Teaching on-line takes the same sort of discipline and self-motivation that society and we are requesting of our students.

It can also be incredibly rewarding and can mitigate certain failings of even the best in-person teaching; where we tend to call on students who look like us, we have unconscious gender bias, we tend to teach to our own learning style and we can even, sometimes, be sleepy ourselves and not want to go to class at 4pm on a Friday.

On-line (well set up) can democratise participation: no one’s voice is louder or visage more (for whatever reason) more appealing. Gender differences tend to be quashed and non-native speakers / those from more passive cultures, are not penalised. Periodic bonuses occur in the form of explanations or use of illustrative (pop-culture?) metaphors by students. You, the instructor, then get to endorse, agree and subsequently re-use those versions in future classes- becoming instantly cooler than you arguably are in real life!

Instructors who dislike or distrust “on-line” too much to show up and won’t change that thinking should not be given online teaching assignments. Not every personality makes a good on-line instructor. The stages of some sages don’t translate well to virtual. What is said in (face-to-face) class tends to fade away, what you post in on-line stays in black and white for all to see.
Those who are a fit or who get it, in its slightly compulsive glory (the e-Bay, Facebook, TripAdvisor, / Jigsaw puzzling, tomato-growing crowd), should be supported and cherished.

People can even grow to prefer their online persona to their real world personality. Humour can be used, as can challenge, ambiguity and even contradiction to provide mnemonic emphasis to key teaching points. Peer-to-peer opportunities should be sought – you cannot be there 24 hours a day but in a big class, and certainly in a class featuring different time zones, someone is likely to be there at any time when someone else is having a problem. It doesn’t always have to be you. From a technical perspective, back end system data can illustrate exactly where students are struggling – and it’s almost never where you thought it would be. Challenging content can be revisited or supplemental examples provided.

My job and the job of the instructional designers and learning scientists I work with, should be supporting great instruction and genuine effort with appropriate canvases on which learning can happen. Our job starts to develop massive overheads and will not work if it is a sticking plaster solution; if we are tasked with the development of materials to mitigate for instructors who don’t want to be there (and show it) or don’t show up at all, we will all fail.

Despite the tendency to zero in on polished (boutique) materials as a golden bullet, the most important task for us all is to convince the academics that the most important aspect of an on-line class is still the instructor.

In my early days, (2008-2010) at Southern New Hampshire University, looking at data – it was instructive to learn that close to 95 per cent of student grievances concerned either lack of clarity of expectations or inadequate feedback. The feedback issue was neatly split between insufficient and not timely (feedback on assignment one not received before assignment two was due). Fewer than 3 per cent of student grievances even mentioned format, design or currency of content. Not that we neglected content quality, but we did note that people are way more accepting of basic materials well supported than they are of great materials supported poorly (or not at all).

The quid pro quo
If people like me and those I work with do our jobs well, we can automate some parts of on-line instruction but need the academic to work with, not against us. The quid pro quo? – “work with us: we might be able to help with some of the boring, dull parts that you don’t like doing.”
Such as:

  • answering questions that you have answered a hundred times before (let’s develop a consistent, prominent FAQ),
  • reminding people that assignments are due (might we suggest a calendar and pop up reminders),
  • developing a working understanding of basic, foundational knowledge (I give you chunked content and automated self-checks)
  • there 24/seven, answering every question (scaffolded, supported, peer-to-peer interaction)
  • not understanding where or why students are failing (analytics)

These kinds of online elements can freeup discipline experts to focus on questions that are stimulating, those that allow them to demonstrate and indulge their deep passion for their subject. Questions that allow them to share insights and epiphanies that made them, and could encourage others, to persevere and become a leader in that field. Idealistic? –sure; but over time, and with continued engagement and reflection on the course analytics, at least some of these moments will come to pass as we iterate and re-iterate your course(s).

If an institution does nothing about lackadaisical online presence, if it turns away from the data that demonstrates lack of engagement or tries to obfuscate and protect by deflecting blame towards materials rather than behaviours, shame on it / them / us. In the current climate, viable distance education could be one of the few ways in which people might be able to feel that their life is still on a positive track. We should be encouraging all of our academic staff to be more T-shaped: with profound discipline depth, and broad competence across a wide range of (21st century) skills. We are aiming for our students to be employable and competitive in a 2020-2030 world. If we accept mediocrity and inertia in our delivery methods and a lack of digital literacy in our staff, how can we expect excellence and fluidity in our graduates?

Too many industries and businesses will go to the wall this year. Against that, and in Higher Education’s favour, when times get tough, people tend to look to go back to education.

(Trusted) universities and colleges are still the first choice for most people and employers but there are now many alternative providers and systems. HE could be on the cusp of losing the market advantage that it has had for close to 200 years (Australia) 400 years (USA) or even 900 years (UK/Europe). We don’t have the option of dropping the ball here. Failure in this current environment means redundancies among staff and unrewarded college debt added to all the other challenges our students are facing.

We cannot have that on our consciences. At least we should talk about it. I firmly believe we can do that effectively (even) at a distance while isolating and social distancing.

Kevin Bell Ed. D is a digital and innovative learning consultant.

Reach him at, 0429 621 067


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