The Challenges with Teaching Online

Some colleagues and I have been surveying online teachers in K-12 and collegiate environments to determine the areas that they feel are critical to online teaching success and which areas are ones in which they often struggle.  After conducting some focus groups last year, we developed a comprehensive survey that we sent out to a few hundred online teachers earlier this year.  Our goal was to examine the most challenging areas that online teachers encounter with the hopes of informing our work with our online teaching colleagues and preservice teachers who may teach online in the future.  We’re pouring through the data now and trying to make sense of the responses.  While I won’t bore you with the analysis that we’re doing, I thought I’d share a few preliminary findings and discuss their importance.

Building rapport with online students can be challenging.  Looking at the data, this was one of the areas that immediately stood out.  While participating teachers identified this as an important aspect to online teaching success, they also reported that this was one of the more difficult things they had to do as online teachers.  This item saw the greatest standard deviation across all of the questions on the survey, showing that while some teachers feel pretty comfortable doing this in their online classes, others struggled with it. Understanding the importance of “social presence” in online classes, I was pretty surprised to see this aspect of online learning so well represented in the survey results.

Establishing routines and procedures in online classes is important. Across the surveyed online teachers, this area was rated as one of the most critical aspects to online teaching success.  Recalling a US News article I shared a few years ago on this blog, provided clear, structured experiences for students is really important for quality online instruction.  Here’s the surprising part, though.  While responding online teachers found this area important, they also rated their ability to do it as really high.  When assessing their own abilities, online teachers rated “establishing routines and procedures” as the area they felt most comfortable across all of the survey items.  The item also had one of the lowest standard deviations.  From the data, it’s pretty clear that while online teachers feel that establishing routines and procedures is important, they also feel pretty confident that they’re doing it well.

Providing feedback is critical to online students’ success.  As we examined the data, this was another surprising finding.  Online teachers working in both K-12 and collegiate settings reported this as one of the most important aspects to effective online instruction.  Looking back at a blog post from a few years ago, I wrote that online teachers needed to be VOCAL.  Building on an article in the Journal of Interactive Online Learning, the post discussed how the VOCAL acronym identified that online teachers needed to be visible, organized, compassionate, analytical and a leader-by-example.  In my post, I offered a revision where assessment and feedback replaced being analytical.  Looking at the data from the surveyed teachers, it’s clear they also see the importance of these areas.  The great part is that the online teachers rated their ability to provide feedback as being high.

Now, it’s important to remember that these findings are based on self-reported data from surveyed online teachers.  With the number of respondents and the ongoing data analysis, however, we’re hoping to more clearly define the challenging areas for online teachers.  Ultimately, we plan to use these data to inform professional development opportunities on campus and the courses in our online teacher preparation program.


Making Learning Significant

Over the course of a semester, I’ll attend a number of webinars.  Since the quality of webinars can differ greatly in quality and value, I’ve adopted a simple metric to gauge whether my attendance and participation was worthwhile.

Did I learn something new?

While it may sound like a pretty low bar for attending a professional development session, it’s surprising the number of webinars that don’t meet this standard.  Take a webinar I attended last week.  To avoid publicly criticizing the session, I won’t identify the subject or the presenter here but it clearly didn’t meet my “something new” standard. At several points, the presenter stopped the session to poll the group on our collective prior knowledge.  For almost every question the presenter asked, more than 95% of the attendees answered correctly.  While the polling demonstrated that the vast majority of the attendees already knew the topic in depth, the presenter went on to explain the concepts that most of us already knew.  Was the session worthwhile?  Hardly.

Earlier in the semester, however, I attended a webinar that still has me thinking.  The webinar, organized by Faculty Focus, discussed how Learning Assessment Techniques (LATs) could be used to gauge and promote student learning.  During the session, the presenter, Dr. Elizabeth Barkley, showed real examples from her class that demonstrated how LATs could be incorporated in face-to-face and online classes.  While the presentation and content was interesting, it was the framework that she used to organize the LATs that made really stop and ponder.

In my teaching, I typically draw on Bloom’s Taxonomy to examine the levels of learning I’m targeting with my students. Dr. Barkley, however, introduced a different taxonomy with which my colleagues in attendance and I were not familiar. The Taxonomy for Significant Learning was developed be Dee Fink and targets learning at the collegiate level.  Since this was a new framework for me, I did some research so I could offer a short overview here.  Like Bloom’s Taxonomy, Fink’s taxonomy has six different levels of learning. These include:

1. Foundational Knowledge:  Similar to Bloom’s Knowledge and Comprehension levels, Foundational Knowledge involves remembering and understanding information and important concepts and ideas.

2. Application:  This level is also represented in Bloom’s Taxonomy.  This represents learning where students are required to problem solve, think critically and manage complex projects.

3. Integration:  This is the first major departure from Bloom.  Here, students are expected to connect ideas, people and realms of life.  Students attempt to recognize similarities and connections across subjects to look for patterns and interactions.

4. Human Dimension: Here, students learn about themselves and others and develop an understanding of interpersonal dimensions at play in the world around them.

5. Caring:  At this level, students develop new interests, values and feelings through classroom interactions.  By participating in lesson and discussions, students change the way they emotionally connect to something.

6. Learning How to Learn: Here, Fink introduces a metacognitive level.  At this level, students develop new ways to learn and may identify better ways to self-direct their learning.

