January 09

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Community is a Verb, and Other Lessons I Learned from Teaching Online.

Scott CottonBy Scott Cotton (Greenhill School)

Teaching an online course has been one of the most challenging and gratifying experiences of my professional life. As with most new ventures, there has been a steep learning curve, a few bumps in the road, several “a-ha” moments and, ultimately, a sense of deep satisfaction in completing (or is “surviving” the better term?) the experience. In reflecting on the fall semester, there are a handful of lessons that have shaped my thinking about teaching online and will influence my planning moving forward.

1) There is no magic “upload ” button. When I initially signed up to teach with GOA, I naively assumed that building an online course would be a fairly straightforward process. After all, I was familiar with the subject matter (9/11 in a Global Context) and had taught a course on it at my home school for many years. Transferring the material from one platform to another should be pretty easy, right? I figured I would repackage my tried-and-true readings, lessons, and assessments, locate the big “upload” button and – voila! – my class would now be online. How wrong I was. I learned very quickly that what worked in a brick-and-mortar classroom would not automatically translate into an online environment. In fact, almost everything had to be re-thought. In particular, my textbook-centered and teacher-focused class had to be made more dynamic in this new online platform. Lengthy units needed to be subdivided, readings needed to be more varied and, most importantly, students had to be engaged and challenged in new ways. In short, I realized that I needed to think about the course –and the idea of “content” itself – in completely new ways.

2) “Content” really is a verb. I was skeptical initially when I came across this notion of content in the teacher-training course. Content a verb? Really? I had made my peace with other nouns that had migrated into verb territory (dialogue, interface, e.g.), but “content”? What I’ve learned is that, yes, content can have a more dynamic meaning. It can, and should, involve students exploring, testing, and constructing their own interpretations of material. It also can involve meaningful student-student interaction with the material, as they work together to produce understandings that they may not have arrived at independently. In this sense, content is both a means and an end – an interactive and open-ended process by which students and teacher build knowledge and hone skills together in real time.

3) “Community” may not be a verb, but it is a mighty important noun. Early childhood educators will tell you that “kids don’t care what you know until they know that you care.” This is often true of secondary students too, yet the distance and apparent remoteness of an online environment can make it difficult to build strong teacher-student relationships and forge connections among students. There is no “homeroom” online and no “water cooler” around which students and teachers can get to know each other. In order to facilitate greater rapport, familiarity, and trust within the class, I realized that community was something that needed to be cultivated in more intentional ways than I was used to. I decided to create a “Coffee Shop” page in Haiku where the class could share ideas, interests, and experiences outside of the regular processes of the class. We used this space to learn about our favorite songs and movies, take virtual tours of each others’ schools, and share thoughts about our formative influences. Without the Coffee Shop, I probably would not have known that Sean knows lots of great indie bands, or that Emma’s grandmother was a real trailblazer, or that Taara’s cousin’s friend had Noam Chomsky over for Thanksgiving dinner. While this information bore no relation to the course material, these interactions acted as the social lubricants which helped to make the class feel like a community.

4) Students in an online course are like students in traditional classes … only more so. Students bring a whole range of strengths, weaknesses, and dispositions into any class they take. And while a virtual classroom affords students the chance to be more detached and perhaps even “hide” in some ways, it also exposes them and serves to highlight their preexisting tendencies. Those students who are conscientious self-starters will thrive when presented with lessons that require self-pacing; strong communicators will excel at articulating their ideas in discussion forums, blog posts, and Wikis; and organized, detail-oriented students will meet the challenges of complex, multi-step projects. As such, online learning serves to reveal students’ core traits and habits in ways that traditional classes might not. One of the teacher’s main roles, then, is to identify and monitor these tendencies and seek ways to support students as they try to adapt their learning styles to the demands of an online environment.

John Wooden, the famed college basketball coach, once said that the best thing about freshman is that they become sophomores. This “freshmen” is hoping that something similar applies to online teachers, as I seek to apply the lessons from year one and strive to create an even richer experience for my students in year two.

Scott Cotton is a teacher as well as the History Department Chair at  Greenhill School in  Addison, TX. He teaches 9/11 in a Global Context with Global Online Academy.