Reflections on Teaching Online: Craig Piercy, MBT Faculty

In my 20+ years of teaching in higher education, I have had the opportunity to provide instruction for various types of students and in various formats. These experiences include: in-class instruction to both large (300+ students) and small (10 students) classes at the undergraduate and graduate level; created and implemented a “flipped” course for an undergraduate programming class; conducted hybrid instruction - about 50% in-class and 50% online - to graduate students; and for the last 5 years 100% online instruction to graduate students. In this reflection, I hope to describe a few of the primary lessons that I have learned about teaching and learning that span the gamut of these teaching experiences.

Preparation is Key - A dynamic course often comes with some degree of uncertainty. Will the students be receptive to the material? Will a new technique be welcome by the students or cause confusion? What questions will students have? A good instructor will be prepared for most eventualities. Several types of preparation are needed for a teacher to be fully prepared. A teacher should have an expert grasp of the material to be presented. I strive to know my topics thoroughly so that I can handle any questions my students might throw my way. For most courses, an instructor should have a well thought out plan of instruction and communicate this to the students.

In the same vein, students must take ownership of their own learning. They need to be prepared in several ways. First, they need to be prepared to learn. This means that they need to come to a course with a receptive attitude and motivation to learn. Students should be prepared to put the time in that learning requires. One cannot expect to learn new things through passive engagement alone. A student needs to actively engage in the work in order for deeper learning to take place.

Be Flexible and Responsive - In a dynamic course, students will surprise even the experienced instructor from time-to-time. A teacher should be ready to put the plan aside and respond appropriately. In preparing for uncertainty, a teacher can have several techniques at hand that enable them to respond to a dynamic course environment. Preparation for uncertainty is often learned over years of experience, but a teacher should also be open to listening to other instructors and student feedback.

Students should realize that while instructors try to plan for a semester long course, no plan will remain entirely intact. Students can help by providing feedback of their progress in learning and about what works and what doesn’t. They should keep in mind that the “preferred learning style” is mostly a myth. Learning activities should be designed to support the concepts and skills of the topic. A good instructor will use various approaches of instruction throughout a course and students should be flexible and ready to learn by actively participating in all of the various course activities.

Learning is an Individual Task - While much of our planning is with the entire class as a group in mind, we need to be responsive to the needs of each individual student. Students come to us with different attitudes, aptitudes and prior degrees of experience. All of these can affect how quickly or slowly a student can grasp the concepts of a course. While striving to meet the needs of the many, a good teacher will also keep an eye on the progress of each individual and intervene on an individual basis when necessary.

Another aspect of this lesson is that the individual needs to take ownership of their own learning. The instructor can play a role here in guiding the student, while also encouraging them to rise to the challenge of rigorous course work.

Innovation (Techniques/Technology) Can be Great - Teachers should constantly work to improve their instructional skills. Techniques and technologies for instruction are constantly evolving. To keep up requires an instructor to not only pay attention to what is “new and improved,” but also to have the courage to implement new techniques and technologies. I have found that innovation in the classroom has been one of the keys to my own success as an instructor regardless of the course delivery format.

Innovation (Techniques/Technology) Can Get in the Way - Not all technologies and techniques will be the right fit for every course. While an instructor should be open to trying new ways of teaching, they should also pay attention to make sure that the new technique first causes no harm, and then adds positive value to a course. Think learning goals first, and technology later.

Students can help when instructors try innovative teaching techniques through active participation with an open mind. They can also provide honest feedback about their experience.

Learning is Continuous - Instructors need to encourage students to become lifelong learners. We should encourage them to constantly seek to improve themselves in both their personal and occupational activities. Perhaps the best way to encourage this behavior is to model it. So, it’s important that instructors are lifelong learners as well.

Online learning can be difficult. Students and instructors often have to work harder to obtain the camaraderie and engagement that naturally exist with a face-to-face course. By keeping in mind the principles described here, both instructors and students can together strive to make the experience of an online course both productive and enjoyable.