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Core Principles, Best Practices, Tips, and More — Revising a Popular Resource Guide for Teaching Online

A Q&A with Judith Boettcher

Judith Boettcher gives CT a heads-up about the upcoming revision of The Online Teaching Survival Guide, by Boettcher and Conrad. The revision of the popular book (first published in 2010) is due to be published by Jossey-Bass in the coming year.

Mary Grush: In the few years since the first edition of your book, you have seen the environment for online learning mature further and continue to change. What is perhaps the biggest change that you see in the environment for online teaching and learning?

Judith Boettcher: I think the biggest change is that the distinction between online and campus teaching and learning is disappearing. Virtually all campus courses are now blended courses with significant online components, and quality online courses combine synchronous elements with the predominantly asynchronous designs of our earlier online courses.

Grush: What is different now for online teaching faculty?

Boettcher: The good news is that the technology infrastructure is much more stable. Learning management systems are ubiquitous, more stable, and easier to use — although I might add, there is still plenty of room for more intuitive designs and support for the teaching and learning strategies that implement core learning principles and emphasize that learners need to construct new knowledge.

Grush: What are some of the current forces that are giving online teaching faculty new opportunities and challenges?

Boettcher: Let's talk about the challenges first: Online and blended learning are rapidly becoming the expected modes of delivery and access to higher education programs. So, the expectations for faculty to know how to teach online and make use of online tools and environments are rising. Yet there is no reduction for faculty in the expectations for other areas such as research and service.

Another challenge is that societal forces are rapidly increasing expectations for quality and might I say, inexpensive online or blended learning programs. Yet quality, efficient, and engaging programs are still expensive — inherently so due to the people and relationships and support needed. We can and must address the cost issues, but just as it takes more money and time to build anything of lasting value, learning always requires time, and time is money.

Then what can we say about the opportunities for faculty? Most of these are still on the horizon, but within the next 15 years or so, I believe we will see faculty entrepreneurs creating new models of learning support and certification, some even separate from institutions. I am obviously out on a limb here, but I do suspect this will happen. There are indicators already on the edge — MOOCS would be one example of a signal that this is starting to happen.

Grush: What do faculty need to know or discover now to help them succeed in this dynamic online teaching environment?

Boettcher: There are several concepts and messages that I hope faculty will take to heart as they are designing their courses. But there are a couple really key points.

I mentioned quality online courses earlier. One of the chapters in the book sets out a list of ten core learning principles. This list evolved as a way of providing a quick summary of important pedagogical principles for faculty venturing onto the online stage. These principles inform the design of learning experiences in general, and when used appropriately work not only within the context of our traditional higher education programs, but also in our new online ventures.

Unfortunately, most course designs still focus on content rather than on the kinds of experiences that support a learner through the processes of content acquisition, use, and practice that ensure that at the end of a course students can actually do more than they could at the beginning of a course.

Fortunately this is changing due to the presence of instructional designers on more campuses, and there are many aspects of the online environment itself that particularly support active learning. Yet the fact remains that we need a new awareness of how to design a course for learning that results in students engaging more actively with the content, in processing the content more deeply. One tip is having the students answer this question or one very much like it, at the very beginning of a course: "What do you want to be able to do when this course is over?" This question moves us away from simply knowing, to actually being able to put knowledge to some real, important, and practical use by the student.

Grush: There certainly are many factors influencing how faculty prepare themselves to teach online. Several must be particularly relevant both to faculty new to online teaching and to more seasoned online faculty. Could we examine maybe one or two of these — should I say the most "game changing" — forces? And I know that this discussion must be far more than just about tools and technology products: These things reflect new work habits, mindsets, expectations, and even institutional priorities.

Boettcher: Yes, there are many factors — two really important ones you might call "game changers" are student expectations and assessment.

Grush: Good. Let's start with the expectations of students. We've all heard a lot about this, but how much of a factor is this, to consider in the overall landscape of online learning?

Boettcher: Mary, I am glad to have a chance to talk about student expectations. I definitely think that the impact of student expectations is a game-changer. Students have been content in the past to sit and listen, or sit and doodle, or sit and read the Wall Street Journal or assignments for other courses in lecture campus-based courses. That is no longer the case. Smartphones combined with Internet search and content resources means that students can follow their own trains of thought on a whim… If something is uninteresting for a minute, they check Facebook or chat or Twitter to see what else is going on. In online courses, this impatience with listening translates into an avoidance of reading or viewing any lengthy materials. Katherine Hayles — in research on attention characterized this impatience as hyperattention… as opposed to the deep attention that is required of difficult texts or content.

But it can be fruitful to explore the active learning side of this equation as well as the benefits from the "online marketplace" experience students expect from tools they use every day. Rather than reading passively, students like to access and engage moment by moment with ideas. They like to be almost constantly "doing something and creating something." It's an interesting opportunity for the online instructor to learn to understand and work with this student phenomenon.

