I often hear instructors and students criticize online courses for ‘not being quite the same’ as face-to-face courses, and my answer is: why would you expect them to be the same? In education, we already have a pretty good sense that context has an influence on learning. Therefore, it shouldn’t seem like much of a stretch to conclude that the functional elements of face-to-face environments and the functional elements of online environments should lead to differences in learner (and instructor) experiences. Furthermore, expecting that it should be possible for face-to-face learning and online learning to be directly interchangeable often leads instructors who are new to online teaching to strive to translate what they are doing in class into an online format. Spoiler alert: this approach to designing online courses is bound to fail in many respects, and it makes the overreaching assumption that a face-to-face format is somehow – by default – the golden standard for learning.
Instead of asking, How can I re-create what I’m doing in my face-to-face course into an online format?, instructors should be asking, How can I still achieve the essential learning goals for my course given the different technological functionality available to me? This allows instructors to the important opportunity to reflect on what they’ve been doing up to that point, and begin to re-imagine what’s possible.
I want to offer three ways that the functionality of an online learning context is fundamentally different than face-to-face, and in a way that offers a potential advantage for teaching and learning. I say potential, because technological affordances alone are not going to result in better teaching and learning. Instructors need to consider how online functionality can be leveraged pedagogically to produce meaningful course designs, according to the essential learning goals for their subject matter.
Firstly, online tools can provide the opportunity for more students to be actively engaged in their own learning. In a face-to-face course, it can be difficult to hear from all of our students; there simply isn’t enough air time to have each student share what they are thinking. As a colleague of mine once reminded me, everything past the third row in a lecture room is distance education really. In an online course, this issue of physical distance is further amplified. But instructors can engage their students by making use of online tools that allow for efficient forms of interactivity. For example, in a synchronous lecture (e.g. using Zoom), an instructor could use an online polling tool (e.g., Mentimeter) as a quick check for understanding before moving on to the next topic. In an asynchronous format, the instructor might elect to have students engage in an online threaded discussion board (e.g., using Pepper) on a particular topic, and use that opportunity to take up recurring ideas, or to check for common areas of confusion.
Second, asynchronous functionality can be leveraged to support greater think time for students. Good instructors know that students don’t all learn the same things, at the same time, and in the same way. Students need multiple opportunities to construct their understanding. Online courses can support this in a number of ways. For example, an instructor can record their lectures and make them available through a media server (e.g., YouTube or UofT’s MyMedia) for students to use as a review resource, or to catch up on class content if they missed the live broadcast. Unlike a face-to-face class where the instructor might need to prepare a lecture capture recording tool, in an online course that is already running in a video conferencing tool like Zoom, the instructor can record with the simple click of a button. Furthermore, the recording is also able to capture class discussion not just the instructor’s presentation. Threaded discussion boards can also provide another unique opportunity for think time, as students can process what they want to say and edit their contributions, in a way that is not typically feasible in a face-to-face conversation. In a face-to-face discussion, the conversation may have already moved on by the time a student has had time to process what they want to say. In this sense, online instructors may even notice some of their so-called “quieter” students actually have a lot to say, when given this opportunity for think time.
Lastly, online courses can provide a unique opportunity to accommodate student learning. In any given class, there are as many unique student needs as there are students enrolled in the course. Simply put, every student brings their individual circumstances and prior experiences to bear on any new learning situation. In an online context, instructors can provide multiple means of accommodations. These can include things like: presenting the same information simultaneously in multiple media formats, providing various opportunities for peer sharing, ‘chunking’ course content into multiple mini modules, and extending learning across longer periods of time rather than 2 or 3 consecutive hours. Instructors can also make use of assistive technological enhancements like adding closed captioning or audio transcripts to supplement their course videos. This can help support students who may be deaf or hard-of-hearing, students whose first language is not the language of instruction, and students who may have challenges with auditory processing. This can also provide other benefits, say, if you’re an instructor who tends to talk fast, or you are covering a lot of subject-specific terminology; all students in the class could potentially benefit from having your lectures written out. But beyond thinking exclusively about what instructors can do, online courses can allow students some autonomy to set up their work conditions to suit their own needs and learning preferences. One student may require noise-cancelling headphones, lights dimmed, with an online translation tool running in the background on their desktop computer. Another student might have music playing in the background, with their dog sitting on the couch beside them as they listen to your lecture on a tablet device. As much as we might want to support a student-centred approach to teaching in our face-to-face classrooms, this kind of differentiation would simply not be possible in the way that it is when students are able to conduct their learning from anywhere, and in many cases, at their own pace.
When instructors begin with planning their online courses with the expectation that things need to be thought through differently than face-to-face teaching, it shifts the work of design for learning from an exercise in replication to one of re-defining what’s possible. This is not to say that each of these unique functionality doesn’t bring some unique challenges to consider in addition to their possible affordances. But starting off one’s course planning with the intentionality of focusing on the essential learning and how it can be supported differently online, rather than trying to directly translate face-to-face experiences into an online context, will put instructors in a much more productive mindset.