Imagine this: you have a stellar track-record in teaching and positive feedback from your students. Then you start teaching a familiar course online and suddenly you get a lot of unhappy students….?
This is exactly what happened with our guest Dr. Kim Wilson, when she moved her well-received face-to-face course online. We talk about the reasons why this ‘simple shift’ didn’t work, and, most importantly, about lessons learned.
Kim had been teaching face-to-face for 10 years when she got an opportunity to create an online version of her popular face-to-face course. She did what most teachers do when they first start teaching online – she took her existing face-to-face content and activities and put them online. These were tried and tested activities, well-rated and well-received in her face-to-face workshops.
To her horror however, students struggled to cope, as activities were taking much longer than she’d anticipated. For example, what she thought would take students 10-15 minutes was actually taking them a couple of hours.
Why? The online environment is more ambiguous than face-to-face. In person, an educator can easily pick up students’ body language or confused looks and clarify things. Also, educators can control time and steer students in face-to-face sessions – things that are a lot harder to do online.
So the first valuable lesson for Kim was that face-to-face activities don’t just translate directly into the online space. Online classes need their own approach. As I mentioned in a recent post, you can’t fit a square peg into a round hole.
I looked at the feedback for the online course and thought, “Actually, I agree. I haven’t quite got the mix right.” So I took the activities, cut them down and added a lot more scaffolding. I created grids to fill in and other scaffolds, and even filled some of them in myself, as an illustration for the students to guide their thinking.
Another key takeaway for Kim was rethinking how much content she was putting in her online courses. Often when we teach in a face-to-face context, we say a lot and mention a lot of topics in ‘passing’ as a segue, a lead-on to the key content, or just to provide more context. Face-to-face students can cope with this stream of information as there are many verbal and non-verbal ‘cues’, like the educators’ tone or the way the content is mentioned or presented, to help distinguish the importance. The online environment limits these ‘importance cues’, and leaves online learners with a long list of topics that may need further clarification. Hence, the potential for overwhelm.
Kim said, “When teaching online, you don’t have the luxury of doing a detailed explanation, which you may not actually need even in the face-to-face environment. But as teachers, we do often like to give a long narrative and contextualise. Online learning is different. It needs to be more focused.
Teaching online really gets you to focus and think ‘what’s the core concept and ideas that I need to focus on?
And often you don’t need all the fluff that we do in the face-to-face context. That’s not to say that face-to-face is not valuable. It is, in a different way, but sometimes you just don’t need all of that [extra information]”
Online learning shouldn’t be considered ‘less valuable’ or ‘rich’ than face-to-face learning. There are many advantages in being able to process information at your own pace, in another location, as long as the learning experience has been designed specifically for the online context. In other words, if your online students are not happy, maybe it’s time to look at your course design and think whether it needs some adjustments to better fit the online experience. Consider getting in touch with your faculty learning designers for support.
As for Kim, she’s since designed and ran many online courses that have been a lot more successful. She also feels that teaching online has helped her to become a better teacher face-to-face as well, as she now adds a lot more scaffolding and tries to be more selective with the content that she covers.
A huge ‘thank you’ to Kim for sharing her story!
Do you know anybody who has an interesting ‘learning and teaching’ story? Nominate them by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. We’d love to feature them in Teche!