‘We Don’t Teach Content – we Teach People’ – An Education professor on finding the essence of good teaching (online)

Dr. Lorraine Beaudin and Joerdis Weilandt

This article is based on an interview conducted in June 2018.

Dr. Lorraine Beaudin (Faculty of Education) appreciates the fact that teaching online encourages and facilitates self-directed learning in her Education students.  Considering herself “more of a facilitator on the side”, she plans activities for her students that support them in their individual academic quests. The movement to an online environment allows her to create unique and very personal learning opportunities that differ from the standard teacher-focused classroom interactions in noticeable ways. Read on to learn more about the relationship-building approach Lorraine takes to teaching online.


TC: What motivated you to design and teach courses online?

It all started with a course called ‘The Internet and Education’ which I taught for the first time online in 1998. It involved quite a bit of coding at the time. Creating a website wasn’t as convenient as it is today, but I had made a deliberate choice to teach online because I saw great potential in that modality for both – my students and myself.

My teaching has always been grounded in a constructivist understanding of learning. I consider myself more of a facilitator on the side, who needs to plan activities for her students to encourage them in their individual academic quests. The movement to an online environment allowed me to do that by creating unique learning opportunities that differed from the standard teacher-focused classroom interactions in noticeable ways. The biggest draw for the students was, of course, the flexibility online learning afforded them. There is the individual pacing that goes with it as well as the choice of time and place for the academic work to be completed. What appealed most to me, on the other end, was the opportunity to create personalized learning settings. In the online environment, I am no longer standing in front of the students taking them through the same set sequence of learning activities. Instead, technology allows me to create learning modules that offer my students choices in accordance with what their academic interests and needs are. I can also more easily connect with “quieter” students who would seek to hide in a face-to-face environment.

TC: What do you consider essential for the planning of such individualized learning online?

Although the complete list of planning essentials has changed over time, I still always start out from the 4 C’s of learning, i.e. critical thinking, collaboration, communication and creativity.  I want my students to think critically about the content, so often I add content and then I add questions to encourage them to think critically about the content and/or how it relates to their future teaching.   Given the emergence of content creation tools, I also want them to be able to show their understanding of content in ways that are meaningful to them.  When I start planning an online course, I ask myself what elements in the course design will best speak to those foundational principles. In my view, planning a course starts with an understanding of good teaching.  Good teaching is all about relationship building. In the Faculty of Education, we hear and say it all the time– we don’t teach content – we teach people. Throughout my career, I’ve really noticed this to be true because in the fifteen years that I have taught the same online course, the teaching experience has never been the same depending on the unique things that every group of students brought forward.

I think you need to plan for relationship-building in your course design. A consistent course structure and clear communication channels will also help you foster student engagement, both with the content and the people participating in the course. I want my students to know they can come to me, but they also need to know the ‘rules’ of our interactions, by which I mean the times and ways through which I will be available to them. When I speak of student engagement with the course, I know I will have to help my students go beyond merely doing what I tell them to do. Of course, I want them to meet the goals and move through the materials, but what I want even more is to have them develop and support their own viewpoints on matters relating to the course.  Online teaching encourages and facilitates self-directed learning.  When students not only have the freedom but the expectation to direct their own learning I think that they are more engaged with the course content.

TC: Speaking of structure, can you describe to us the design of your online course by illustrating how you use of the online learning environment to organize the content, assessment, teacher feedback and student interaction?

The way I bring consistency into my online courses is to plan for a simple structure that builds on a sound choice of technological tools and a weekly routine. I really believe in the efficiency of a weekly activity with feedback.  Every week the students are confronted with the same pattern that starts with the material provision, then moves into active learning and eventually results in the teacher feedback. That loop creates the framework for the consistent and personalized interactions I was speaking about earlier. I make it a point to keep track of all individual information I gain about my students, so that I can tailor my individual responses to them. That way I quickly learn whom I need to challenge more and where further probing will encourage students to delve deeper.

With respect to the content, I like to use a variety of modalities to introduce the tasks and the content. I might, use an audio file or maybe a short video to present a topic a certain week. However, I also try to limit the use technology to two or three items so as not to overwhelm students. What I want to initiate with the presentation of the weekly topic is the interaction of the students with it. The activities tied to a weekly topic are all geared to have students demonstrate their understanding of and/ or share their reflections on it. That again can happen via different avenues. Sometimes, I have students respond via email. At other times, they might be creating a Wiki with their peers. In all of the steps, the technology should be ‘invisible’, meaning students can focus on the task at hand without any difficulty or confusion. I usually choose technology that most learners will be familiar with and those who are not, will get my personal assistance to navigate it.

