Peer Advice for Faculty Teaching Online for the First Time
In the wake of the University of Birmingham’s (United Kingdom) recent graduation of its first cohort of online students, Wiley Education Services sat down with Dr. Roshan Boojihawon and Dr. Michael Shulver, both Senior Lecturers at the University, to discuss differences between online versus classroom teaching, best practices for the online environment, and recommendations for faculty new to online teaching. Their key takeaway: distance learning isn’t so scary after all.
Wiley: How has your teaching approach shifted in the online environment, and how do you think it has affected the quality and content of your courses?
Dr. Michael Shulver (MS): I think that one of the biggest changes from campus to digital is the realization that I’m now totally exposed. There’s much more exposure of ideas, and they become a matter of record – as does my correspondence and interaction with students. The delivery of online programs has to be more precise from the beginning.
Dr. Roshan Boojihawon (RB): Yes, I’ve found an increased sense of accountability, as my interaction is permanent – but it also requires maintenance. I’m now much more active in ensuring materials and examples are kept up-to-date and relevant. There’s a certain sense of increased timeliness that comes with supporting online students.
How has the nature of the digital environment helped support more effective learning?
MS: I have increasingly used devices previously seen as “passive” by adapting them to become “active.” For example, I used to enjoy using video as a means for doing “chalk and talk” type lecturing but quickly realized that it’s pointless wasting interaction time with passive videos. Students just drift off. Technology has allowed me to make interactive videos, building questions into them so students can act on the material. This has been hugely profound. I love it, and students seem to enjoy it, too. It wakes people up and has really helped from a teaching perspective, as well.
Have you noticed a difference in the behavior of online/distance learning students compared to students who are physically on campus?
RB: Distance learning students are occupied with much more than their studies, which seems to motivate them to perform to the very best of their ability. There is also the difference between classroom students who can communicate verbally and distance learning students who need to communicate in writing. If you put something in writing, there is a little bit more thought that goes into it, more reflection. When you talk something out, it’s always on the spur of the moment, and the quality of thinking may not always be there compared to online environments.
How does this affect your interactions with distance learning students?
RB: It's very noticeable in the last module I’ve been running, just in terms of the volume of contributions. It’s been an interesting read. Students who have the time to think through what they want to contribute understand that their online comments are permanent records of their thoughts. Whatever I am writing is a permanent thought. Also, the relationship is fundamentally deeper. I’ve found that students are keeping in touch with me – particularly those at the dissertation phase. They seem to understand me better, and the interaction is much more friendly.
MS: There’s a huge time pressure on you in asynchronous environments, but both you and the student still have time to pause and think. There’s a richness and quality to online interaction which is different from campus-based teaching.
What challenges have you encountered in online teaching?
MS: Finding ways to make an asynchronous discussion more efficient and yet still be involved and have a presence has been challenging. If you post a discussion forum question, distance learning students expect to get feedback on their answers. You can get sucked into this expectation very quickly. Ideally, students should talk to each other, but you also need to have presence as a module tutor.
RB: Yes, sometimes it's hard to be as present as you want. However, no matter what, there is still a demand for us to follow through.
MS: There's also the question of managing growth. The tutor to student ratio is currently 1 to 25, which is great. It covers the level of groups in different time zones and scales quite nicely so that you can have multiple sections with one tutor. But at what point does a module become unsustainable for one tutor to manage?
Have you been able to apply insights learned from the digital environment back to the campus environment?
MS: Definitely. We teach many students on campus who have English as a second language, but they often struggle to keep up and interact, especially in the first semester. Recording and note-taking becomes their priority. But if you put decent materials online (videos, textbook content, support materials), students realize that the stuff is always there for them. This allows them to relax a little and begin to interact. It doesn’t happen overnight, but you can’t do it without that online content. So in terms of just sheer stuff to give the students that is not simply a textbook or a set of passive handouts, that’s incredibly valuable. Another example: the topicality of my material has increased hugely. I refresh things all the time, make new case studies for every online module and repurpose those in campus environments.
What advice would you give to someone who is new to online teaching ?
RB: First, re-orient your mindset. If you’re still teaching online with the face-to-face mindset, it will be your biggest handicap. Secondly, your relationship with materials and content is not over once you’ve fully designed them. When your ideas are tested with a live, online audience, you must be prepared to engage with them and acknowledge the strengths and weaknesses of what you are trying to say. The third point is about the instantaneous aspect – it can be demanding, but a response within 24 hours is already getting late.
MS: Appreciating the time-poor nature of these students is critical. Slim down your content to the essentials, and curate it so students can find things easily. Also, actively manage how you teach and interact so you’re not just a 2D thing on a screen. Things like relating, having a joke, affirming what the student is saying in an explicit way are so important. You have to take the time to chat with students.
Online teaching requires a slightly different mentality from the classroom teaching approach. Instructors need to be aware of a greater need for transparency and timeliness, a more active teacher presence, and direct interaction with students. While such tasks might require some initial adjustment, they can also create a richer, deeper learning experience for everyone.
To learn more about other common online teaching questions and challenges, such as designing and moderating large online courses, or to hear more about why the University of Birmingham moved into the online environment, visit our Resources page.