October 31, 2014

Learning to Teach Online: a Professional Development resource

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The University of New South Wales, Australia, hosts a site with short five minute videos of interviews with experienced online instructors, giving advice on topics such as planning your online class, considerations for choosing technology for teaching, should you use an an LMS or the open web, etc. The videos are accompanied by 4-6 page pdfs with tips and additional information.

The Learning to Teach Online project is a free professional development resource designed to help teachers from any discipline, whether experienced in online teaching or not, to gain a working understanding of successful online teaching pedagogies that they can apply in their own unique teaching situations. The project has been funded by the Australian Learning and Teaching Council (ALTC)

Comment

If you are looking for materials to motivate faculty to get some training in online teaching, take a look, but in my view this site just scratches the surface of what is needed. I was glad to see video being used to present information, and it’s great that these materials have been made publicly available for free. Unfortunately, though, I found these clips to be so short and superficial that they really didn’t provide any real help at all. Telling instructors to put pedagogy before technology is, of course, sensible advice, but what does it mean in practical terms without some examples? Start simple is also sensible, but there is more to online teaching than just keeping it simple, as useful as that is. This is typical of the level of advice in most of the videos. There was no information about evaluation or research of different online teaching strategies and very few of the accompanying pdfs had any publications that reflect research and best practice in the field. It’s as if the whole area of online learning is just being discovered for the first time.

It does though fit well with what I call the amateurish, ‘it’s up to you’, professional development model of asking those with just a bit more experience to help those without any.

Isn’t it time we put training for online learning (indeed all training in post-secondary teaching) on a more professional basis, built around research into learning, and best practices in online teaching linked to theory and practical examples, with evaluation and research supporting such practices? For these reasons I find the professional development material from the UK’s JISC and the Australian Flexible Learning Framework much more professional and useful.

Comments

  1. Andrew Chambers says:

    Dear Tony,

    The Australian Flexible Learning Framework site you point to is not aimed at university level teaching. It is designed for the TAFE (Tertiary and Further Education) sector. This is more like 2 year college format in North America. The videos put online by the College of Fine Arts at the University of New South Wales are an independent project and from what I understand are meant to act as a stimulus to academics to prompt them to come up with their own ideas on teaching online. COFA are one of the few schools within the university working with distance education so I guess they thought they should make use of their skills to help others.

    You should be aware that in the university has a central unit dedicated to learning and teaching: http://teaching.unsw.edu.au who coordinate and develop support of online learning.

    Does the Australian university sector lack the equivalent of JISC or AFLF. All I can say is yes and after the demise of ALTC http://www.altc.edu.au/ we are now even further behind. Does something need to be done. I’m not sure. Universities here act pretty independently of each other and I’m also not sure whether focusing on “e-learning” is critical. Help in general would be useful of course and I must admit a JISC type organisation to coordinate projects and research in this area would be beneficial.

    Having said that the university itself also needs more staff working on the ground in schools to help struggling academics primarily working with Blended Learning.

    An approach from all angles will always win out in the end… Unfortunately I’m not sure anyone in Government is even reading these forms of blogs…

    • Hi, Andrew

      Many thanks for your thoughtful comments.

      I was perhaps over-critical of the UNSW site. My criticism is aimed generally at the current professional development model of training faculty, and within this model, the UNSW site is an interesting and innovative approach. Also, as Stephen Downes pointed out in his bog, there are also weaknesses in the TAFE and JISC sites. However, I support them because they do provide more substantive training and resources for online learning. I will do a separate post outlining why I think the current professional development model is not working for online learning.

      We in Canada usually look to Australia for examples of best practice in e-learning, and I guess the best example of collaboration at the university level is Open Universities Australia, although that too is not without its problems. The one good thing about the ‘traditional’ professional development movement focused on face-to-face teaching is that they usually do have good networks for sharing: for instance the Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education in Canada. Unfortunately though ‘traditional’ faculty developers, themselves usually chosen because they are exemplary classroom teachers, are often at best uninterested and at worst hostile to online learning.

      Although (unlike Australia) Canada has no federal government agency with a responsibility for post-secondary education, and hence no national strategies, some of the individual provinces do support collaboration in online learning between universities, and between colleges, for example through funding agencies such as BC Campus, eCampus Alberta and just recently, the new Ontario Online Institute. However much more could be done in terms of joint sharing of courses, and joint professional development activities.

