Motivations and challenges for online teaching

I confess that my motivations for teaching online are mostly external–we have a new degree program that offers online learning, and half of the students concentrate in my area. However, given that it’s now a “fact of life,” I find it an interesting challenge to try and transfer some of what I do well in the classroom into a totally different forum.

One thing that I bring to this process is that I already think in terms of setting learning objectives and taking clear steps to help students achieve them (much like in the article for M2, “Building your Syllabus”). I already think this is an important approach in a traditional classroom, and it is easy to see how important it will be in an online classroom, where I can’t simply narrate what each part of the course does as a part of regular face-to-face contact with students.

One concern I have is that some of the best moments of my teaching seem hard to reproduce in an online format. I even had a student say to me once, “I don’t see how you could do what you do online.” So that’s not very encouraging, is it? 🙂 But I hope that’s not the case. I think what may be most difficult is that in class discussions I try to help students become aware of a myriad of decisions that they make as interpreters of biblical texts, and to exercise better judgment with regard to those decisions. In the flow of discussion, with everyone present, it can be easy to find an example to use and unpack as a group. Online, I think I will have to be very intentional about the interpretive decisions I want to address, and set up modules in which those issues will naturally arise. I hope that, since I am working with advanced students, they will be able to take more responsibility for helping each other to see the decisions they are making and to be aware of the options available. One thing I will have to do to make that happen is to set out clear expectations about their responsibilities for posting in discussion forums, and explicitly make room for the different kinds of interactions that I want them to have.


Skip to comment form

  1. I share some of Susan’s concern about what cannot happen on-line in certain courses. I am beginning to see how a community of learners emerges and can be fostered via on-line classes, but in community development and community health, sometimes the fundamental learning happens when the whole community is in the same neighborhood at the same time, shaking hands with local residents, observing signs of health and life, as well as paying attention to subtle, embodied clues and cues. When many of those we engage don’t have access to computers and the internet, it will be a creative challenge to see how we can make our technology accessible in ways that are more inclusive of others who will be teachers, co-learners, and advisers to our students.

  2. Ah, I responded to Susan without first posting my own response to the questions. Here goes.
    1. The particular class I have been asked to teach on-line is a new DMin program in which our students will not be in residence here at Emory. They are practitioners who are working full-time while enrolled in this degree program. The on-line format enabled them to continue their education, so it feels like a privilege to support them in their hope to hone skills, enhance their knowledge, and learn from other professionals – their peers in the class – as well as the instructor. Because they will be able to contribute to the class from their context in Kansas City, Boston, rural south Georgia, or a suburban setting in the Midwest, our shared learning has the potential to be richer than when we share the same context.
    2. I have yet to discover ways I will be effective. I have experience of accompanying and guiding students through real communities and in relationships with those on the margins when we’re sitting in the same room or walking the same streets, but how I can translate these skills and acquire new ones that work well on-line will be a discovery for me.
    3. I have several concerns, not the least of which is the lack of technical savvy. I also prefer to have my fingers in the dirt, in bread dough, or on my guitar than on a computer keyboard. I am also easily distracted. I have learned to manage those distractions when face-to-face with students, but find myself whirling around when in an on-line classroom, easily losing focus, reacting to technical glitches or noises off stage.

      • Ann Massey on July 2, 2014 at 2:56 pm
      • Reply

      Hi David – I love your analogy of “whirling around in the online classroom,” and that is exactly how I feel. I made the comment to Leah that this is exactly how my students probably feel when they are in my class, even the F2F ones. Being able to see things from the students’ perspective might make me better able to find more appropriate resources, design better access to resources and content, and assess better. (I took a psychology course last summer – it was very eye opening to be on the other side of the podium, so to speak.) I am finding that a little more patience on my part is needed to develop that rhythm and focus for the course. And, I too feel your pain about the technical savvy – I’m about to get my 14-year-old to give me a hand 🙂 Ann

  3. Susan, I am also motivated by the external reason that we have a new online doctoral program in nursing that I will be teaching. I have never take an online class before and have only taught a hybird class one time about 10 years ago without any theoretical foundation or education about how to teach online. And I am also hopeful that I can meet the challenge of teaching well online through what we learn and transferring/translating what has worked well for me in past teaching and learning. Kristy

  4. David, Your points about the opportunity for student learning to occur in their home community context and the potential richness of sharing in this way help me to expand my view of potential benefits of online education. I have similar concerns and found it useful to think of the challenge of translating how I have taught as “discovering ways” to be effective online as you are when “sitting in the same room or walking the same streets.” And I am right there with you in need of technical savvy and the focus that comes from face-to-face engagement. Kristy

  5. David,
    I truly share your concerns about community and the greater environment in which both divinity and nursing students find themselves when out and about.

    One of the benefits of technology that I have found in my all of 1 year of experience in on line formatting, is that the students are able to capture community moments when we are not with them and through a blogging site like share those community moments with their peers. By keeping it to scholar blogs, the copyright issues and photograph permission issues are limited (I believe). No one has access but the students you allow, and therefore conversations can be contained within as opposed to being published on the Web.

    Leah, please correct me if I am wrong.

    Our cultural immersion students posted photos of the various sites they were learning by blogging about the locations in the VI, Bahamas, West Virginia, Atlanta and Dominican Republic. It gave all of us a chance to log in to keep up with what was happening with each group as they spend 14 days on site.


  6. Hi, Susan–
    Your blog promoted my own reflections concerning what online learning and teaching actually is. But I do wonder about what is “lost” along with what may be gained in online teaching. I am not a serious student of Marshall McLuhan, but I do agree with him that it is impossible to separate medium and message. The primary message of online teaching is online communication. That is not “good” or “bad” but simply the way it is.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.