Online teaching: starting out. My Story

by Dr Jacqueline Baxter

The recent COVID-19 crisis and subsequent lockdown has meant that many teachers at all phases of learning have had to very rapidly get to grips with teaching online. But teaching online is not something that comes naturally, nor does it develop overnight. It takes time to develop an online teaching identity,  brings different feelings and emotions to bear and requires different skills to teaching face-to-face. But what exactly are the skills and attributes of an online teacher and how do you go about the whole business?

Beginning to teach online

I first taught online 15 years ago at a predominantly campus-based university. The teaching wasn’t fully online, I did visit students in their workplace, but a lot of the feedback that I gave was online: commenting on work submitted and pointing them to online resources. I joined the Open University in 2004 as an associate lecturer. The module that I was teaching again was partly online, although there was the opportunity for face-to-face tutorials. I often came away from online interactions with feelings that were very different from those I had when teaching face-to-face. I decided to explore this looking at online teaching identity and what kind of development was necessary in order to turn into an effective online teacher. My research lasted three years, and probably taught me as much about myself than it did about other people.

Moving online: feelings and job satisfaction 

Talking to teachers that were moving online was a fascinating experience. Many of them had come from face-to-face teaching situations and had carved out a way of doing things – ways that worked over many years, yet moving into the online environment they had very strong feelings that were similar to those that were invoked when they first began teaching. ‘I felt as if I was skipping but now I feel as if I’m plodding, just putting one foot in front of the other.’ said one. Another expressed amazement at the sheer amount of time that it took to think about teaching online: how long it took to prepare, how much thought it took to create activities that would engage students. But perhaps the most powerful feelings were those of trying to replicate the same feelings of job satisfaction in the online environment as in face-to-face teaching, some of the comments summed this up :

‘You just can’t tell when they’ve got it.’
‘I feel as if it’s difficult to get to know them, I would normally use a lot of humour in my teaching, but I can’t – or at least I don’t dare to in case I offend.’
‘I can’t take the silence when they don’t respond.’
‘Do they really do that deep learning online?’

Many of the teachers interviewed talked about the difficulties of conveying their personality online. Since then there has been a great deal written about developing an online identity (McShane, 2006; Wheeler, Kelly, & Gale, 2005). Some of this work uses the development of online identities more generally, the developing an online teaching identity is a very specific type of identity – a professional identity like any other.

Not everyone is suited to teaching online: some find the online environment off putting, but many with a bit of practice, and once they get used to the technology, find that they can do things online which would be impossible in a face-to-face scenario. What is certain is that you can’t just take face-to-face content and stick up as a PDF online, and call that online teaching…

So, what is the advice for those that are setting out on the online teaching path?

  • Don’t expect too much of you or your students, it will feel strange at first
    Online teaching takes a lot of thought, it’s very difficult to ad lib. online, and at first this can feel very limiting
  • Get as comfortable as you can with the technology, have a practice, go to an empty online room and check it out. Get comfortable with your room the way you would with your classroom or lecture theatre: it is important to own your space
  • Some things work better online, depending on what package you’re using: for example Adobe Connect allows you to choose very effectively who answers your question, it allows students to put their hand up; no chance of forgetting anyone’s name as they’re right there in front of you!
  • Get your timing right: online teaching can take a bit longer than face-to-face teaching because of the way that the online teaching room is set up
  • Give students a chance to get comfortable in the online environment: get them to post hello to the chat box, this helps people to feel more relaxed
  • Try if you can to join someone else’s online session. Just as when you were first learning to teach you observed other teachers – you could do the same in the online environment: you can learn a lot from other people’s creativity and their mistakes!
  • Look at the way that courses are structured by organisations such as Future Learn: they run free courses in online teaching and learning and you can gain a lot by just looking at the way that they set things up
  • There are a lot of resources out there about online teaching, some are written by very techie people who embrace the medium, without recognising that it has its drawbacks, like anything
  • Things that you take for granted in a face-to-face environment sometimes need to be engineered when online – humour needs to be complemented by emoticons otherwise students can very easily misinterpret
  • If you are running a large online session it is good if you can get someone to co-tutor with you; that way they can keep an eye on the questions and comments whilst you focus on getting the message across
  • Don’t give up! Like anything you gain confidence the more you do it

Dr Jacqueline Baxter is a Doctor of Education and Director for the Centre for Innovation in online Legal and Business Education (SCiLAB) at the Open University Business School. She is Editor-In-Chief for the Sage Journal Management in Education and author of the book: Creativity and Critique in Online Learning: Exploring and Examining Innovations in Online Pedagogy (Baxter, Callaghan, & McAvoy, 2018).

References:
Baxter, J., Callaghan, G., & McAvoy, J. (2018). Creativity and Critique in Online Learning: Exploring and Examining Innovations in Online Pedagogy: Springer.
McShane, K. F. (2006). Technologies transforming academics: Academic identity and online teaching.
Wheeler, S., Kelly, P., & Gale, K. (2005). The influence of online problem-based learning on teachers’ professional practice and identity. ALT-J, 13(2), 125-137.O

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