Fast internet connectivity speeds and accessible online media technology has brought us to a point in history where teachers can teach to students and participants anywhere in the world. This offers unprecedented access to education and almost limitless opportunities for online teachers. Compare this to “conventional, in-person” teaching and learning, a phenomenon as old as the human race itself, and it’s clear that our society is at the cutting edge of developing this new mode of education.
It can be tempting to think that teaching online is simply a matter of transposing materials from an in-person context to teaching at a camera, however online teaching is quite a different beast. It’s important for potential online teachers to consider, “Should I teach online?”
This paper will explore the first two important aspects to consider before deciding to teach online: subject matter expertise (content) and comfort with online technology (technology). It will also touch on the third important factor in considering teaching online, online contemplative pedagogy (pedagogy). Pedagogy is not explored in depth in this paper, as it is an important topic in itself, and can be explored once content and technology have been addressed.
One of the first considerations in deciding to teach online is the level of subject matter expertise of the teacher. Online teaching has many challenges, some of which will occur spontaneously in real time during a class, and can throw off even the most seasoned “techie.” To best focus on the challenges of the online environment, it’s a good idea to become a subject matter expert before attempting to teach it online. Online teachers don’t need to be wrestling with their understanding of their material, in addition to technological challenges.
It may be tempting to move quickly to teaching online, especially if a teacher loves the online environment, however it’s worth investing some time in becoming something of a subject matter expert before moving to online teaching. There are many ways a teacher can move toward this in the online environment:
- Join or lead online book study groups of texts that will enhance a teacher’s understanding of a topic;
- Blog about a topic and seek feedback from readers;
- Attend professional development workshops and conferences online or live;
- Join or start peer support sessions with other teachers;
- Teach material in small chunks in live teaching environments;
- Seek out a mentor, online or in person, to support professional development;
- Follow training pathways for developing teaching skills and knowledge (training, certification, etc).
Learning about a subject matter in an online environment is value-added learning – not only is a teacher enhancing their subject matter expertise, but they are also enhancing their online presentation skills.
Technology makes a difference
The most obvious difference between in-person and online teaching is the medium. In-person teaching involves a medium we are all accustomed to inhabiting – good old personal relations, including being able to see, hear, touch, smell and sense the physicality of an embodied teacher and fellow participants. So much of how we learn is related to our environment – how comfortable we feel, how nurtured we feel, how connected we feel – and our senses give us this information.
In an online environment we lose many of these ways of feeling our learning environment: we are alone, looking at a computer screen. Because of this, all of those other ways of sensing into our level of safety in a learning environment are not available to us. We need to feel safe using alternative forms of receiving information, and it’s the teacher’s skill and ease of use of technology that contributes to this safety.
Firstly, the video, audio and LMS (Learning Management System) technology needed to access learning should be simple, reliable, inexpensive and offer high quality visual and auditory experiences. Learning will be hampered if technological concerns are constantly getting in between the teacher, the participants, and the material. Teachers need to make it as easy as possible for participants to access online technology, choosing the best technology available (and there is a lot to choose from). A participant’s initial experiences of online technology will set the stage for the learning environment. Many people are fearful of the complexity of online platforms, so the “gift of fearlessness” is one teachers can offer participants, by making compassionate choices about technology. This includes finding technology that:
- is robust, meaning it doesn’t crash very often (some crashing may be unavoidable);
- generally offers the minimum functionality needed by participants (so they don’t need to wade through functions they’ll never use);
- helps to make a course affordable for participants (because we pass on technology costs to our participants via fees);
- offers high quality video and audio (if we’re replacing high quality in-person viewing and hearing with something else, it should be as good as possible);
- offers aesthetically-pleasing and easy-to-navigate online materials, using an LMS that suits the subject matter and the intended audience.
In addition, it’s important that the teacher has a reliable and updated computer and that their internet connectivity is fast. Dial-up internet connections probably won’t make the cut, nor will internet connectivity that is so variable that the teacher and participants notice audio and video delays. It’s more important for teachers to have high quality internet connections than it is for participants. For some teachers, this will mean investing in better internet connectivity services.
Some other notes about using technology:
- Using a good quality headset microphone is usually preferable to using a speaker and microphone built in to a computer. Generally audio is of a higher quality when the microphone is close to the mouth of the speaker and connected to the computer via a cable (as opposed to Bluetooth).
- Connecting via a cable to a router usually offers quicker internet connectivity than using Wi-Fi.
In addition to possessing good technology, an online teacher needs to know how to use it. Online teachers need to be familiar with online and computer applications such as:
- Document creation;
- PowerPoint creation;
- File management;
- Desktop window navigation;
- Social media;
- Browser navigation;
- Online search functions;
- Mashup technology like word clouds and wikis.
An online teacher also needs to understand computing and internet terminology so that they can communicate effectively and efficiently with participants and with any customer support personnel involved in helping with troubleshooting.
As with anyone communicating in writing, online teachers need to have good spelling and grammar skills. Poor spelling and grammar can be a barrier to participants’ learning.
