Thoughts on: Teaching online (in Teaching thinking: Beliefs and knowledge in Higher Education) (Goodyear, P. 2002)

Writing about work by your supervisor feels a little strange but, as adults and scholars, it really shouldn’t. Obviously there is a power dynamic and a question for me of what to do if I disagree with him. Putting aside the matter that Peter Goodyear has worked and researched in this field forever and is highly regarded internationally while I am essentially a neophyte, I’m almost certain that his worst reaction would be the slightest brow-crinkling and a kindly, interested “ok, so tell me why”. He even made the point that the research may now be dated but it could be worth following the citation trail. Fortunately none of this is an issue because, as you’d hope from your supervisor, it’s pretty great and there is much to draw from it.

In summary, this chapter focuses on understanding what and how teachers think when they are teaching online. Sadly perhaps, little has changed in the nature of online teaching in the 14 years since this was written – the online teaching activities described are largely related to students reading papers and participating in discussions on forums. This gives the chapter a degree of currency in terms of the technology (although a few questions emerged for me in terms of the impact of social media) and I imagine that little has changed in teacher thought processes in this time related to assessing and trying to engage students online.

In some ways it’s the methodology used in the study that is the most exciting part of this – it steers away from the sometimes problematic reliance on transcript analysis used often (at the time?) in research on online learning and makes more use of the opportunities for observation. Observing a teacher reading, processing and replying to discussion forum posts offers opportunities for insight into their thoughts that a far richer than one might get in observing face to face teaching. By using a combination of concurrent and retrospective verbalisation and interview, a rich picture emerges.

Concurrent verbalisation involves getting the tutor to keep up a kind of stream of consciousness dialogue as they work on the discussion posts, with the researcher prompting them if they fall silent for more than 10 seconds. This can prove difficult for the teacher at times as they need to stop speaking at times to concentrate on the replies that they write but a balance is generally found. The session is also videotaped and the researcher and teacher watch it back together, (‘stimulated recall’),  which gives the teacher the opportunity to discuss what they were thinking in the quiet moments as well as enabling them to expand on their recorded comments. In terms of understanding the things that are important to teachers and how they work with the students, I find this method really exciting. I’m not at all sure how or if it will align with my own research when I come to it but this rich insight seems invaluable.

The author opens the chapter by thoroughly going through the motivations for researching teaching – ranging from an abstracted interest in it as a good area for study to a more action research oriented focus on improving specific aspects of teaching practice. He explores the existing literature in the field – particularly in relation to online learning and finds that (at the time) there were a number of significant gaps in research relating to practice and he proceeds to set out six high level research questions relating to online teaching. It seems worthwhile sharing them here

  1. What are the essential characteristics of online teaching? What tasks are met? What actions need to be taken? Are there distinct task genres that further differentiate the space of online teaching?

  2. How do these practices and task genres vary across different educational settings (e.g between disciplines, or in undergraduate vs postgraduate teaching, or in campus based vs distance learning) and across individuals?

  3. For each significant kind of online teaching, what knowledge resources are drawn upon by effective teachers? How can we understand and represent the cognitive and other resources and processes implicated in their teaching?

  4. How do novice online teachers differ from expert and experienced online teachers? How do they make the transition? How does their thinking change? How does the knowledge on which they draw change? How closely does this resemble ‘the knowledge growth in teaching’ about which we know from studies of teaching in other, more conventional, areas?…

  5. What do teachers say about their experiences of online learning? How do they account for their intentions and actions? How do their accounts situation action in relation to hierarchies of belief about teaching and learning (generally) and about teaching and learning online?

  6. How do learners’ activities and learning outcomes interact with teaching actions? (p.86)

Skipping forward, Goodyear conducted the research with a number of teachers working online and identified several key factors that shape what and how teachers teach online. The focus of their attention – is it on the student, the content, how well the subject is going, whether students are learning, the technology, how students will respond to their feedback etc – can vary wildly from moment to moment. Their knowledge of their students – particularly when they might never meet them in person – can shape the nuance and personalisation of their communications. This also ties to “presentation of self” – also known as presence – which is equally important in forming effective online relationships. Understanding of online pedagogy and attitudes towards it are unsurprisingly a big factor in success in teaching online and this also impacts on their ability to manage communication and conflict in an online space, where normal behaviours can change due to perceived distance.

There were a lot of other noteworthy ideas in this chapter that are worth including here and it also sparked a few of my own ideas that went off on something of a tangent.

Those who foresee an easy substitution of teaching methods too frequently misunderstand the function or underestimate the complexity of that which they would see replaced (p.80)

Teaching is not an undifferentiated activity. What is involved in giving a lecture to 500 students is different from what is involved in a one-to-one, face-to-face, tutorial. Also, interactive, face-to-face, or what might be called ‘live’ teaching is different from (say) planning a course, giving feedback on an essay, designing some learning materials, or reflecting on end-of-course student evaluation reports. (James Calderhead structures his 1996 review of teachers’ cognitions in terms of ‘pre-active’, ‘interactive’ and ‘post-active reflection’ phases to help distinguish the cognitive demands of ‘live’ teaching from its prior preparation and from reflection after the event) (p.82)

The affordances of the user interface are an important factor in understand how online tutors do what they do. This is not simply because online tutors need to understand the (relatively simple) technical procedures involved in searching, reading and writing contributions. Rather the interface helps structure the tutors’ tasks and also takes some of the cognitive load off the tutor (P.87)

Studies of ‘live’ classroom teaching in schools have tended towards the conclusion that conscious decision-making is relatively rare – much of what happens is through the following of well-tested routines (Calderhead, 1984). While swift routine action can be found in online tutoring, its curiously asynchronous nature does allow more considered problem solving to take place (p.97)

Many of these ideas crystallise thoughts that I’ve come to over recent years and which I’ve shared with Peter in our supervision meetings. I’m going to choose to believe that his inner voice is saying at these points, ‘good, you’re on track’ rather than ‘well, obviously and I wrote about this a decade and a half ago’. This is why we go with this apprenticeship model I guess.

As for the other random thought that emerged from reading this paper was that as we get more comfortable with using video and asking/allowing students to submit videos as assessments, we’ll need new ways to ‘read’ videos. Clearly these will already exist in the scholarhood but they may not be as widely known as we need.