Multiple students have told me that if they needed to, they would design online courses like mine. To be honest, I don’t think I’m flashy in how I set them up. I could rather describe the structure of my online courses as boring, but if you look at it from a student perspective, the consistency in layout and presentation provides a framework that guides the students in their learning. My weekly loop of content, activity, feedback and repeat encourages my students to be active as learners. I, as the instructor, can smoothly steer and respond to the learning as well as bring it to a close at the right point in the course.

TC: What kind of feedback have you gotten from your students on the modality of online learning?

A lot of my online students really like the weekly activities and many also appreciate the personal feedback I provide them with. Every time I teach an online course, every student in it gets a folder where I compile the personal information I can get about them. A crucial piece here is the introduction I ask them to create in the beginning, through which they share elements from their personal and professional background with me and the class. I see my way of interacting with individual students on a very personal base as a demonstration to them how I want them to interact with each other. Like I said before good teaching is about relationships and I’m convinced that learning happens when those trusting relationships exist.

TC: Speaking of technology, can you tell us what technological tools you use in your online courses?

Technology in my online courses is used for two purposes. First, there are the tools that I use for the instructional delivery. My preference here is clearly with tools that offer an enrichment to the online environment, like audio or video files. My colleague Jim Henry and I wrote a paper on the use of audio files as means of enhancement to online courses in 2007[1]. Since then I’ve stayed true to the conviction that the voice of the instructor is really important in an online landscape. Not only does it provide a sense of my presence, but it also takes the negative tinge out of my feedback. If I wrote to students in an email that their assignments were not up to par, that would carry a stronger tone than me informally telling them the same thing in a brief video or audio vignette.

Another instructional tool that I use to deliver online courses is, obviously, the learning platform, where the students and I “meet”. Sometimes that’s a website, at other times it can be another solution. That always depends on the nature of the courses. Most often, for me, it is a website created with Weebly.

The other type of technology involved in my courses are the ones that the students utilize to do the activities and to complete the assignments. I usually suggest two or three tools that I provide technical support for, but students are always welcome to choose their own tools if they think that those better help them complete the tasks at hand.

In the more recent online courses I’ve been teaching, I’ve used blogs, Flipgrid and Coggle as tools for the students to communicate/collaborate with each other.  Coggle is an online mind mapping tool.  As a class, we created a Coggle diagram.  Each student had to contribute (anonymously) on the topic, then the following week they had to go back, make a copy of the diagram, edit it appropriately, comment on the changes and reasons for the changes and then embed their copy into their blog.  I think any time you have collaborative activities (discussion boards, peer reading/feedback), clear time lines and expectations, and a clear process for revisiting the collaborative work are essential.

Tracking tools are also helpful.  For instance, many web authoring tools (like Weebly), include ‘stats’ which allow me to view how many times specific pages are being visited.

How do you learn about the educational and instructional tools that you use?

As part of my professional learning, I frequently browse the Internet for new apps or new technologies. The moment I hear about a promising new tech tool, I immediately ask myself how that can be used in teaching. Given the nature of my courses, I am also comfortable with exposing my students to a new technology, even without being a proficient user of it myself. The feedback from my students and the challenges they face help me contextualize possible uses and applications in classrooms.  In addition to online searches, I also attend Edtech conferences like SITE (Society for Information Technology and Teacher Education) great professional learning opportunities.  In all of my instructional interactions, I make sure not to overemphasize technology since it’s merely a means to the ends of teaching and learning in the 21st century.

How does the facilitation and instruction of your online course(s) go?

The dynamics are always different depending on the different features of the individual groups that I teach. The work ethics of each group affect my facilitation to some extent. I really enjoy the classes where the students are in it to learn. Facilitating learning to me is facilitating critical inquiry and application to individual contexts.  I am a very curious person myself, so I consider it my duty to instill a sense of curiosity in my students as well. I always tell them in the beginning how hopeful I am that they’ll walk away from a course with even more questions in the end. Learning to me is a messy matter, where mistakes need to be made in order it for the learning to be profound. That is why I encourage my students to make errors and to have some fun along the way. It may sound odd, but my facilitation intends to make students uncomfortable and to push buttons that will encourage them to ask seriously meaningful questions instead of merely meeting the marks. That means for me to really be involved and pay attention to each student because I will need to adjust my approaches to each and every one of them. I would suggest anyone going into online teaching to not wait with the personal interactions until a later point in the in course, but to start attending to the individual right when a course starts.

TC: What does your online teaching work routine look like?

That depends in large parts on the number of courses that I am teaching in a term.  When I am teaching three courses, like I often do in the Fall, it can be pushing my capacity to provide individual attention to each of my students.

