ONLINE INSTRUCTION FOR PEDAGOGICAL REFORM
Online instruction is theory-laden. The development of an online course, faculty development and support, information web sites, best practice lists, and supporting software, to list a few, make implicit pedagogical assumptions. The pedagogical issues, I believe, have been appropriately ignored. I also think that this is no longer appropriate. I propose that a new wave of online teaching be defined by explicit attention to pedagogical issues underlying online delivery systems, online courses, and faculty development. It will be urged that the development of online courses be used as a vehicle for promoting a pedagogical movement.
This paper could have been titled "What I discovered and where we Should be headed." What I discovered is that online instruction is theory laden. This is not a very well advertised or surprising fact. Where we SHOULD be headed, and I say that with the force of a quasi-moral imperative, is in the direction of revolutionizing online instruction as a means toward pedagogical reform. In short, I offer a very simple thesis: online instruction without pedagogy is blind.
When I say online instruction is theory laden, I am importing a notion found in the philosophy of science and using it within the philosophy of education. To say that science is theory laden is to say observation reports are not free from theoretical assumptions. When a scientist says, "Lo, there is a sub-atomic particle" that observation report depends on prior background beliefs that are theoretical. Scientists, as the story goes, were naive. They were not aware that observation reports explicitly depend on background beliefs. They believed observation statements were neutral with respect to theory. Similarly, online tools are not free from theoretical assumptions.
Much of the talk about online instruction is about how to do something. All of this is just how it should be. Whenever some new technology comes along we do have to learn how to use it. After competency, however, we should begin to ask why questions. There are, of course, different kinds of answers depending on a particular type of why question being raised. The kind of why question(s) I am interested in addresses issues about how to teach. In asking about particular online tools (mailing lists, internet (re)search, MOOs, discussion groups/boards, etc.), the answer should uncover implicit assumptions about how to teach and why that particular tool is effective for a particular assignment. But very little discussion is heard about why a particular online tool should be used. I take it that the implicit assumption has been that the implementation of an online tool is free from theoretical assumptions about how to teach. In other words, the answer for why a particular tool is used is that any particular online tool is pedagogically effective, independent of the learning objectives of a course. This, I believe, is a mistaken assumption.
Let me take a step back and provide you with my own background. My discipline is philosophy. And like many other disciplines, I learned how to teach by modeling/mimicking how I was taught. Like others, I adjusted my teaching to accommodate my particular personality and style. However, I had, if at all, very little explicit training in pedagogy. This all changed in the last two years. I am presently a Writing Fellow within the City University of New York (CUNY) system. I was hired as part of CUNY wide initiative to implement writing intensive courses in the curriculum. I was trained in a movement called Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC) and Writing in the Disciplines (WID) and, more importantly, by work coming from composition theory. The result of this training fostered my becoming meta-cognitive, i.e., self-aware, of my assumptions about what I thought I was teaching and who I was teaching. In the process, I discovered some of my own assumptions in need of revision. I was teaching blindly, even though I thought I was not.
Those who have been involved in WAC/WID, or other such pedagogical movements, will understand the experience. For others, let me briefly run through an example. This particular exercise focuses on (1) articulating course goals and (2) designing assignments. (Part of this exercise is from John Bean's book, Engaging Ideas.) For any particular course, do the following:
If you try this, you might be among many who find themselves as if lost at sea with overly general, i.e., not informative, course goals. For example, the statement "I want my students to be critical thinkers" is not very informative. It ignores the particular way your discipline thinks critically. How a student is expected to approach an assignment on Plato's Republic depends on whether they are in a Philosophy, English, or Political Science course. To say that a student should be a critical thinker will mean different things to different instructors, even within the same discipline.
The second part of the exercise, and the scary part, is to hand a colleague one of your assignments. Have her articulate the thinking goals and learning objectives she believes are expected from the assignment. If your colleague's articulation does not match your own, you cannot expect your students to fair well with your expectations. The assignment requires revision.
Let me provide another example. A touted virtue of an online course is that it provides asynchronous feedback to student writing. But not all types of responses are created equal. Many instructors respond back in an authoritative and judgmental style. The assignment is judged by the errors. However, if a goal is to promote student's learning, this technique is not too effective. An alternative approach is one where the instructor responds with the good, she stresses the positive features of the student's work and suggests how the assignment could be improved. In adopting a model of support, you might also recognize the importance of tone. Written responses, even when augmented by emoticons, can often be misinterpreted. As such, you might respond by sending a wav file with your spoken response to the student. How you decide to develop an assignment will be influenced by explicit attention to what methods of teaching are more effective in given contexts.
All of this is fine. One might agree with me that the implementation of online tools by instructors carries with it assumptions about how to teach. Still, one might think, this is a general issue about teaching and not one pertinent to online course development in particular. I disagree. But let me drive home a pragmatic consideration for why online instruction should not be divorced from pedagogy.
Follow the money. Administrators, governmental sources, and private sources tend to support whatever is flashy for the times. Teachers, on the other hand, tend to want to support those activities that support or promote better teaching. These two tendencies unhappily do not always come together. Online instruction is very flashy but the support given to the development of online courses has been blind. On the other hand, the support given to promoting better teaching is often paltry in comparison. If you, i.e., you the reader, are someone who is involved in promoting better teaching, then the promotion of online course development would be a logical medium to promote better teaching. If you, on the other hand, are involved in promoting online courses, then coupling the two would reach a wider audience and broaden the support of the college community.
More could be said. More should be said. I'm hoping the future of online teaching is explicit attention to pedagogy in the online environment.
James M Hitt
TCC Online Conferences