One of the most enjoyable aspects of my current work is the training and working with teachers to deliver live lessons online. It is really insightful to observe how some teachers structure and utilise technology to present and teach their subject to learners worldwide.
From these observations, it has been possible for me to identify 3 broad styles or types of delivery employed by teachers online. While I’m not yet in a position to identify which approach is the most successful, the easiest or the best to adopt in online teaching, I thought it might be useful to identify and outline each of these approaches.
The first approach is one in which the teacher tries to replicate as far as possible, the same experience that a student would get in a face-to-face session. This approach is often based upon a philosophy that the purpose of online teaching is to bring face-to-face or classroom teaching to distant students. In this approach, the ideal would be for the technology to be ‘invisible’, for the connection to simply ‘work’ and for the focus to be on the subject matter just as it would be in a real classroom. This approach has the advantages in that the teacher , and indeed the student, does not need to be technically savvy; the teacher just needs to teach a subject in a manner similar to classroom delivery. A disadvantage could be that if the teacher’s classroom teaching is not good, putting it online is not going to make it any better; poor classroom teaching when put online only leads to poor online teaching (and there’s probably already too much of that!).
A problem with this approach is that, as we all know, technology doesn’t always work as it should (or as we believe it should!). When technology doesn’t automatically do what we want it to do, then we need to have enough skills or information to get it to do what we want. This is true for an online teacher just as much as it is for any other user of technology. So to be an effective online teacher, you do need to be tech savvy or to have immediate and effective support available to you.
Another problem behind this approach is that there is often an underlying assumption that face-to-face teaching is always better or preferable than online teaching. The only purpose of online teaching in this approach is to overcome the distance between teacher and student. As most of my own teaching experience has been face-to-face, I used to have some sympathy with the belief that face-to-face teaching is better than online teaching, however, my work in training and observing online teaching has led me to question this.
This leads nicely to the second approach which I have seen in several online teachers. This approach views online teaching almost as a different pedagogy from classroom or face-to-face teaching. This approach regards the technology as more than just a delivery mechanism; it is also seen as a resource (or range of resources) which can be utilised to present and engage students in their learning. For teachers following this approach, a shared online whiteboard, online videos, chat or messaging tools, live webcam communication, screen sharing (or application sharing) , online breakout rooms and file exchange, are all regarded as resources or tools to be used appropriately in delivering a lesson.
A drawback of this approach is that the teacher certainly does need to be tech savvy in order to recognise and utilise the various online tools available to them and the student. It also takes some insight, imagination and experience in seeing potential ways in which current resources can be adapted and presented online or, indeed, how new online learning resources can be created and deployed successfully. Of course, a lot of this can come with experience of teaching online but, as well as experience, there needs to be a belief in the possibilities of online teaching and a determination to explore and make things work for you and your learners.
Adopting this approach also requires teacher training or professional development (as a trainer, you would expect me to say that, wouldn’t you?). This approach also identifies that online teaching is a new skillset, which teachers need to acquire. In essence, to be a good classroom teacher is not enough to be a good online teacher.
We all know how difficult it is to find money to fund professional development; it is often the first thing to be cut when drawing up budgets! This leads to perhaps the third approach I observe in online teaching.
To call this approach an ‘approach’ is almost certainly misleading. It is not based upon any philosophy but is probably best regarded as a ‘fallback’ approach which is adopted by an online teacher who is still uncomfortable or unfamiliar with the technology. The approach is perhaps similar to poor lecturing in a real-life situation. The teacher starts to talk a lot, talks at the learners (rather than to them or with them), materials presented on screen (if there are any) tend to be text-based only and the teacher talks through them (rather like a poor powerpoint style presentation). The teacher tends to talk faster, in a desire to get to the end, and almost inevitably the learners become disengaged and may even leave the online session.
I am sure anyone who has experienced online learning or who has taught online will be able to recognise the above scenario. It might be argued that this is an indication that online teaching is not for everyone. I wouldn’t argue with this but I would put forward the case for better training (ahem!) for online teachers as a means of overcoming this ‘approach’.
So let me conclude by saying that I have put forward these 3 styles of online teaching based upon my experiences and observations so far. I am not saying these are the only approaches possible and at this stage I am not saying that approach 1 or 2 is best (I think we’d agree that approach 3 is not desirable!). My ‘gut-feeling’ , for what it’s worth, is that online teaching, just like classroom teaching, should allow for a range of styles and approaches in teaching and learning. I am becoming more convinced, though, that good classroom teaching does not translate into good online teaching without effective training and sufficient technical understanding.