“Teaching” Online

This past year I’ve been heavily involved with Mechanics ReView, an online course through edX. I’ve polished the course after its transfer from LON-CAPA, replaced about 50% of the problems with new ones, recruited TAs, and actually run the course. I’ve also taught a lot of on-campus courses at both the college and high school levels, and I’d like to talk a little about the difference between teaching on-campus and “teaching” in an online course.

The quotes are there because I can’t really consider what I do online to be teaching.

There are strong similarities between online and on-campus teaching in the preparation stages. I and the research group I worked with still had to choose an order for the topics, come up with descriptive material (textbooks, web pages, videos, demonstrations, whatever you like), find a way to assess the students (quizzes, homework, projects, etc.), and put it all together in a well-tested package. Creating an on-campus course is much less work than creating an online course, but it’s not fundamentally different work.

Where the rubber hits the road, however, the two approaches are so different as to be almost unreconcilable.

As a teacher in the classroom, I spend my time talking with students, pulling out their current understandings and helping them weave those into new and stronger understandings. I tell stories about physics and physicists. I ask students to tell me stories about their own experiences, and about the things they imagine would happen in a little-toy-physics world that we construct together. I ask questions frequently; I rarely answer them. When there is ambiguity, we explore and understand it. When there is uncertainty, we use dialogue, consideration, and (rarely, in targeted situations) authority to clear it up.

As a course coordinator online, I rely heavily on my TAs. When I go to the discussion boards for the course, almost every question has already been answered, sometimes by another student, more often by a TA. (I consider this a minor failing of the course – more on that another day.) My interactions with the students are primarily limited to answering highly technical questions, either about more advanced physics than the course offers, or about the system on which the course runs. I spend more time fixing technical issues, rewording questions to remove ambiguity, and coordinating the wonderful staff that I have, than doing anything that feels like classroom teaching.

I think that a major component of this difference comes from bandwidth. Text, when compared to face-to-face interaction, is painfully slow and essentially void of nuance. This is doubly the case when typing back and forth to non-native speakers. Over 70% of our students come from outside the USA, and about 50% are from outside India, the UK, and Australia.

Another component is scale:  there are nearly 16,000 registrants for Mechanics ReView. Most of them are just here to take a peek, so a better measure is that there are over 1200 serious students in the course at this point. If I tried to do this all on my own, I would have no time to sleep. We have nearly 80 support staff who are the student-facing part of the operation, and I’ll spend a whole entry on them later, because they’re amazing people. They handle the day-to-day talking, answering, and interacting that presents the human side to the course. My job is at the top of a pyramid, where in the classroom I was the entire pyramid.

It doesn’t feel much like teaching at all. It feels like what I call it – being a course coordinator.

There is definitely still education taking place – you can see people learn; there is a semi-permanent record of students’ struggles with the material and their minor epiphanies on the discussion boards. I just don’t feel like I’m contributing to that understanding after the course begins. Research will show the relative effectiveness of classroom and online learning. My gut feeling is that there won’t be much difference, on average, between a course of well-delivered lectures and an online course with pre-recorded well-delivered lectures. What I want is a way to bring things beyond just lectures into the online environment. More about that on Monday.

If you want to take a look at the course, it should be visible through at least the end of September 2013, and hopefully archived well beyond that for anyone to see.


About Colin Fredericks

By day I help to create online courses at HarvardX. By night I write roleplaying games.

Posted on August 7, 2013, in Uncategorized and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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