      At he end of the day, when all is said and done though, universities do a poor job training faculty to teach, and especially to teach online – but more on this in another post. In the meantime, many thanks for your comments,

      Best regards

  2. Hi Tony, and thanks Andrew for clarifying a few issues.

    I am glad you highlighted our Learning to Teach Online project in your post, but do think you were pinning a little much on its shoulders. We agree with you that institutions in general do not do a good job of supporting their teachers in learning to teach online, but this project was never intended as an entire solution to what is an incredibly complex issue.

    At COFA, we have run more traditional face-to-face workshops for academics, helping them develop online courses and online pedagogy for 8 years, with successful outcomes.

    Through this process, we have seen first hand the resistance, fear, and practical problems teachers face when they are asked to teach online without support (or even with support!) Lack of time, high workloads, unfamiliarity with the concepts involved can all be demotivating and adversely effect their successful adoption of online teaching. This was the reason we designed the series of videos and PDF files – to give time poor teachers new to the idea, insight and confidence to try online teaching.

    It is about shifting the opinion of teachers by using an honest, friendly and collegial approach – to hopefully elicit responses such as “If they can do it I might give it a try” or “Hey they had the same problems I had, and they still found ways around them and persevered, maybe I should too”.

    You mentioned that our resources were treating online learning as if it was just being discovered for the first time – well for many many academics, it is. And they are often overlooked with larger more confronting training programs. When faced with long and technology focused training programs on top of existing workloads, many decide teaching online is not worth their trouble. As well as this, big programs can also alienate and exclude those who are unsure about what is to them an alien concept.

    We hope our project can help people understand the basics, realise that no matter what discipline they teach in, others in different disciplines share the same problems, and there ARE solutions and reasons to keep trying.

    We consider this a small first step into changing the perception and culture surrounding online learning at university, and not an entire solution in itself. As Andrew said, this is not a UNSW wide support program, but the relaying of practical experience to all the beginners out there, from a small team who remember what it is like to start teaching online for the first time.

    Yes the project scratches the surface of what is needed for the support of teachers learning to teach online. I guess that was the idea – to at least get teachers to scratch the surface. Of course no one program can accomplish everything. But if we can get teachers to take that first step, then more will be willing to sign up for further support or qualifications. We are trying to provide a stepping stone between full blown professional development and the current problem where teaching online is still perceived by many as being too hard to even know where to begin.

    About 16 universities around the world that we know of so far have adopted these resources into their larger professional development programs. This was what we intended when designing this project, as in our mind, there is not an either / or solution to the larger problem. Each approach to improving our teachers’ proficiency in, and adoption of online teaching has a place, and can be mutually supportive, as the institutions who have used the resources in their programs seem to think.

    I just wanted to clarify the aims of the project a little here. I am really happy to run into people with a passion and commitment to improving the quality of contemporary teaching practice. We’re all on the same side.

    Thanks for the blog post, as we have had an increase in the number of positive tweets and interest in the project.

  3. Elizabeth says:

    Dear Tony,

    As you say, “The Learning to Teach Online project is a free professional development resource designed to help teachers from any discipline, whether experienced in online teaching or not, to gain a working understanding of successful online teaching pedagogies that they can apply in their own unique teaching situations”. But if we look from the professional point of view – will this be helpful for the real professional development, will this give valuable expirience and skills to those who enters the profession? To my mind, courses for motivation and inspiration such as professional development for teachers could play much better role, and this online project should only be used as an additional resourse.

    • Hi, Elizabeth

      Many thanks for your comment. I was a bit harsh on this program, and I agree with you that it’s useful as a start, so long as there is something more substantial to follow.

      My real concern is that most institutions are not providing more systematic training for faculty and instructors so as a result we are not really exploiting the main benefits of technology for teaching. In that context this program risks giving the appearance of doing something, while avoiding tackling the real problem.

      best regards

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  1. [...] Chambers and Simon McIntyre of the University of New South Wales to an earlier post of mine: Learning to teach online: a professional-development-resource, where I somewhat harshly criticized the short five minutes videos made for instructors about [...]

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