Review of a Thought-Provoking Podcast Episode about Online Teaching
Although it came out in December 2017, I only recently discovered an episode of the Teach Better podcast devoted to online learning: “Teaching Online with Doug, Edward, and Laura Gibbs.” This episode is worthwhile listening for anyone who teaches online or is considering branching into the world of online teaching. Since my bread-and-butter teaching is online, I couldn’t resist the opportunity to respond to Doug, Edward, and Laura’s ideas. In this episode, podcast hosts Doug and Edward describe their own experiences teaching online and interview Laura Gibbs, a veteran online teacher who has been refining the same two courses for more than ten years. One of the most useful things about this Teach Better episode is that the discussion balances high-level reflection with nitty-gritty specifics. Listeners will come away thinking about the nature of online education, and also with a variety of concrete examples to consider incorporating or modifying for their own teaching.
I appreciated the hosts’ acknowledgement that online learning is, in many ways, both more intensive and more intimate than face-to-face instruction. As Doug and Edward point out, a lot of work must be visible in an online class that’s invisible in a traditional academic setting. In a face-to-face semester, students may only have a few graded deliverables (the hosts note the typical “short paper, long paper, midterm, final”); simply showing up and sitting in the classroom for the requisite number of hours per week is supposed to suggest that students are keeping up. By contrast, in most asynchronous online classes, students must prove that they’re “present” and keeping up through a constant stream of deliverables, so the instructor actually can get to know her online students better than in-person ones. I’ve certainly found this to be true in my own online courses, in which students have weekly assignments or discussion. After just a few weeks, I find that I start to recognize the writing voice, critical approach, and interests of the students. Sometimes people who don’t teach online or take online classes assume that online learning is more impersonal, detached, or entirely self-paced, and I think that the perspective shared by Doug, Edward, and Laura provides an important corrective.
Another general theme in this episode of Teach Better is “incorporating choices in course design.” Laura describes how she gives her students a huge array of choice in everything from assignments to reading selections. For instance, she says that students can choose from seven or eight extra credit assignment options each week. Laura conceives of this open, student-centered course design as a kind of laboratory to discover which assignments and readings work well, and which students gravitate towards. This sounds a little exhausting to me as an instructor, but the general idea of providing options is great! Laura’s ideas resonate with Universal Design for Learning, which I’ve been trying to incorporate more into my own teaching in recent semesters, and I think she’s correct that adding choices gives students a greater stake in their own educational experience and makes the course feel more personally meaningful to students.
Not all of the specific teaching practices that Doug, Edward, and Laura will be things that everyone wants to try, but there’s likely to be something in here that listeners will find interesting. For example, the hosts talk extensively about “second chances” on papers and exams, which is something that I’ve been slowly attempting to incorporate in some of my classes. I’m also intrigued by their discussion of building more opportunities for reflection into a class, which is something that I think I could do better.
Other suggestions and emphases didn’t resonate with me as much. Laura and the podcast hosts are fired up about using blogs, and they argue that blogs are best for fostering classroom community and enabling students to express themselves. Laura says that her students “don’t like discussion boards ... no student has ever said ‘I like this class but gosh I wish we could have used the discussion boards.’” I’ve tried blogs in my teaching, and I never found them to be especially satisfying or effective.
This may be a topic for another essay entirely, but here are a couple of the reasons that I prefer discussion forums to blogs. Some corners of the internet are a graveyard of abandoned blogs, where students were required to post during one class and then never did anything else with the space they had created. Moreover, discussion forums housed within the LMS enable students to share their ideas in a private space, as opposed to asking them to create public blogs. Finally, I think there’s more opportunity for real back-and-forth on discussion forums, when they’re done right, plus it’s easier to review everyone’s contributions to the conversation because they’re all in one space rather than spread out over comments on multiple sites. In short, discussion forums have worked well in my online classes. Laura Gibbs sounds like she has an excellent and enthusiastic system worked out for handling blogs, but I don’t see myself switching to that format.
If you’re interesting in online pedagogy, check out this podcast episode! You’ll be certain to come away with ideas and inspiration. I know that I’ll be subscribing to see what Doug and Edward have to say about other teaching-related topics.