By Jeffrey R. Young
Mark Bradbury has brought along plenty of apprehension to a summer workshop here on how to teach an online course. Mr. Bradbury, who directs a master’s program in public administration at Appalachian State University, prides himself on drawing out students in his face-to-face courses and feeding off their questions and interests. He worries that he won’t be able to replicate that spirit if he’s making lecture videos and posting on discussion boards.
“My strength as an instructor is being spontaneous,” he says. “I don’t always know what I’m going to say next, so the notion of a script, the notion of storyboarding, that’s foreign. I know we’ve had a good class when we’ve only gone through one-third of my teaching notes, because I know we had a dialogue and a discussion.”
Despite his doubts, Mr. Bradbury is scheduled to teach his first online course this fall. He is typical of the 36 professors at this workshop, put on by the University of North Carolina system for faculty members throughout its 17 campuses. It is designed primarily for those in the midst of planning their first online or hybrid course, and it is a marathon session by faculty-development standards, lasting eight days. The goal of the intensive training, billed as an “incubator,” is to offer enough time and support so that the professors finish a good portion of their online courses during the event, and leave with enough knowledge to tackle the rest on their own or with the help of their campus’s support staff.
It’s a new breed of training designed for the growing ubiquity of online education. Not long ago, few instructors at traditional colleges taught on the web, and those who did were usually early adopters eager to try new technologies. Today, nearly half of the UNC system’s students — 46 percent — take an online course at least once during their college career, and 11 percent take courses fully online. That means the online courses involve plenty of professors who have no particular love or interest in instructional technologies.
Often the professors are motivated by feedback from their students, who want or need the convenience of not having to come to the campus as often. Still, many of the professors, like Mr. Bradbury, secretly wonder whether their material can actually be taught well online. And they sense that shifting to online is a fundamental change in what it means to teach.
On the second day of the workshop, Mr. Bradbury had an aha! moment. Stace Carter, a freelance instructional designer, told the group the story of a philosophy professor who insisted on bringing his dog along to a video shoot for his course. Mr. Carter showed a clip in which the professor, Mitchell Green, reads a passage from a book while sitting by a stream. The dog distractingly digs around on the ground and then licks the professor’s face, all while Mr. Green continues reading aloud, unfazed. The roomful of professors at the teaching workshop erupted into laughter.
Mr. Carter admitted his first instinct was to reshoot the video. Instead, he and the professor just went with it. “People loved it. They begged for more, saying they can’t wait for next week,” Mr. Carter told the group. What comes through in the video, imperfect as it surely is, is a sense of authenticity.
Mr. Green is an outdoorsy person who loves his dog, and the setting of the video makes that plain. And in online forums for the course, students made a connection between the dog’s behavior and the passage, which was about Zen archery and how to find a way to “just be.”
“Think about the dog as a hook,” continued Mr. Carter. “It gave people something to talk about.” And, sure, the dog was distracting, so much so that many students probably had to watch the clip twice to fully take in what was being said. But watching a clip repeatedly isn’t a bad thing when it comes to learning.
To Mr. Bradbury, this was a revelation. He had been worried about making his lecture videos perfect — thinking that he had to give a command performance every time the camera was rolling, as if he were in a Hollywood production. But he realized he actually doesn’t think the same way about his time behind the lectern in the traditional classroom. As he put it, “I don’t expect hyper-efficiency when I teach face to face.” That put him more at ease. “I see that the anxieties of adding online instruction to my teaching responsibilities — OK, they’re valid — but I can’t allow those anxieties to get out of proportion,” he said in an interview.
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