrive when you you reinvent it.

Want to see some cool classroom assignments? Check out this blog post on infographics.

Brown, K., David, R., & Smallman, S. (2017). Adopting the Principles of Universal Design into International and Global Studies’ Programs and Curriculum. Journal of International & Global Studies.

Shawn Smallman, 2019 

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