Another tip from the book is to challenge students with questions or problems for which we don't have answers. Students in higher education are at the age often described as the most creative in their lives; yet we challenge them with questions and problems for which we have manufactured recommended practices and answers. While it is absolutely true that students need to learn, develop, and acquire basic knowledge to solve problems, starting with the problems sets a practical, interesting goal for students.

Grush: Moving on from our discussion of student expectations, could you reflect a bit on assessment? I know there is a lot of pressure on institutions as assessment and accountability take on new importance in the design of programs and courses. Where do online faculty start, to get a grasp on this?

Boettcher: Assessment is still a serious problem. As a nation we have been clear on what knowledge, skills, and behaviors are the goals of most of our institutions (see the AAC&U - Association of American Colleges and Universities site), but those goals are not reflected in course designs and teaching practices. Instead, we have migrated to the expectation that standardized tests will test what we want. But there is a gap. Course designs and practices don’t support the growth of learners to the goal of knowledge application and expertise.

Standardized assessments are just that, standardized, and as we had observed many years ago, standardized tests encourage the types of experiences that result in standardized brains, just the opposite of what is needed for the 21st century. The goal of assessment is gathering evidence of learning, and there are many ways of showing competence in the acquisition of skills, knowledge, and behaviors. Especially in the online environment, instructors have learned to cultivate strategies that help them show evidence of student learning.

A new project called the Multi-State Collaborative to Advance Learning Outcomes Assessment has the goal of providing an alternative to standardized tests. That alternative is a set of rubrics, or grids, that stake out common standards for faculty members to use to evaluate student assignments.

Grush: I know we've already touched a little on the expectations for online tools and how institutions have to consider the new "online marketplace" experience that students have. But can you talk a little bit more about the technology landscape — how can online faculty find a way to employ social software and mobile apps without fear of trivializing or somehow falling short of academic rigor and goals?

Boettcher: One of the tips in the book emphasizes that the core of teaching and learning is relationship of the student with the teacher/mentor and with other students. The new tools and technology landscape is all about changing patterns of how we communicate; how often and how we support each other and stay in touch. The new tools enhance communication and increase the teacher presence as well as peer to peer presence, and so, they support and enable community and relationships.

Grush: You talked about the core learning principles and how essential they are in planning for teaching online. Can you go a little more deeply into that — how you show ways to apply them in your new book?

Boettcher: As I mentioned, one of the chapters in the book focuses on the ten core learning principles. The following chapter describes what was originally 10 and now is 14 best practices in teaching online. The ten core learning principles as we noted are not restricted to online learning; they are basic to any learning experience. The philosophy behind the core learning principles is essentially constructivism, which means that the learners learn when they are doing work, actively processing information and applying that information while solving problems. The chapter on best practices addresses online learning more specifically, for example, how we communicate our expertise and presence in technology-enriched environments.

Grush: Related to supporting faculty in designing an online course and their own online methods, persona, and so on... Is support for online faculty getting stronger on campuses given that "online" is prevalent now? Are online teaching faculty supported more... and are they recognized for their efforts — for all it takes to create online learning?

Boettcher: Mary, I don't have current data for this question. My sense from monitoring the space is that it is expanding on some campuses and retracting — due to budgets — on other campuses, but I would have to research this a bit. The good news is that the first edition of the book has been used in faculty development programs at many institutions.

Grush: Casey Green reports that colleges and universities are not, for the most part, including technology development in the tenure and promotion process.

Boettcher: True, but it's really not surprising, as tenure and promotion has always been focused on academic research and publishing — largely not on course development.

Grush: I wanted to circle back and discuss one of the most engaging, productive areas you offer in your book: tips... Can you talk about tips a bit — maybe give an example that shows how the tips support or reflect the core learning principles?

Boettcher: Tips that capture some of the more important aspects of the learning principles are the ones about personalizing and customizing learning. This practice provides flexibility for learners to take their time and talent and money and apply it to learning that is important and meaningful to them. This does not mean changing the end learning goals, but rather adapting the path towards achieving those goals. Personalizing and customizing learning also addresses the challenge of student engagement. Personalizing learning increases engagement naturally with no need for carrots or sticks.

A second area of tips encourages the design of assignments that require students to be active in doing: producing and creating new products. Actively finding or creating something to share is naturally engaging; sometimes frustrating, but ultimately engaging and satisfying.

Grush: It's been an exciting few years since your first edition. I know there will be much anticipation about your forthcoming second edition. How should faculty stay tuned to watch for the book?

Boettcher: News will be forthcoming soon on the Jossey-Bass site. And I'll be putting notices up on the Designing for Learning Web site [].


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