The Benefits of Online Teaching

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Joe Hughton explains 15 ways why online teaching is great

Educators – take a breath… it’s not all bad! Let’s look at some benefits in online teaching…“Landslide” a song by The Dixie Chicks has a line “Well, I’ve been ‘fraid of changin’, ’cause I’ve built my life around you” which sums up where many of us find ourselves in terms of our – now lost – comfort zone in the co-located, physical classroom.

We’ve all been reading articles in recent weeks about the problems of transitioning to online teaching. I teach in college, coach and train corporates and non-profits, and as I and other educators around the world, engage in creating remote teaching sessions, it’s important to realise that the online environment also brings opportunity.

Online teaching offers some clear and compelling benefits we might not find in the more traditional colocated teaching model…

#1 Appreciative Enquiry

Many years ago a wise colleague of mine, Baldur Kubo, introduced me to the concept of Appreciative Enquiry.

Created by David Cooperrider and his mentor Suresh Srivastva in 1986, this inspiring approach to change focusses on building on what is working, what’s good, beneficial and positive in a situation, rather than – as often happens – focussing on the pain points, the stuff that’s not working, the problems.

So in the spirit of appreciative enquiry, let’s take a look at the online education space…

#2 Capturing content

Making recordings of the online classes is something which most of the online platforms make very easy.

Privacy & GDPR concerns still need to be borne in mind, but the ability to record and distribute classes to remote students means that they can catch up on missed sessions if their personal circumstances mean they couldn’t be present at the scheduled class delivery time.

Some of my students are front line medical staff, and my capturing and then making the classes available has been welcomed by them as a real lifting of their worries about maintaining their studies in the face of long shifts on the front lines dealing with Covid-19 and other patients.

The concept of scheduled delivery time becomes more fluid if the “lecture” content is prerecorded and made available.

#3 Environmental sustainability

Online brings a huge freedom from the tyranny of having to travel to a specific location to deliver your classes. That’s a far more environmentally sustainable model than the co-located one, which requires physical travel, consuming petrol and other resources to move both meet in person.

And as my students have dispersed to the far reaches of the globe to be with family and friends as Covid-19 sweeps the planet, I find myself with faces on screen sitting in China, Holland, Mexico and many other countries, as well as all over Ireland.

This experience certainly raises this question as a valid one to look at, not only for education but also many workplaces in the coming months and years. And my 5 step commute to my study is a lot quicker, more resource efficient, less time-consuming and stressful than the car journey around the M50 in the rain…

#4 Freedom from location

Another consideration which will come back once the current pandemic social isolation phase has passed is that once in an online mode of delivery, classes can be run wherever the teacher is, freeing them from the need to be in class at a specific location on a certain date and time.

As long as you have an internet connection and a computer, you can connect with your students while travelling, or from anywhere in the world.

#5 A different financial imperative

If in the future we are not forced to maintain expensive buildings, classrooms and common rooms, the physical edifices of many venerable educational centres of learning, in order to deliver high-quality education, will this change the financial model for education, and maybe make it more accessible and viable for a wider audience?

Huge challenge and disruption is coming to our colleges and universities as a result of this crisis, but for educators, we now have a golden opportunity to reach out to global audiences because we now know we can.

Will we grasp this, or just settle back into the old, familiar comfort of our physical classroom spaces? Will we be allowed to settle back by our potential students? I hope not.

#6 Tracking engagement and participation

As students have to log in to sessions, this means that their on-line activity is capable of being monitored and recorded.

This offers the benefit of proof of work in a way which the traditional classroom interactions where sessions are not recorded do not.

And this doesn’t have to be “Big Brother”, although of course there is that possibility. If done properly, tracking can provide the teacher clarity on student engagement to facilitate identification of dis-engaged learners and who perhaps to focus on helping more, in one-to-one interactions.

#7 Collegiality & support

The online space offers the opportunity for a much wider support network than any single educational institution.

Faculty eCommons is one such space where teachers from anywhere in the world can come together to share ideas, offer mutual support and access useful resources.

#8 Structured teaching materials

Going online can also move teachers into a more formally structured approach to developing and presenting their teaching materials, depending on what type of Learning Management System (LMS) environment is used and how it is set up.

This can actually help rather than hinder if the template structures are well thought out, providing rubrics and best practice examples.

