Why instructors’ presence matters so much online


Don’t obscure the instructor!

Or, why online college courses need more than e-learning “content.”

The Chronicle this week had another entry in the (unproductive) back and forth about whether lectures are an effective means of instruction: “In Defense of the Lecture”. I’m not sure whether the author makes a compelling case—I’d argue that his teaching style involves far more than traditional lecture—but he makes a point that I think is often overlooked when we think about how to teach online:

First and foremost, I lecture so that I can model how an expert approaches problems. If my students have read the book (or, for the flippers, watched the video) before class, they have (I hope) obtained some basic facts and also have at least the beginnings of an understanding of how those facts fit together. If I assign them problems or questions to grapple with, they will eventually work toward a deeper understanding of the topic at hand. What the in-class lecture adds is a model of how an expert approaches questions.

What I remember most from my college courses is not any particular fact delivered by a professor, but the processes by which they reasoned through complex issues, and the methods of problem-solving that they demonstrated. Certainly the textbook should provide examples of sophisticated reasoning and analysis. But even if students do the reading ahead of time, how likely is it that they have deeply grasped all of the pertinent points?

The writer presents a hypothesis: Students learn better, and learn how to learn better, when they’re guided through the content not just as stated fact but as reasoned through by a person, with that person’s experiences, personality, and biases present and transparent.

Setting aside some sort of lit review to examine the question, I’d suggest that most people would agree with the hypothesis and understand this sort of instructor guidance to be the difference between a college course and just a college textbook (or series of videos).

This reminds me also of Ellen Langer’s The Power of Mindful Learningin which the author decries methods of teaching that suggest that facts are black and white, settled, or universal. We may not be able to “teach” critical-thinking skills, Langer would argue, but we can model those skills and provide space for students to develop their own.

So how do you teach online this way when students never sit in a room with you? My take is this: Design your course so it emphasizes

  • first: your interactions with your students,
  • second: your students’ interactions with each other, and
  • last: your students’ interactions with the content

Your guidance, explanations, feedback, and modeling will nearly always be more meaningful than the course’s static content (which students probably won’t remember anyway, beyond the basics).

Here are some practical suggestions, based on a few different specific approaches to presenting content online:

  • Video lectures or screencasts: Emphasize your individual intellectual presence in every video. Talk about your own perspective, your research, your particular interests. Then provide a means (such as a regular class discussion in a Carmen forum) for students to wrestle with the information with your input, guidance, and explanations.
  • E-learning modules (from Articulate or Softchalk, for example): If the production effort of creating e-learning modules makes you wary about personalizing them too much as described above (say, if someone else might teach the course soon), then you can try to keep modules short and contextualize them appropriately. When you introduce a module to students (in Carmen or elsewhere), be open about the source of the material and the potential limitations of the format. Let them know that while the module is meant as a helpful introduction that you (or someone) have put together, they should feel encouraged to question what they read, to think about the information differently, and to follow up with you and their classmates. It’s important then to include a platform (such as a regular discussion) for you to solicit questions and provide some personal context.
  • Discussions only: If your course doesn’t include a collection of static lecture content, you’re probably using discussions (or some other collaboration tool) to guide students through the textbook and other content. In this case there are no caveats or careful contextualizing needed as above, but the work of giving your personal expert guidance will likely involve broad, regular class-wide discussions in which you take an active role.

Much of online education and instructional design seems to involve the digitization, modularization, and sequencing of content, often obscuring the role of the instructor. To put these media in the context of higher education, though, I think it’s imperative that we consider the instructor’s place differently—that we give students college courses and not just semester-long multimedia textbooks.

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