Another very practical consideration when thinking about teaching online is a teacher’s local environment, ie the office or room they will sit in when they teach online. It’s vital that there is a minimum of background noise in a teacher’s local environment (more important than the participants’ level of background noise, as they can be muted while the teacher cannot). Also, the backdrop to the view participants have of the teacher is important. The backdrop should be professional and inviting with no moving parts (like pets, spouses or fellow office mates). A blank wall will suffice, but it can help to “warm up the conversation” if the backdrop includes some subtle artwork, a wall hanging, a bookshelf, even a meditation space (although this can be tricky to set up). The backdrop should be a factor that helps to send the message that this is a nurturing learning environment. Green screen technology may be suitable, but this can present an artificial appearance, which hampers connection between teacher and students.
The teacher needs to be very comfortable in their local environment. Teaching online requires a lot of attention to detail and quick thinking in responding to technology issues. Minimizing discomfort or distraction in their local environment goes a long way toward supporting teachers in devoting their attention to the online environment.
Online Synchronous Presence
Along with the very practical matters mentioned above, online presence is another important factor for teachers to consider when thinking about teaching online. There are a number of skills an online teacher needs to use when offering synchronous (real-time) material, to offer participants a learning experience comparable to the in-person experience.
Firstly, teachers need to be very camera-aware. Looking into the camera as much as possible and showing appropriate facial expressions in response to participant questions and sharing are key to helping participants feel connected. To avoid the kind of flat facial expression that does not engender connection or trust, teachers need to be able to express themselves freely and often via appropriate facial expressions. Given that the only senses participants have left to experience their teachers through are sight and hearing, the visual impression they have of the teacher is important. Teachers can encourage sharing online by making it clear that they are listening. Responding visually to the nuanced points in a participant’s sharing through nodding, facial expressions and the occasional hand gesture by the teacher helps them to feel heard and seen.
One of the special skills required by successful online teachers is the ability to view their own teaching notes at the same time as they are looking into the camera (or generally having the appearance of looking into the camera). Teaching notes should be on screen rather than in a book in front of the teacher. It is not appropriate for participants to be often looking at the top of their teacher’s head or their forehead. Also, it’s distracting to have the noise of rustling papers being picked up by a teacher’s microphone, another good reason to have on-screen teaching notes.
Leading meditations online may mean that an online teacher doesn’t need to refer to their notes much (if at all) but teaching didactic material online and leading participants through exercises deserves cultivating particular skills. Teachers need to practice the multitasking required to view their video meeting, their teaching notes, and any other windows (chat box, participant list box, etc) simultaneously, and need to learn to navigate quickly and smoothly between these windows. In some circumstances, teachers may need to read and respond briefly to a chat message while simultaneously teaching a topic or leading a meditation. Teachers also need to be very familiar with their own desktop so that when they inevitably minimize or close a window by mistake, they can quickly recover.
Participants are forgiving if teachers spend some time in between components of their sessions rearranging windows and opening up or maximizing new documents, but this needs to be done relatively quickly. If the focus moves from the material to the teacher’s logistics and stays there for more than about 10-15 seconds, momentum is lost and participants might start to become restless. Bear in mind that 10 seconds might feel like 10 minutes when a teacher is desperately trying to find that missing window! Being transparent with participants and making jokes about any technological problems help to keep students connected.
General Online Presence (Synchronous and Asynchronous)
A successful online teacher needs to really enjoy the online environment. The online landscape is exciting, offering an endless supply of new information, technology, innovations and opportunities to connect with others. Teaching online can be an utter joy, and it should be an utter joy if one is to be the best online teacher they can be.
Here are some questions for a teacher to consider when assessing their disposition in relation to teaching online (from Major, 2015):
- Do you like learning new technologies?
- Do you have the self-discipline to spend hours on the computer?
- Are you happy spending time communicating online?
- Do you believe that the quality of online learning can be comparable to or better than onsite instruction?
- Are you comfortable with change?
In addition to the technological skills and the right kind of disposition, teachers considering teaching in the online environment also need to consider their organization and communication skills. Here are some questions for teachers to consider when assessing their skill level in relation to teaching online (from Major, 2015):
- Do you have good organizational skills?
- Are you good at time management?
- Are you good at giving quick and frequent responses to participant questions on a daily basis?
- Can you convey your thoughts in writing?
Once a teacher can tick off “mastery of content” and “expertise in managing technology,” they can move to learning about pedagogy. Online pedagogy is different to in-person pedagogy, and an online teacher needs to understand the differences in order to teach successfully online. Some in-person pedagogical techniques just don’t work online.
Online pedagogy (how to teach people online) is a topic in itself; contemplative pedagogy (how to teach through inquiry, meditation and personal insight) is a topic in itself; online contemplative pedagogy (which is what teaching mindfulness and self-compassion online is all about) has barely been touched on in current literature and thinking, and warrants more exploration. This topic is addressed in separate papers so it will not be discussed in detail here.
Bringing Together Content, Technology and Pedagogy in Online Contemplative Environments
Bringing together content, technology and pedagogy is no mean feat. Teachers considering teaching online need to evaluate, separately, their (1) subject matter expertise, (2) level of comfort with online and computer technology, and (3) willingness to employ online pedagogy, before exploring the intersection of these three components. At the intersection of these three components lies a rich place of understanding that is more than the sum of its parts. This topic, also, is explored in other papers.
Reference: Major, C.H. (2015) Teaching Online: A guide to theory, research and practice, Maryland: John Hopkins University Press.
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