Generally, I have learned to not be available 24/7, but to set clear times when I will be ‘active’.  I have a 24-hour return policy for email and will let students know if I will be away from my computer for longer than a day. I also am clear about questions/concerns and how to voice them in an online course.  My typical routine is to be up early (4 or 5 am) and reply to all email. Even with all the other technologies available, email is my go to tool for individual communication.  Next, I will review my course websites and work on the weekly content.  I post new content the same day each week.  When the new materials are linked, I send an email to the course listserv, stating that the next module is open/live.  In this email, I do not include any course content other than to say the new materials are posted.  I am adamant about posting course material in one place only.  For information on assignments, students check the course outline which is attached to my course website.  For specific weekly task details, information is located on the weekly course page. Structure and consistency are important for my routine.  In my weekly email, I may include personal information so that the students see me as human.  I find students often reply to my personal ‘stuff’ in their email replies.  I might say something about a new grandchild, a sporting event I participated in, and/or tell them something about our ranch life.

This semester (Spring 2019), I also added a ‘news’ blog to the course website and asked students to subscribe to it.  In the past, I have used a variety of approaches for sharing course extras (Twitter, Remind, etc). But the course news blog provides a clearer history of extra content that I have shared with the students.  Once, I have worked on my course content, I will try to find a news piece or something of interest to share with my students.  If I have time during the day, I will try to explore ways to enhance instructor presence and/or try to find humorous content to share.  Finally, my online day will end with responding to email for the day.

TC: What challenges do you face teaching online.

There aren’t many challenges really. Something I might be experiencing are technical glitches of some sort, but that can usually be fixed rather quickly.  What I sometimes miss is the ability to joke with my students because it’s so much harder in an online classroom to gauge whom you can tease or what you can say to make things funny. When I interact with people in real life, humor is a big component of that interaction. One of the questions I ask myself when thinking about improvements in my online teaching is how I can eventually bring more humor into my online courses and how to improve instructor presence.  This semester I am trying to use Memes to add a bit of humor.

What kind of support do the learners need to navigate the course well and complete it successfully?

I think clear expectations are important for all courses.  Students will successfully complete an online course if they learn to be disciplined with regards to the time and effort they’ll put into their work. To be successful in my online courses, and I suppose that’s true for all other courses as well, comes down to closely reading the instructions and following them. For me as the instructor, that means I will have to design and express everything very explicitly. Students need to know that for a 3-credit course, they’ll need to spend at least 3 hours working on the content, plus an additional three hours weekly to complete the incoming assignments.  Besides the clarity in layout and instructions, a consistent structure will help students focus on the essentials in the course. One of the strategies I see students need to develop is to ask questions and proactively seek answers to the them. If students ask for feedback and address shortcomings in their performance right from the start, that’ll not only help improve their own learning, but it’ll set the bar high for everyone else in the course for the rest of the term.

TC: How do you obtain feedback from your students?

In addition to the end-of-term course evaluations, I also get a lot of informal feedback from my students through the course.  Depending on how I feel about a course, I might ask some direct questions relating to specific activities, so I can make adjustments to my instruction the next time round. Feedback is a core element of my teaching. I try to generously give it, and frequently ask for it.

TC: What potential do you see in a Digital Teaching and Learning Campus Group?

First, I see great value in informal sharing sessions with colleagues. Talking about our teaching approaches and experiences can replicate the conference experience for us and get us thinking or reflecting on the things we do. Seeing different implementations of teaching, will inevitable inspire us to try new things or to do “old’ things a bit differently.

I’m also very open to working with faculty members in a peer-mentoring capacity. Having taught online for so long, I am willing to share my ideas in that field with people who are new to it. Let’s face it mentorship is clearly a mutually beneficially matter that will just as well help improve my own teaching. The moment you start talking about your teaching you can become aware of the areas needing adjustment.

TC: Which aspects of flexible teaching and learning would be worthwhile of a more empirical investigation? Which (research) questions would you be curious to get answer to?

I would love to establish the parameters of a good online course through a case study. For the longest time, I’ve been really curious to find out what the essence behind good online teaching is and I would like to describe it in detail to the greater education community. I’ve been on the distinguished teaching award selection committee, where when we picked someone it was often someone whose students talked about a relationship with them. What I would like to do is investigate how relationships between students and instructors enable learning.

Another area I want to learn more about is the student perception of tools and learning activities. I would like to involve learning analytics to get better understanding of how my students use the activities I set up for them and how they impact their learning. In the end, I really want to make sure I provide them with meaningful learning opportunities and I think that pairing student questionnaires with data diagnostics could be an approach to constitute what meaningful learning looks like for my students.

  1. Beaudin, L. & Henry, J. (2007, Oct). What does voice have to do with it? Using audio files to connect with students in online courses. In T. Bastiaens & S. Carliner (Eds.), World Conference on E-Learning in Corporate, Government, Healthcare, and Higher Education. Quebec City, Canada: Association for the Advancement of Computing in Education (AACE). http://editlib.org/p/26395


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Digital Teaching and Learning at the UofL Copyright © by Dr. Lorraine Beaudin and Joerdis Weilandt is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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