Why I like to teach online

Note: I’m taking a little time off to recharge from summer teaching and thought I’d replay a post from a few years ago. This post originally appeared on this blog in March 2015 but it is still relevant today. Enjoy!

A few days ago, I was working with some colleagues who were developing online classes for the first time. Since it was a new experience, they were examining all of the different ways to foster interaction and participation in the class. I explained that they had to manage three different means of interaction in their course: student/student interaction, student/instructor interaction and student/content interaction. Most new online instructors focus their attention on student/content interaction. They upload screencasts they’ve created or link to journal articles online. They make sure that their students can effectively access content that helps them learn.

But that’s just one aspect of an online class. If we want to create online classes that resemble our collaborative face-to-face classes, we need to consider the other avenues of interaction. Students need to interact with their peers to help build their understanding. Online students need to be able to interact with us as instructors so we can support their learning effectively. And this is where the new online teachers were struggling. While we generated a bunch of strategies that could help foster more interaction and participation, they worried about getting it right. How would they know if the strategies were effective?

And this is why I like teaching online. As someone who is highly reflective of his own teaching, I like the data that online classes can provide. Almost every aspect of a student’s participation and interaction in an online class is captured while they engage in the course. In a face-to-face class, a student’s participation and interaction can be observed while a lesson is occurring. Once the lesson is over, however, any remnants of that participation and interaction are lost forever. Sure, face-to-face instructors can record a lesson to watch later but that usually changes the nature of the class. This “observer effect” can change how the students behave and participate in the class.

In an online class, however, participation and interaction are reified via the learning management system. “Reify” is one of those words that sounds pretty complicated and scholarly. In my mind, though, it’s the best way to describe the nature of an online class. Participation and interaction are abstract processes that are hard to visualize or capture in face-to-face settings. But in online realms, those abstract processes are made concrete. They’re reified. When a student comments on a peer’s post, the comment is captured in text. When a student struggles with a screencast, we can see that they need to watch it a few times. When students don’t understand a given assignment, we can see their frustration through the posts in discussion forums.

This “reification” provides a world of information for reflective practitioners who work in online settings. At the end of the semester, I can go back and look at how students interacted with content, with their peers and with me. I can see areas where they may have struggled and revise course content and processes as needed. And this is the advice that I gave the new online instructors. Try to make the course as effective as possible but be ready to examine the course at the end of the semester and make improvements. By examining the archive of instructional footprints that remain after a course is over, they’ll have a better idea of what worked and what didn’t. And that’s one of my favorite parts of teaching online. Analyzing the reified remnants of an online class informs my teaching and makes me a better online instructor.

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