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Guest Blog: Maybe We’ve Been Asking The Wrong Question

Guest Blog: Maybe We’ve Been Asking The Wrong Question

Dr. Theodore J. Kopcha
Associate Professor 
Learning, Design, and Technology

I want to begin by saying that I love teaching online. I’ve done it for over 10 years and I could not imagine my teaching any other way – teaching online has forced me to face many realities and grow in my teaching practice. People are often surprised by my enthusiasm. Colleagues ask me if teaching online is the same as teaching face-to-face (which I’ve also taught). You know, is online “as good,” or “Can you do all the things in an online classroom that you can do in person?” For me, personally, the answer is “No.” 

Surprised? I know, me too. I just said I love teaching online, but I cannot teach online like I can face-to-face. Those two statements seem contradictory, right?

Not really. It’s true that in my time teaching online, I’ve learned that some things that I can say and do in a face-to-face setting just don’t work online. Period. Like responding quickly to struggling group dynamics. Or having a good discussion when only some students are using a microphone and the others participate 140 characters (or less) at a time. Sometimes there’s a lag between my voice and the slideshow itself. Yes, all these are the realities of online teaching. But this focuses on how online falls short of face-to-face teaching. What’s wrong with this focus is that people assume face-to-face is a good baseline for judging the quality of online. That if it’s not like face-to-face, it’s not good.

Is this really true, though? What if we’re asking the wrong question here? Maybe we should be asking something different, like: What can you do online that you can’t do face-to-face? Here’s where the good stuff comes out.

I can simultaneously watch multiple groups edit a shared document in real time as part of in-class group work. I can combine video and other web-conferencing tools (e.g., drawing, concept mapping) that get students making use of their knowledge. I can record it and share it with the click of a button. And we do it, together. Sometimes in a way that happens all at once, in class (like face-to-face). But sometimes more slowly, over time, while we all watch resources and knowledge build between people who will never in their lives meet in person. You know, not face-to-face.

Not-face-to-face frees up our lives so learning happens more often, more informally and more conveniently within communities of people all over the world. People who are smart, capable and willing to contribute to the world in a way that makes it better, even if it’s only a little bit at a time.

Sure, I could do some of that in face-to-face settings too. But not all of it. And not the same way, either. Teaching online requires me to be more aware of the problems created by not being face-to-face – and that’s challenging, no doubt. But teaching online also allows me to take advantage of what the technologies offer that cannot be achieved when face-to-face.

That’s a challenge I’ve come to enjoy immensely.