By introducing several socio-emotional levels, it’s clear that Fink takes a broader view to the learning process than Bloom’s cognitive-based taxonomy does.  It’s also important to recognize that Fink identifies “significant learning” as processes where the different levels interact with one another. Think of those rich activities and lessons where students make connections beyond the content and learn about themselves and the world in the process. That’s significant learning in Fink’s view.

While Barkley’s webinar didn’t prompt me to incorporate Learning Assessment Techniques, it introduced me to the Taxonomy of Significant Learning.  At this point, I’m still mentally working through Fink’s taxonomy but I’m considering retooling some lessons and activities to better target additional levels of learning. I doubt that any webinar would be identified as being significant according to Fink’s taxonomy. Since I learned something new in Barkley’s LAT webinar, however, I definitely consider the session “worthwhile.”




On my summer reading list

It’s finals week at my institution so I’ve started to compile my annual book list of professional literature that I’m hoping to tackle during summer break. I’m open to other suggestions so if you’ve read something interesting recently be sure to share it in the comments section below. I’ve ordered the books chronologically in the order I plan to read them.

  1. Small teaching: Everyday lessons from the science of learning: In this book, James Lang discusses practical ways to incorporate cognitive science into collegiate classrooms. I recently re-read Lang’s book Cheating Lessons as part of a faculty learning community. I’m certain that Lang’s new book will continue to expand the way I approach my teaching roles on campus.
  2. Discussion in the college classroom: This book, written by Jay R. Howard, explores ways to increase the academic discourse that occurs in our classrooms.  Discussions are one of the most widely used instructional strategies on campus and I’m hoping the book will help me facilitate more engaging discussions in my online and face-to-face classrooms.
  3. The work of play:  I recently re-read James Paul Gee’s book What video games can teach us about literacy and learning.  I continue to be amazed at the level of involvement that games can foster with some of the most disengaged students. This book, written Aaron Chia Yuan Hung, examines how video games represent new literacies and captures digital epistemologies. While I’m sure it’s going to be a dense read, I always enjoy books that make my head hurt.
  4. How we learn: The surprising truth about when, where and why it happens: While I like to think I’m up on educational research, I always to like to read new texts that can broaden my perspective. Written by award-winning New York Times science reporter Benedict Carey, this book seeks to challenge long-held beliefs about learning and attention.
  5. Girls & sex: Navigating the complicated new landscape: Besides being a college instructor and a campus professional developer, I’m a father of a teenage girl. Last summer, I read It’s Complicated by Danah Boyd which explored how teenagers use social networks and other digital communication tools. Girls & sex, written by Peggy Orenstein, examines how teenage girls are negotiating a complex sexual terrain that is influenced by mixed signals sent by popular culture and social media.

Where do we start?

I came across a study recently that sort of stopped me in my tracks.  The study made absolute sense but the presentation really made me think about how I offer professional development for faculty and how I teach my students on campus.  Here’s a synopsis.

In a study involving 13 different professors at a large university in Canada, researchers examined how participants visualized effective teaching and the types of learning strategies they used.  The researchers also examined the types of instructional objectives the participants had for their students and how they integrated technology into their classroom.  Through the interviews, the researchers were able to categorize the participating professors into three different categories based on their models of effective teaching:  teacher-centered, engagement-centered or learning-centered.  This categorization on its own isn’t that surprising.  We all work with colleagues who are teacher-centered and lecture through classes.  We have colleagues who work to provide engaging classes and others who focus heavily on their students’ development.  The interesting part, however, is how these categorizations matched with the professors’ instructional strategies, learning objectives and levels of technology integration.  Professors who were categorized as “teacher-centered” tended to use instructional strategies and technologies that supported didactic, lecture-based classrooms.  The professors who were categorized as being “engagement-centered” tended to use strategies and technologies that reflected this framework.  The ones who were categorized as being “learning-centered” used technologies and teaching strategies that supported this.

On first glance, this research shouldn’t be that surprising.  If instructors believe that students learn a certain way, it makes sense that their chosen strategies and technologies match those beliefs.  The challenge, however, is that the professors in the study were all placed in active learning classrooms where the tools, technologies and classroom layout were designed to support collaborative learning.  While the instructors had access to means to support engagement-centered or learning-centered teaching, they chose teaching-centered instruction.

So, why do I find this research article so powerful?  I think it comes down to how institutions drive innovation.  Many schools and colleges are investing in building new learning spaces and incorporating new technologies into their institutions.  The hope is that these new tools and spaces on their own will act as catalysts to spark innovative teaching practices.  But that’s not how it happens.  To really change practice, fundamental beliefs of teaching and learning have to be addressed.  Simply building new classrooms or purchasing new computers isn’t going to make an impact.  We have to start with learning.

But that’s also the disheartening part of the research.  We know that active learning works.  But the inertia of teacher-centered instruction is overpowering.  It’s the model that many instructors experienced as students and in which they were successful.  These lived histories inform their pedagogical beliefs and impact the instructional strategies they employ and the instructional technologies they use.  While we can provide access and training for different ways of teaching and integrating technology, the reality is unless we promote evidence-based conceptualizations of how students learn, our efforts won’t make much of an impact.


Gebre, E, Saroyan, A. & Aulls, M. (2015). Conceptions of effective teaching and perceived use of computer technologies in active learning classrooms.  International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, 27 (2), 204-220.