Don’t Blame the Technology

The study of teaching and learning, including online instructional methods, must be part of every doctoral program, argue Judith Altschuler Cahn, James R. Stellar and Suzanne Brooks.

November 10, 2021
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Since COVID-19 forced a pivot to online learning, much of the finger pointing about a disruption in education has been aimed at technology. But while online teaching and learning may be extraordinarily challenging for younger students, we suggest an all too often overlooked variable caused the immense challenges experienced in higher education: professors are not taught how to teach.

Recent reports in the media declare that online learning isn’t working. However, prior to the pandemic, in 2012, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Educational Technology found online learning produced outcomes that were equal to or more effective than traditional, face-to-face instruction. In fact, according to the 2018 Babson Survey Research Group Report, enrollment in distance education consistently increased at a time when overall higher education enrollment declined. Furthermore, certain student or faculty characteristics or content may be more suitable to online learning. For example, students who are shy or who have familial responsibilities that impact their ability to attend class in person may do better learning online.

Several factors may contribute to the recent outcry against online instruction, including students’ needs for socialization, quarantine environments that are not conducive to studying, inadequate or mismatched instructional design, and a lack of instructor presence and teacher immediacy behaviors that build bridges and a sense of closeness between students and teachers.

Perhaps, however, it has been the COVID-19 pandemic that has revealed gaping problems in the very systems and practices that are ingrained in higher education. The most glaring issue may be the limited opportunities faculty have to learn about education and effective pedagogy, gain teaching experience, and understand how students learn—both during doctoral studies and once appointed to a faculty position. In particular, many faculty members were thrust into online teaching during the pandemic with minimal or no prior professional development in online instructional design, perhaps explaining current anecdotes that tout its failings.

The pivot to online teaching wasn’t only about adopting new technology; rather, it was about changing human behavior. Faculty members needed to rethink and re-evaluate their teaching to accommodate a new modality. It was probably most difficult for those who resisted change and had to teach outside their comfort zones. Instead of lecturing, they had to guide students on the path to discover knowledge, no longer handing over information in a simple transaction. Students also may have had to take greater responsibility and agency for their own learning. We know this as the “sage on the stage versus the guide on the side” issue.

Educators recognize that good teaching is good teaching, regardless of modality. But are faculty members ever taught what good teaching is? Do they have the opportunity to work with mentors or to learn about how students learn? About cognition? About how to create engaging environments that foster motivation? About course design and active learning? Do they have the opportunity to learn about assessments—real, authentic assessments—that truly evaluate student understanding?

Most faculty members come to higher education institutions after having invested years in mastering a discipline and earning a doctorate, often with great personal and financial sacrifice. How do doctoral students studying in disciplines other than the study of education learn how to teach?

The short answer is, they don’t. They mirror how they were taught, which often leads to clicking through a PowerPoint while students passively watch the slides. Students then memorize the information with little or no focus on ensuring an understanding of the content that was presented.

Doctoral programs focus on teaching students how to conduct research in their chosen discipline, and faculty members are hired based on their research and their potential to attract grant funds and additional research dollars. Faculty are also required to teach courses, but it is often considered a lower priority, as reflected in their descriptive terms: “teaching load” versus “research opportunity.”

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The reality is that universities do not live by research funds alone. In most cases, to draw their salaries, faculty members must maintain and sustain their existence by teaching students, through which universities attract tuition dollars. The faculty members who are hired for their research must also have the knowledge, skills, dispositions and competencies to teach effectively, to promote student learning and to foster positive student outcomes. Currently, faculty need to be self-directed and seek professional development to learn effective teaching practices—whether they teach a class on campus or an online course.

An Avoidable Emergency

The sudden shift to distance learning served to spotlight the systemic unpreparedness of and gaping hole in higher education. Online education departments and teaching and learning centers scrambled to support thousands of instructors in a monumental effort to sustain the continuity of education across the country. Those departments and centers deserve a tremendous amount of credit for enabling faculty members and students to continue their courses during an unprecedented upheaval to the status quo.

But this pandemic-induced emergency was avoidable. Education is a discipline, with a history of scientific study and literature that informs us about how students—about how we all—learn. We already know much about best teaching practices, and we offer here four recommendations to incorporate them into higher education.

  1. One or two courses in the study of teaching and learning must be part of every doctoral program, along with an internship or fieldwork to hone skills beyond the typical teaching assistant position.
  2. Onboarding programs for new faculty hires should require them to dedicate a significant amount of time to developing skills and competencies around understanding student learning.
  3. Continuing professional development in education needs to become an integral part of a tenure package, along with meaningful, authentic assessments that provide evidence of quality teaching.
  4. In addition to general education theory and practices, doctoral students and university faculty should learn online instructional methods before and during their faculty appointments.

Faculty members need the opportunity to work with each other, to learn best practices and to move beyond teaching as a means to get good student ratings. Armed with a greater understanding of how students learn, faculty will become more effective teachers.

Ultimately, these changes will allow faculty more flexibility to teach in different types of environments. Effective teachers are open to innovation and embrace new opportunities to engage students.

Then there is the moral mission. Our students pay for and expect to receive a quality education. Even the few changes we propose can reap benefits far into the future as students graduate and move on through their careers and eventually mentor others. We owe a consistent, quality education to current students and generations of students to come, no matter the modality, to prepare them for a complex world in dire need of thoughtful citizens and an educated workforce.

We conclude with a challenge: let’s take the sudden shift to online learning imposed by the pandemic as an opportunity for growth and development. Let’s focus on developing more effective teaching and learning practices in the nation’s universities so that we will not be caught off guard in the future and so that the present is fully actualized.

We invite universities and stakeholders to join the conversation, collaborate and brainstorm toward implementing our suggestions or designing other pathways to better educate our students for the future.

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Judith Altschuler Cahn is director of online education and support at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, the City University of New York. James R. Stellar is professor of behavioral neuroscience in the department of psychology (and former provost and interim president) at the University at Albany, the State University of New York. Suzanne Brooks is a Ph.D. candidate and senior doctoral fellow at Yeshiva University and a program evaluation and education consultant.

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