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Making the Shift to Online Teaching: Two Major Changes

The EvoLLLution | Making the Shift to Online Teaching: Two Major Changes
For educators considering making the jump to teaching online, it’s worth preparing for the new experience and becoming familiar with the available tools.

As online learning becomes more and more prevalent across the educational spectrum—both in higher education and K-12 settings—faculty members are faced with the prospect of transitioning to teaching in this setting. For some, it may be facilitating a purely asynchronous learning environment with zero face-to-face activities. For others, it may be a blended approach that utilizes both asynchronous and synchronous aspects of learning.

Of the many novel elements of teaching in an online setting as compared to a traditional face-to-face setting, two fundamental aspects are most evident for the first-time online teacher. To be specific, the examples that follow are based on a blended approach that utilizes video conferencing for the real-time, face-to-face component of online learning.

As one’s teaching skills develop in the online setting, it becomes apparent that both traditional and online environments offer unique benefits and share many similarities. For the instructor considering teaching in an online environment, the first two considerations are adjusting to the environment as a whole and taking time to learn the various tools, which this article covers in some detail.

1. A New Tactile Teaching Experience

One of the first things an instructor will experience in an online videoconference class is the significant change in tactile experience. Whereas a traditional brick and mortar class allows a teacher to roam freely, move to various student locations, distribute copies of materials, or simply stay at a lectern, the online setting is essentially void of these elements. However, this is not a bad thing—just different.

In the videoconferencing environment, all participants are equidistant. This means that instead of students being in rows or grouped at tables where an instructor can only be physically close to some students while away from others at a given time, all participants are portrayed in the same way. Think of the Brady Bunch TV Show. Each family member was in a “box” and displayed from the shoulders up. This is the same way participants are arranged in a videoconferencing setting. Because of this, the distance between instructor and students is equal.

This can be an overwhelming experience for the novice online teacher as, depending on the number of students in the class, there are literally a dozen or more pairs of eyes staring at the teacher. A brick and mortar setting allows a teacher to be “present” with a smaller group of students—even an individual student, but this is not the case in an online setting.

Over time, this becomes the norm and a teacher loses the “spotlight” effect. But, the question is really about how an instructor prepares for this setting and manages it. One is to actually spend some time practicing. This can be achieved by simply inviting some colleagues, friends, or family to join a videoconferencing session even for a few minutes. This affords the teacher an opportunity to be in the authentic environment and build his or her confidence managing a videoconference.

Ultimately, this is a benefit because it forces students to remain engaged, prevents an instructor from being anchored to the podium and not moving about the class, and creates a level of equality and access for students.

2. The Availability of Educational Tools and Resources

A second factor that is significantly different from traditional face-to-face instruction is the number of tools available in a videoconferencing environment. A professor or teacher may feel comfortable using a whiteboard or presenting slides over a projector. However, in the online setting, there are multiple digital tools available to both students and teachers such as chat boxes, notes, slide presentation, file sharing and link sharing, among others.

In a traditional class, students would not likely be carrying on vocal sidebar conversations while an instructor or other student is speaking. However, in the online setting, a chat dialogue can be leveraged for students to pose questions, share resources, or respond to others’ comments in a non-verbal way. Of course, this means managing several moving parts that are typically not a part of the brick and mortar class.

Overall, as teachers develop their skills in these areas, the above tools enhance learning and modes of teaching by allowing teachers to engage more students, evaluate learning on an informal and formative level by reviewing chat transcripts for student contributions, and incorporating other new media that are not as fluidly accessed in a brick and mortar class (i.e. virtual breakout rooms, digital notes, and polling).

For a more expanded evaluation of teaching in the blended online setting see Ferrario, Hyde, Martinez, and Sundt (2013).

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