It's August. I'm in that mode of excitement mixed with anxiety as I start to prepare to teach. This often involves gathering up a lot of scraps of paper, things I've saved into MS OneNote and Google Keep, and reviewing the notes I took at the end of last term.
Last semester was my second dip into teaching online. As someone who teaches rhetoric—courses on giving presentations, speaking, and arguing–the online experience seems the opposite of what you would want for those courses. But a quick look online shows that we are doing more and more public speaking, debating, arguing, and presenting to and with one another via the internet. This is about more than just delivering a course.
This realization, for me, was one that I think should be globalized to the entire teaching online experience—you are not preparing for an empty classroom.
When we go to prepare an online course, the automatic move is to think about how to do what you do in the classroom in a non-classroom space. And this is the root of a lot of trouble.
One example of this is how to deliver a lesson. In a classroom, you are restricted by space, place, and time. You have a group of people, you have them for a determined number of minutes, and those minutes all have to happen at the same time. The environment is what it is going to be: If the room is too hot, too cold, smells bad, etc., there's not much that can be done (at my university this is a frequent issue). Students come in from their life to your class as a disruptive event: they are sleepy, hungry, full, relaxed, sad, etc. The class is imposed into their life from the outside. All of this comes together in the design of the lesson. You have to speak, teach, present, and engage students in a very limited, very challenging moment.
Online teaching does not face any of these challenges. Students can engage your lesson at whatever time of day they wish. They can all do it independently. They do not have to log in at a certain time of day. If the course is designed without the classroom in mind, all these challenges dissolve.
Abandoning the idea that you are in a classroom of some kind frees you to accept and engage the challenges unique to online education. Returning to the roots of teaching is the first big challenge: Asking yourself what the purpose of the course is, and what you want the students to be able to do when it's done, should be the starting point. This doesn't require any desks, any neutral-painted walls, any markers, or any projector. There's no classroom, only class.
The way I have addressed this is through short, frequent video and audio posts to serve as resources for the students. There's no need to provide a 45 minute or 60 minute lecture in online education. There is a need to provide a basket of resources to help the students learn and to demonstrate mastery of the material.
For example, one unit might consist of the scholarly or educational material you want the students to read mixed with some material you'd like them to practice with. For me, this would be some theory of rhetoric or argument, and a couple of examples of rhetoric for them to play with and test out how to use the theory in relation to these texts. I supplement this with a couple of videos of me, shot in various ways and places, explaining how I might approach it, or going over the theory in detail, or perhaps speculating about the value of the theories. Many times, my videos just ask questions.
In public speaking, the course is related to the production of oration. Online this is represented primarily by the podcast. So I have students make podcasts and I critique them. I give them resources on rhetoric—organization, audience, evidence and the like—and ask them to consider those readings when they produce their podcasts. The results have been much better than just having them give speeches to one another as if they are in a classroom.
And that's the last thing to consider. An online class is far less insulated than a classroom. Teaching in a traditional classroom means you are embedded in a building which is embedded in a campus. It's difficult to connect to the external world. If you are online, sites like anchor.fm and YouTube allow students to share their work with the world. The signal to noise ratio ensures that if their work is terrible it won't impact them later in life. But they will get that feeling they are doing more than a class assignment. And that is the most important accomplishment of a teacher no matter the conditions under which they teach.