'Small Teaching Online'

Author of new book explains how she has adapted James Lang's principles for the virtual classroom, to help online instructors produce better learning.

June 26, 2019
 

In the three years since it was published, James Lang's Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons From the Science of Learning has been widely recognized as an essential resource about effective teaching and learning. The book has helped to make Lang, a professor of English and director of the D'Amour Center for Teaching Excellence at Assumption College, a highly sought expert on using learning science to update teaching practices for today's environment.

But the book, Lang is the first to admit, had little to say about teaching in a digital environment, as growing numbers of instructors do. That's because Lang himself hasn't taught online.

That struck Flower Darby as an opportunity. When Lang spoke at Northern Arizona University, where Darby is a senior instructional designer (she also teaches online there as well as at Estrella Mountain Community College), the two connected (we'll let her tell the story below). The result is Small Teaching Online: Applying Learning Science in Online Classes (Jossey-Bass), written by Darby with insights from Lang.

Darby answered questions about her book via email.

Q. For those who aren't familiar, how would you define "small teaching"?

A. Small teaching is a phrase coined by James M. Lang to describe an incremental approach to improving our instruction. Jim's 2016 book explains how minor modifications to our teaching can have a major impact on student learning. The key is to intentionally make those pedagogical adjustments based on the neuroscience of how people learn.

Faculty around the world have seen the value of the small teaching approach because it is so doable. We can make one small change to our in-class activities, for example, an exercise that takes five minutes at the beginning or end of class and that requires no grading. Yet this insignificant change can have an outsized impact on student learning when we base it on evidence-based principles such as retrieval practice or interleaving, both of which help students retain new information over time.

What's so magical about small teaching is that faculty feel empowered to actually make these improvements to the way they teach their courses. Often, we attend a conference or a workshop, learn about a pedagogical innovation that sounds amazing, but neglect to actually implement the new strategy because the prospect is too daunting. It would take too much work and time to act on the new idea. Not so with small teaching. The beauty of this approach is that we can make one small change at a time, yet experience considerable gains in student learning as a result.

Q. What made you decide that James Lang's book would benefit from a supplement focused on online instruction?

A. I teach in person and online at my university and at a nearby community college. As faculty, I could see the immense practical value of Jim's approach. I'm also an instructional designer and faculty developer. While reading Small Teaching, I kept thinking about how to apply his method to online classes. I knew that many of our online faculty are looking for ways to do it better.

The faculty members that I support, like many others at institutions large and small, feel unprepared to teach online. As a general rule, higher ed does very little to prepare faculty to teach at all, but at least we've had decades of experience in the physical classroom when we step into our own to teach for the first time. As students, we've experienced great teaching, lousy teaching and everything in between. That experience informs our practice when it comes time to teach our own classes.

But we don't bring that depth of experience to the online classroom. Even if we did have an opportunity to engage in some form of professional development prior to teaching online, the fact remains that we struggle to know what good teaching and learning looks like in online classes. For now. That will change over time, as new faculty come up through online programs, and as we learn more about how to do this well. But right now, online teaching and learning is relatively unfamiliar territory. Many of us sense that we could be doing it better, that we could be teaching more effectively in order to help our online students learn and succeed. But many online faculty don't know where to find help -- or the prospect of improving our online teaching, for example, by adding some mini-lecture videos, is overwhelming for many.

That's why, when I heard Jim say that he would need a co-author to write a version of the book for online faculty, I took a deep breath and offered to do it. To write this book.

Jim came to Northern Arizona University to present on his approach in January 2018. The first question from a faculty participant, after he concluded his remarks, was about how to do this in online classes. Jim smiled and answered that he didn't know because he doesn't teach online, but that this would be a good book. How to apply the approach online is the first question he always gets after presentations on small teaching.

I believe online classes can be better, and I'm convinced the small teaching approach is a powerful way to help make that happen. So I introduced myself to Jim that very day. To his credit, Jim was open to the idea of working with me, a complete unknown. Together we created what we hope will be a down-to-earth resource, designed for busy faculty, to help them improve their online teaching incrementally, step by small online step.

Faculty are hungry for help with their online teaching. Students are hungry for better instruction and interactions in their online classes. Small teaching can help.

Q. One of the underlying tenets of Small Teaching seems to be that making modest, evolutionary adjustments in one's teaching approach is less intimidating and perhaps easier to pull off than overhauling it. But isn't "going online" by definition a wholesale change?

A. Great question. Without a doubt, yes. But that doesn't negate the need for modest, incremental adjustments in our online teaching. Rather, the fact that putting a class online is such a major undertaking only reinforces the need for feasible strategies to make our classes better.

I would argue that many online classes, not all, but many, of our online classes are not all that they could be in terms of teaching and learning. Indeed the general perception in both higher ed and among employers that online education is somewhat inferior to in-person education validates the argument that we can improve what we're doing online. Despite the efforts of many experienced online faculty and enthusiastic educational developers, faculty who are new to teaching online may be offering classes that are less than ideal -- through no fault of their own.

Putting a class online is much, much harder than it sounds. At least if you want to do it well. As I noted above, I chalk that up to the relative newness of online learning, which is around 20 years old in its current form, as compared to the millennia we've had of teaching and learning in person. And institutions may not be doing all that can be done to adequately prepare faculty to teach online. New-to-online faculty need extensive professional development, sufficient time to create engaging and effective online courses, support from a team of dedicated professionals such as instructional designers and technical or media specialists, and great examples of excellent online teaching to emulate. It's not hard to imagine that one or more of these ingredients of strong online classes might be missing or under par. For these reasons, many of our current online offerings are in need of improvement. That's where small teaching comes in.

