Next Steps in Teaching

I would like to invoke my Southern heritage to note that I have been tickled by the interest in my [recent post][] on the *Chronicle of Higher Education*’s [ProfHacker][]. One response was from my university’s own [Office of Distance Learning][odl], which tweeted me to ask: “How do we get you to teach online? We want you to translate the magic if we bring the technology!”

I take their request seriously, and I will give them credit because some of what I do now in the classroom has been the result of thinking about the changes in educational infrastructure that are happening all around us, one result of which is the development of robust distance learning (and teaching) opportunities. One of their founding maxims, it seems to me, is “begin with the end in mind” which is not as cliched as you might imagine: let’s face it, some tasks can get routinized, and when they do so, you begin to forget about beginnings and ends. For an university teacher, that might mean forgetting to answer questions like: *Why does a student enroll in my class?* and *What do I want a student to get out of the class?* (Or maybe you are one of those people who never lose their way. Good for you! And, I don’t believe you.)

So some of what I now do in all my courses has already been shaped by lessons learned from talking to the DL folks. And I want to be clear, having clear cut objectives and teaching to those objectives is not as easy as it seems, especially as you move up class levels in the humanities: complexity, in the form of human artifacts often created with multiple agendas and audiences in mind, is our topic and delineating precise outcomes is often precisely not the point.

No matter.I’m interested in teaching online. Why?

A first reason, and a reasonable one too, is that “it’s hot.” Leaving aside debates about MOOCs and the future of higher education, I’d like to note that I have done a fair amount of learning myself on-line: enrolling in courses on linear algebra and statistics among other topics. (And that doesn’t include the number of times I have relied upon [StackOverflow][] or someone’s blog post or blogs I regularly read — I’ll pull together a list for a follow-up.)[^1]

A second reason, then, is that distance learning provides an opportunity to reach different kinds of students, perhaps students that either learn like I do or in circumstances like my own that encourage me to learn in certain ways — a kind of “learn when you can” approach.

A third reason that I am interested in teaching on-line is that the preparation I do there might find itself into alternate output streams, like books and articles, in ways that more traditional classroom materials do not (I’d have to make sure all the IP matters are lined up correctly.)

These latter two reasons bring up reasons why I might resist teaching on-line, too:

First, I am very used to, and somewhat tied to, teaching in a face-to-face setting. That is, I both came of age as a student and later as a teacher within the era of face-to-face classrooms.

And, to some degree, my own discipline of folklore studies predisposes me to be most interested in face-to-face interaction. I am, in fact, finishing up work on a six-year ethnographic study of embodied cognition (and creativity). I believe that bodies matter and that our thinking is more than simply symbols being manipulated in our minds. I have gotten pretty good at capturing that dynamic, and channeling it, in the regular university classroom. I have a range of assignments that get students to move about the room, interact with each other, and deliver results in ways that harness the fact that our consciousness is always already embodied.

So, the challenge for me of distance education is can I still make some of that happen, and are their alternative assignments?

What this comes down to in many ways is the complex relationship that exists in any educational setting:

1. There are the students, each of whom has their own experiences and educations as well as their own particular learning styles. (And these learning styles themselves must be understood as dynamic and changing: modes of engagement and ingestion that worked last year may not be as effective for them this year.)
2. There is me, the teacher, with my own expertise as well as my own preferred teaching style.
3. Finally, there is the material itself, which often, yes, does have preferences for *how* it wants to get taught.

I don’t think education in general spends enough time thinking about the first two, and I know that most people will think I’m goofy about the third point, but I think it’s a factor as well.

I want to spend some more time thinking about this, but in answer to the tweet from the good folks at ODL: what would it take? It would take time, and I need some guidance. Finding the time is the hard part, I know.

[^1]: If you’re interested in what I do on StackOverflow, feel free to [look me up](http://stackoverflow.com/users/1457672/john-laudun).

[recent post]: http://chronicle.com/blogs/profhacker/dangerous-games/52655
[ProfHacker]: http://chronicle.com/blogs/profhacker/
[odl]: http://distancelearning.louisiana.edu
[StackOverflow]: http://stackoverflow.com/

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