Online Teaching Advice for Matt Wasowski

Matt. Very much enjoyed your Views column "Switching Sides" on your preparation to teach online.

March 8, 2010

Matt. Very much enjoyed your Views column "Switching Sides" on your preparation to teach online.

The fact that you will be teaching online speaks well of you, speaks well of Wimba, and speaks well of Holmes Community College. The wall between those people who work in companies (like Wimba) that sell ed tech solutions and those who work in colleges/universities and teach with technology has always been too high. By teaching an actual course, hopefully using the tools your company sells or integrates with, you will learn a ton about what works and what can be improved. You will also gain a much better understanding of where technology in learning works and where it does not, and this new knowledge will help your company and your communications efforts.

If I were on the board or management of an ed tech company one of the first things I'd do is encourage all employees to teach. It was fascinating to me that some of the comments to your Views column were so critical about Holmes' decision to hire you. From where I sit you'd be the ideal candidate to teach online, as you are both qualified in the discipline you are teaching, passionate about the potential of learning technology improve learning, and experienced with learning technology. You've also done a great deal of synchronous teaching through your Webinar experience. It is true that we want faculty who are actively creating new knowledge in the fields that they teach - and you are a perfect example of someone doing just that along the lines of leveraging technology to improve teaching and learning.

In my last gig I developed and taught online courses, and trained new online faculty members. Your new teaching role gives me an excuse to boil down some advice I'd give to all new online faculty. It was interesting to me that your institutions faculty training program required you to fly to their campus. In my experience faculty training for online faculty should be done online, using the tools and methods that the instructor will be teaching with. So I'm curious as to why your institution uses this methodology?

The Advice:

1. Presence: The most important thing you can do as an online instructor is to be present. Set it as your goal to be a constant positive presence in the asynchronous course tools such as discussion boards and blogs. Post new messages everyday. Respond to all of your students' posts. Your goal is to model behavior that stresses robust communication. Make it clear that you expect your students to be present as well, but that you do not expect them to invest any less time in communication than you do.

2. Time Management: If you get the opportunity to design the reading and assignments be sure to think about the time factor. You should know how many hours you want your students to spend each week on the course, and set-up all the readings and deliverables to conform to those hours. In my case we expected students to spend 15 hours per week. Each reading had a time estimate, each assignment had a time estimate. Students were required to use the journal tool (in the course blog) to report on their hours and productivity each week. If students were spending too much time than that was was an issue we'd work on. Too little time was clear if they were not fully engaged in collaborating with their peers and were not producing quality work.

3. Strengths: My philosophy has always been to play to the strength of your students as opposed to trying to correct their weaknesses. In a creative writing class I think this would mean being flexible in the types of stories they produce. If some of your students are wonderful at characters, and others are amazing at plot, than praise (and grade) around their strengths. This does not mean you should not work on all aspects of writing, but in my experience once students feel rewarded and understood for their strengths they will be willing to work on other aspects without fear. Not everyone agrees with this approach, and it certainly results in higher grades, but it has worked for me in terms of the quality of work I see my students produce.

4. Collegiality: Here is another area where people disagree, but I always treated my students as peers. I had them call me Josh, and I set up my classes so that we were in this together for everyone to succeed. Part of their final grade for the course was their degree of collegiality to the other students. Everyone understood that the success of the course and their classmates rests on everyone else, and part of each persons responsibility is to help each other out.

5. Method: One approach that I suggest particularly for you is to take time to talk about your approach to teaching, and in particular the reasons why you are using the various features and technologies in your course. Take some time to talk about teaching, learning and technology. Each time you use a new tool (be it Wimba or a blog or a synchronous meeting tool), spend some time talking about why you chose that tool and what teaching and learning goals you hope to reach. Get your students to reflect on the success of your approach and the tools, and to make suggestions about how things could be better structured.

6. Peer Review: One of the great advances of online teaching is that it is much easier to set-up your course for collaboration and peer review. Use the discussion board to have students review each others writing (with guidelines that you offer them). Be confident in providing your constructive criticism in public (again the discussion board), as modeling how to critique other peoples work is an important skills. Grade in private, but offer feedback in public.

7. Emotional Labor: Finally, don't be afraid to bring your full-self to your class. Invest your emotional labor in your teaching. Talk about the path that got you to where you are now. Let them know why you love the subject that you are teaching. Don't be afraid to talk about your concerns and fears. Let them know about your job, and how it relates to your teaching. Let them know your strengths and passions.

Good luck this semester! Looking forward to your next report.


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