The incremental approach that we present allows faculty to make effective, yet doable, improvements to their online course design and teaching. We offer strategies that promote small successes and help instructors build confidence in their ability to keep getting better in their online teaching. Rather than feeling overwhelmed by the prospect of teaching a good online class, faculty can feel empowered to make small improvements as they start where they are, with the online content they have today, and make it better each time they log in to class.

Q. Are there elements or characteristics of teaching in an online environment that most differentiate it from in-person teaching?

A. Absolutely. Try as we might to improve the social aspect of learning in our online classes, the fact remains that online classes create an inherent distance between faculty and students, and even between students and other students.

When we teach a class in person, we interact with people in the room. Whether instructor or learner, we get to know each other to some extent simply by way of our appearance, our communication, and our non-verbal cues. As social creatures, we learn from others around us -- we can nudge the person sitting next to us to ask if they understood the instructions; we can gain better understanding when another student asks a question that prompts our professor to explain a concept a different way; we can exchange phone numbers with our small group and arrange a study session later in the week.

And as faculty teaching in a classroom, we similarly pick up on cues in the room. We spot confusion by observing puzzled expressions on our students' faces, so we slow down and provide a different illustration. We pause our lecture to answer a student who raised their hand. We adjust our approach when we detect an energy slump: maybe we do a quick activity such as Think-Pair-Share to re-energize our students in order to optimize learning.

These real-time interactions, these opportunities to learn from each other, are what's missing in traditional asynchronous classes. True, some faculty hold virtual office hours or synchronous study sessions -- and that's great. But these don't fully capture the energy in the room that we experience in an in-person class.

We can recreate this energy online. In fact, there are advantages to online classes that we don't experience in the physical classroom, such as the ability to hear from every student in a discussion, not just the vocal ones. Every student has a voice online.

To help these students, all our online students, we can keep working to create the buzz we experience in a dynamic in-person class meeting. We do it differently, because online is fundamentally different. But good teaching is not. Good teaching requires guiding our students in their learning, reading the cues, adjusting accordingly -- all of which depend on frequent and robust interactions with the people in our classes. We can do this online, differently than we do this in person, but we can do this nonetheless. For the sake of the people in our classes, because we want them to be successful, we should.

Q. What are the biggest mistakes that faculty members with experience in the physical classroom make when they start teaching online?

A. I still hear from many online students that they wish their instructor were there, in class, with them.

Recently I attended a student panel at the 2019 Online Teaching Conference in Anaheim, California. I was distressed to hear from multiple students that they feel as if they're in their classes alone, by themselves, with little support from or interactions with their faculty members. I'd hoped we'd evolved in our online teaching practice such that we knew the importance of being present with our students, of engaging with them. I'd hoped that we were getting better at communicating this presence, this support, in our online teaching. But hearing student after student say they felt isolated, they couldn't get an answer to their questions in a timely fashion, well, I was discouraged.

To be fair, there are some awesome online faculty out there who are absolutely doing it right. I met many of these online heroes at this conference. But, after hearing from these students, I concluded that we're not there yet. There's work to be done to improve the educational experience of the people in our online classes. And to improve our own experience as well -- because when we learn to teach online well, we'll enjoy teaching online better. I'm sure of that.

My takeaway, my message for online faculty is this: Your students want you. Great content and a well-organized class help. But mostly they want you. Online classes are not slow-cookers. I've said it before; many others have too. But clearly it bears repeating. Online classes are not set-and-forget. Get in there. Work with your students. Have fun with your students. They want you. No amount of sophisticated bells and whistles can replace an authentic, present and engaged instructor.

Q. Our annual survey of faculty members about technology asks respondents whether they believe online courses can produce student learning outcomes equivalent to or better than those of in-person courses. (A majority say No.) How do you answer that question? And what do you think will need to change to persuade the skeptics?

A. Well, it's like the well-known quote attributed to Henry Ford: "Whether you think you can, or you think you can't, you're right."

Faculty who think online classes are inferior may in fact be right. It is certainly possible that our online classes have room for improvement, that online faculty have not been adequately prepared to effectively teach online. And that students, therefore, don't learn as much in an online class as they do in person.

However, faculty who think online classes can produce equivalent or better student learning outcomes are also right. These instructors have worked to learn how to do this well. They've seen the learning gains that result from effective online classes, classes with fully present and engaged instructors who care about the people who are in class with them. They know how we can interact individually with each student in a way that does not happen in the physical classroom, where we often hear from only a small subset of the people in the room.

With appropriate institutional support, and as we learn more about what great online teaching looks like, I hope that we'll persuade the naysayers. In fact, I'm confident we will. We have to. Online education is not going away. The flexibility of online classes allows many people to pursue a college degree who would not otherwise be able to do so. We have a unique opportunity to help these people make a better life, to be better equipped for the uncertain future of work that we face today. Let's do all we can to support these folks, to help them achieve their goals and realize their dreams.

A growing body of research proves the efficacy of online education. But for me, it's not about the numbers. It's about the people. Online education affords more people more opportunities. We can make online education better. One small step at a time.

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