I would like to state upfront to all the loyal PECOP readers that I am not a blogger, nor am I an active participant in many social media venues and I do not Tweet! So when I was trying to decide what to write about I made a list of concerns that I face as a faculty member at a regional state university in the Midwest. My ideas included topics like life-work balance, burn-out, anti-science/academic sentiments, student retention, academic standards and institutional budget concerns. The list of possibilities was great, but this list seemed too negative for a career I truly do enjoy. I would like to instead speak briefly of a place that I have found refuge from many of the topics mentioned above. That refuge is the administration of an online Principles of Biology course.
I find it strange myself to consider how a person who may seemingly possess the characteristics of a social media Luddite, would want to get involved with and indeed embrace the world of online education. So I will list and briefly reflect on three areas that drew me to online education: love of learning; love of teaching; and accessibility.
Love of learning
I derive deep pleasure from learning new things and even reviewing those things that I already know. After all, who would ever tire of learning and teaching about the structure and function of the mitotic spindle, the sarcomere, or how an action potential occurs or how a whole embryo forms from a single cell! These cellular structures and their functions are so beautiful and amazing, that I really enjoy revisiting them again and again, each time adding a few new details to my lecture notes. I also appreciate hearing others talk about subjects outside of biology, such as history and philosophy. One important venue I use for learning new things takes place in my car, during my daily commutes. I listen to courses from The Great Courses series produced by the Teaching Company, lectures and talks from iBiology, hhmi/BioInteractive, various Ted talks, and individual posted lectures that can be found through a quick search on Google. Some of my favorites are bookmarked for easy retrieval or in the case of the Teaching Company courses, I actually own. So what keeps me going as a faculty member through the periods of burn-out and meeting the daily requirements of academic life is the joy of learning and putting together a package of information and materials that students can use to learn about the subject as well or even just tweaking that material so students may learn it better.
Love of teaching
How can this love of learning get transferred from faculty to students in a way that also encourages students to become lifelong self-learners? Can students really be taught to be lifelong self-learners? And, if so, what pedagogical methods are best suited to reach this goal? I have already discussed how I enjoy listening to educational lectures, but I would argue that the enjoyment of listening is not sufficient enough to learn the material. In preparing for a lecture or to oversee meaningful active learning experiences, one is not simply able to listen to a great lecture and then be able to teach the material to students, expecting them to walk away and be able to apply that content in a meaningful way.
How then do faculty prepare to teach? Even if you are a fan of lecturing, most faculty members would agree that a fabulously well-delivered lecture, even a short one, is the result of hours of reading, reflection, writing, and repeating each of these! I see this as the elephant in the room: that a great lecturer is really a great learner. Thus, while it is quite enjoyable to hear a great lecture, it does not mean that the attending students are learning in a manner that creates lasting behavioral changes. This is in contrast to someone who has already engaged with the material. Even before I started teaching online, I had started assigning more readings, reflective writing assignments, and oral presentations from students in all my classes. When students now ask me every semester,” Do I really need to buy/rent the textbook?” I say yes AND you must also read it and bring it with you to every class, as if your life …I mean your grade depends on it!
I have briefly reflected above on my love of learning and my love of teaching. And I try to model for my students, the skills I use to learn new material, such as reading the text, reflecting and writing on the material, as well as presenting the material to others during class through presentation and in accessing learning through quizzes and examinations. But do you have to be in the same classroom to teach this way? I have found the answer to be no. I have had the enlightening experience to see that I can assign the same readings, provide many of the same online resources for reflection and practice, and have regular meaningful interactions and quality controlled proctored assessments online through webcasting software such as Zoom with my online students as I have had with my face to face students. Online education at its best is more than simply posting content and assessments over a learning management system. Depending on software and internet availability, I can be anywhere, the student can be anywhere, and we can still have a scheduled, meaningful face-to-face interaction. In fact, I am often finding the interactions with my online students to be more meaningful and memorable than the ones in my face to face classes. As I continue this adventure in online education, I hope to continue to be able to take my classroom on the road so to speak. Maybe the car in my daily commutes (especially with the advent of self-driving vehicles) will become “my classroom”, instead of where I merely arrive.
In summary, when the daily grind of academic duties and responsibilities gets me down and feeling negative, I have a place I can go and do what I enjoy most about academia, prepare and deliver material for students anytime and anyplace.
A short list of my favorite online lecture resources for the lifelong self-learner in us all