Teaching Online Beyond the Shadows

By Professor Mark Brown

Professor Mark Brown is Ireland’s first Chair of Digital Learning and Director of the National Institute for  Digital Learning (NIDL) at Dublin City University. Mark is an EDEN Fellow and serves on the EDEN Executive Committee. He also serves on the Supervisory Board of the European Association of Distance Teaching Universities (EADTU) and is Vice President of the Open and Distance Learning Association of Australia (ODLAA). In 2017, the Commonwealth of Learning recognised Mark as a world leader in open and distance education. Only months before the start of the COVID-19 crisis, in November 2019, Mark was Chair of the ICDE World Conference on Online Learning hosted in Dublin.

The opportunity to introduce this book comes when there has never been more interest in teaching online—for better and worse. Over the past 18 months, the COVID-19 crisis has generated unprecedented interest in both the potential and pitfalls of online education. The growing level of interest in learning how to teach more effectively online is evident over this time by the thousands, if not millions, of worldwide educators downloading handy checklists, joining webinars, and signing up for free online courses.

To their credit, the #OpenTeach team quickly responded to this demand by designing and facilitating two free online professional development courses on teaching online. Many Irish educators participated in these courses. Some of the ideas, examples and valuable resources in this book were refined and validated through a rich online community of practice. Also, in 2020, members of the #OpenTeach team helped develop the NIDL Online Teaching Resource Bank and contributed to the design of several professional development MOOCs on the FutureLearn platform, which collectively attracted over 100,000 learners.

While understandably, this book is framed from the perspective that the Pandemic has been a game-changer for online education, evidenced by a significant increase in the number of people now registering for MOOCs, the truth is that the impact of COVID-19 on higher education is a twisted tale of two cities. After all, in most cases, the MOOC remains outside of the mainstream of Irish education, and the Government recently unveiled plans to support colleges and universities so they can return to offering traditional lectures. Simon Harris, T.D. and Minister for Further and Higher Education, announced with delight that “College by Zoom is coming to an end” (cited in Devane, 2021). The return to campus plan demonstrates the future of online education beyond the Pandemic depends on who is telling the tale.

By analogy, imagine for a minute that two North American tourists have taken advantage of the lifting of travel restrictions. They are standing on opposing banks of the River Liffey in Dublin, looking upstream to the future. Because of their different vantage points, one sees sparkling water reflecting off the bright sunshine; the other, dark shadows and a dirty, polluted river. Both are right.


On the one hand, for example, Eric Mazur, a high-profile Harvard University professor, claims the results are in, and online teaching is better. Mazur pronounces:

“I have never been able to offer a course of the quality that I’m offering now… I am convinced that there is no way I could do anything close to what I’m doing in person. Online teaching is better than in person” (cited in McMurtrie, 2021).

On the other hand, a week or so after Mazur came to this bold conclusion, another North American educator, a Professor from the University of Waterloo, caught the headlines by claiming that the problem is “… online learning doesn’t teach people to think” (Danisch, 2021). Robert Danisch believes the Pandemic has reduced teaching to nothing more than knowledge dissemination where the emphasis is on “knowing-that” as opposed to “knowing-how”. Using a music analogy, he describes this difference as between:

“…knowing what pitch means, what notes are or the other aspects of music theory that help explain how to play — and knowing how to play an instrument like the piano really well” (Danisch, 2021).

Essentially, the opinion piece argues that a real university education needs to develop proper teacher-student interactivity and a type of “practical wisdom” which can only be embodied through live practice in the traditional classroom. It goes on to caution other educators by proclaiming:

“Remote learning is well suited to the kinds of education that focus on abstract theoretical knowledge and not “know-how.” And this is exactly the problem with those forms of learning — and why we ought to resist being seduced by them” (Danisch, 2021).

Unfortunately, both viewpoints fall into the trap of making sweeping generalisations and treat online teaching as a single monolith entity. This problem has permeated debates about online education throughout the Pandemic and continues in thinking about recent plans to return to campus. Importantly, online education is polylithic with many variations, mutations and modifications. Indeed, defining online learning is not a straightforward task, with Singh and Thurman (2019) identifyng 46 definitions in their literature review. Irrespective of your preferred definition or the one you have to work with, the central thesis of this book is that “teaching online is different”. Therefore, we need to stop talking as if teaching online is a single thing and challenge assumptions that by default imply it offers an inferior experience to traditional campus-based education.

For that matter, we need to recognise that in-place education also has many different faces and accept the reality that not all of them warrant “Gold Standard” status for the quality of teaching and learning. More to the point, we need to stop making naïve comparisons between offline and online delivery modes with no consideration of the pedagogical design. This book illustrates how you intentionally design for teaching, learning, and assessment is crucial to the quality of the online student experience. Moreover, as we discovered in a study of first-time online distance learners well before the Pandemic, learning support is another crucial factor in promoting student success (Brown, et al., 2015). The book has a section devoted to this issue.

While few would disagree that teaching online requires different pedagogical approaches to traditional lecturing, as demonstrated throughout the book, the question of what constitutes the good educator in the post-pandemic era is implicit in future efforts to design relevant professional development. This question raises deeper and more fundamental questions about the definition of good pedagogy—irrespective of the delivery mode. Hence, we need to be careful in the future not to overemphasise the craft of designing for online teaching at the expense of the art and science of good pedagogy. The previous notion of “practical wisdom” could be applicable here, although pedagogy is also intertwined with the politics of the curriculum by its nature.

The crucial point is that you cannot reduce good online pedagogy to a simple checklist of handy hints. While curated playlists in a time of ‘panic-gogy’ (Kamenetz, 2020) were undoubtedly helpful for many educators, we need to remember that good pedagogy is a creative, critically reflective and deliberative cognitive process that needs to go hand-in-hand with learning the practical craft. Extending the above analogy, learning lots of music theory and how to play the piano really well will not be enough for Ireland to produce a winning performance at the next Eurovision Song Contest. If we want a truly standout world-class performance, then we need to foster the flair, creativity and capacity of our chosen musician(s) to learn how to think, feel and groove to the beat like our previous eight winning Irish performers. The key lesson is that a great musician does not just borrow or follow someone else’s score!

In summary, good online teaching involves making intentional decisions as you navigate your way through both the light and dark patches of an increasingly diverse and challenging learning landscape. There is no one path or definitive map to good teaching online that takes you beyond the shadows, as this depends on your instructional context. Moreover, debates about the future of online education are far more complex than simple dichotomies of good or bad, as they are entangled in much bigger issues about who will shape and influence the future of higher education. Against this backdrop, the book presents readers with a clear philosophy of online teaching anchored in the concepts of presence and interactivity. It illustrates the art of the possible by drawing on a carefully selected mix of research, theory, and practice. In so doing, the authors challenge educators to move beyond the shadows and the deficit language of emergency remote teaching to better harness the potential of online education, particularly as we endeavour to build a more future-fit higher education system.

Finally, I hope you find the book thought-provoking and practical in helping you steer your own path through some of the debates and dilemmas concerning how to teach online. On a personal note, I would like to congratulate the #OpenTeach team on this book and their wider contribution throughout the COVID-19 crisis. They have a wealth of expertise in teaching online, and hopefully, this will be put to good use in building back better over the next few years.


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