#9 Efficiency gains

These can be leveraged using online tools such as LMS quizzes where the grading can be automated, saving a teacher time which might previously have to be spent in marking and communicating results.

And of course, once you have a question bank built up, the questions can be re-used into new quizzes at any time, further reducing preparation time for such assessments.

#10  Opening up multiple information sources to students

Once in the online space, it becomes easy and far more natural to employ different technical tools and informational sources to your classes.

The richness and diversity of tools and resources available online is growing at a pace which no individual educator can possibly keep track of.

This is a challenge but also such a huge opportunity – to experiment with different ways to bring course ideas together with students.

#11 Collaborative spaces for common ideation

Even something as simple as a shared discussion board or Google document, can be fertile ground for incredible flow of ideas and synergy from students, far outstripping in-class discussions in their richness and depth. Even electronic versions of old staples like the Post-It Note can make for fun and stimulating student experiences.

I used a tool recently in a module I took as a student called Jamboard, and we also used WhatsApp as a side tool to share student discussion during the online session which worked really well.

#12 Structured discussion and activity based learning

Now of course, this is not something which is only a benefit of online teaching, but if the times when you bring students together online can be structured as freer, discussion and exploration type engagements, rather than simply voice-over narration of a PowerPoint slide deck, then the door is opened to a much deeper form of learning.

A recent article from Harvard Business Review – “Keep Your People Learning When You Go Virtual” discusses the need to make learning “socio-emotional” – to work out how we feel and think about the situations under discussion, rather than simply concentrating on the cognitive, task based learning we might otherwise stress. And on the feeling angle…

#13 Facing the fear

In my own explorations in recent weeks, I admit to sometimes having fallen back into the “safe” – for me – mode of just talking over a slide deck.

But listening to other educators, and having had the privilege of experiencing a superb online module run by Alan Morgan, Jacinta Owens & Eina McHugh from the University College Dublin Innovation Academy this past week which employed many creative ways of engaging the class, I’ve also been consciously trying to move out of my own comfort zones and opening up more different modes of engagement in my own online classes.

A key issue here is my own fear. Fear of making a mess of things. Fear of not being on top of the technology. Fear of wasting the students’ time. Fear of being seen as irrelevant.

The uncompromising nature of the Covid-19 crisis is that as an educator, I’ve been forced to move, to adapt, to embrace new and previously largely theoretical – to me and many others – modes of engagement. And online IS different, challenging. But it’s also good in some ways, which is where I want to focus.

#14 Entrepreneurship, and engaging learners with technology

On the day the children were sent back from school at the start of the Covid-19 crisis, I sent an email out to every camera club in the country offering talks on-line.

For those of you not into club photography, the camera club world is based around weekly meetings in village halls all around the world where speakers come and present their photography, and sometimes their techniques, normally via a projected slideshow supported by prints displayed in front of the audience – many of whom (but not all!) are in their later years.

Before this I don’t think I’ve ever seen a remote club presentation, but in my email I pointed out that we were likely to be months only being able to communicate via videoconference, so embracing Zoom and similar technology would be a great way to keep clubs running and bring some relaxed hobby time into what was going to be a stressful time.

The reaction has been very positive, and I’ve delivered a lot of talks in recent weeks, and to clubs I probably would never have been invited to due to the distance limitations. Most of these talks have been the club’s first experience of the online talk, but including time for chat from all the participants, encouraging questions in the text chat as well as through viewer’s microphones, and being relaxed in delivery all make for very successful club nights in the new medium.

#15 Closing thoughts

So coming back to “Landslide” – “Can the child within my heart rise above? Can I sail through the changin’ ocean tides”?

Can I rise to this challenge and provide my students with an engaging learning space where they can develop their theoretical and practical abilities, where they can feel safe to explore, challenge and try new things, to fail and succeed, to share, and grow?

I don’t know, but there’s certainly space to do this. It’s not all bad for us educators – this new frontier brings opportunity, challenge and difference, but as long as we remain open and enquiring, willing to fail forward and to face our fears, it’s a world we can thrive and grow in.

Joe Houghton is an Assistant Professor & Programme Director teaching Project Management at the UCD Smurfit Graduate School of Business in Dublin, Ireland.
He also consults, coaches and trains companies and non-profits, as well as delivering photography tuition and talks all over the world. Connect on LinkedIn

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