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POT Cert Week 2: facilitating learning online – a person-oriented approach

My thoughts – teaching online

A key point that Ko and Rossen make in chapter 1 of Teaching Online: A Practical Guide is that in an online learning environment the role of the teacher is somewhat altered, moving away from the classic “sage on the stage” to allow students to take a more active part. By skilfully steering the conversation and interaction, the role thus becomes more one of facilitating learning. Subsequently, the question is raised as to what kinds of people make the best online instructors, to which the authors declare, “it is ‘people-oriented’ people who make the best instructors” (p. 18). Oh, happy days for me it seems, both my field and my outlook are person-oriented. Furthermore, I want to develop/facilitate an online learning experience that places the learner at its centre and explores the notion of digital literacy ultimately enabling them to develop their own digital practices and competencies.

My reflection – results of the beginner’s questionnaire

On the questionnaire designed to discover your perspective on teaching I scored 6, indicating a strong Constructivist position. That is to say, I believe by experiencing things and reflecting on those experiences people construct their own understanding and knowledge of the world. It follows therefore that I favour discussion and other interactive student activities as the basis of this online learning experience that I hope to design.

Where am I in terms of getting started?

As I want the focus to be on discussion and group activities, I’m investigating the types of social learning platforms that are currently available to me. I’ve seen Buddypress in action and really like how this could be used to support my project but despite Ko and Rossen avowing that you don’t need to be a computer expert, I don’t have the skills or technological capacity to ‘self-host’ it. I’ve also heard of Instructure Canvas, which can be hosted in the cloud, but again it looks like it’s designed for a bigger project than the one I envisage. Therefore, I’m going to have to explore how I can make it all hang together using a combination of familiar discussion and collaboration applications like Facebook, Blogger or WordPress and Google Docs.Wish me luck.

Published inProgramme for Online Teaching


  1. Hi Helen–

    I used Canvas for a class last spring and I’m using it for both of my online classes this semester due to technical difficulties with my institution’s Blackboard installation. Signing up for a Canvas account and setting up a course don’t really require much at all in the way of technical expertise. Instructure handles the hosting, so all you do is set up the course and invite students. I find the interface much easier to use than Blackboard’s. Feel free to browse the comments about Canvas I posted last spring while I was testing it out for more details.

    I don’t know what your project is, but don’t let technological skills scare you off. Canvas also has a user support forum that’s much more useful then Blackboard’s, and their personnel are also pretty active on Twitter–I had a couple of developers drop into a test video conference I announced on my Twitter stream.

  2. Wicked! Thanks Ted. I’m heartened by your comments regarding the utility of Canvas and the level of technical support that they offer too. I will likely sign up for an instructor’s demo account and see if I can configure it to suit the project I have in mind and achieve my pedagogical goals.

  3. Canvas sounds like a really interesting plattform. I’ll check it out aswell. Are there different languages available?

    I’ve tried Buddypress in a class and it was pretty neat. Something like a Facebook of my own 🙂 Have you tried ?

    By the way, nice picture in your blog header 🙂 Where is it from?

  4. Twice wicked!! Thanks for the heads up on P2P. It looks exactly like the kind of thing I’m looking for. I participate in a learning community that uses Buddypress and I have to say that I like the experience a lot, Facebook for discerning like minded folks.

    As to your question, I don’t actually know a great amount about Canvas but it also looks like I’m going to experimenting with it for the purposes of this course (which is starting to shape up nicely).

    And as to the blog header pic, it’s just a WordPress template but it looks so much like where I live, Leitrim/Fermanagh in Ireland.

  5. Helen, though I wanted to say “it depends” (or, “I’m not really sure that these options are distinct or in opposition”) a lot on the questionnaire, in the end when I forced selections, I was a 7, so very similar to you in my ideals. And definitely, “facilitating learning” resonates.

    I think the challenge, though, from that perspective, is that while people skills are certainly critical to keep all students engaged and moving forward, design skill in creating the environment where students will thrive becomes even more important. For a “sage on the stage,” simply posting lectures, quizzes, and some basic discussion boards is often most of the approach. Most students “get” how to navigate and progress through such a course.

    For something more open, where projects/activities may be more open-ended and diverse, where students may take more of a leadership role, where there is significant attention to development of digital literacies in addition to course content knowledge, there are many more opportunities for students to feel lost, confused, and frustrated. In my opinion that potential comes with the territory when designing significant learning experiences!

  6. Hi Helen,
    Working as an assistant instructional designer in the Learning Technologies department at our college I’ve come to see technology as a distraction and a resource gobbling monster. Being adept at technology has come just in time for those inept in teaching to demonstrate competence in enabling machines to perform exactly as they were designed to perform. Yes this takes a certain talent but sadly that talent doesn’t cross over to teaching humans who, according to the last count, are only slightly more numerous here than the machines.
    I too scored low on the questionnaire and having spent my first career in construction teaching apprentices believe the source of learning resides in the student and only marginally in the instructor. As a tip for the use of technology I use my advanced age as a lever in prying the answer out of the students. All I have to do is demonstrate a consistent misunderstanding of procedure before some student wiser than me steps in. From there the idea spreads that contributing isn’t the passive process the students have been lead to expect. Knowing becomes a process of discovery and the odd suggestion from me. Only wish we could build our courses that way.

    • Thanks for your comments Scott. I especially like the trick of using your ‘advanced’ age to feign ignorance and thereby elicit the correct answer or procedure from the students. I’m hoping though that online the students will not be able to guess my age…because I’m not getting any younger.

      You mentioned that you are an instructional designer, would you be able to enlighten me as to what that role entails exactly as I must confess that I don’t fully understand, and I’ve encountered it plenty just recently. I know what a teacher/instructor is and I know what ICT support is but I have no experience of instructional design (that I know of).

      • Instructional designers (IDers) have been around a long time in corporate and military worlds, generally responsible for developing “training” workshops or eLearning modules. In those situations the IDers work with Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) who provide content and objectives, and with media production specialists, graphic designers, web developers, etc., who actually develop the handouts, PowerPoint slides, web-based resources, or whatever media is needed. So the IDers kind of sit in the middle of the process, ensuring that instructional methods and materials match the content and objectives, and that there are appropriate methods to assess the participants and to evaluate the success of the training.

        This may be similar to an IDer role at a for-profit higher ed institution where a lot of money is poured into course development. However, in most colleges and universities, there are not teams like this that develop courses. It’s on the back of instructors. As technology has become more important, especially with the emergence of online learning, IDers become resource people for faculty. IDers should be very comfortable with the core educational technologies in use at an institution, and should be able to help faculty learn how to use them effectively for student learning. IDers thus should also understand key principles of how people learn, and can act as a resource for faculty who may not have had much education about education. IDers often help faculty rethink their course objectives, their activities, and their means of assessment in the midst of thinking through how to use technologies.

  7. Thank you Jim for your advice relating to students becoming lost, confused and frustrated in what ideally I envisage to be an empowering learning experience. It is a very valid point and one that I shall endeavour to keep in mind as I progress with this project.

    In some reading that I did recently I became very much aware how this technology with its emphasis on participation ‘disrupted’ the traditional role of the teacher. However, what was also mentioned but less prominently I feel, indeed do Ko and Rossen highlight this I wonder, is that the traditional role of the student is also altered as they must accept this new empowerment to participate and create their own learning.

    Yes, most students ‘get’ how to progress through a traditional course so I suppose I need to find some middle ground otherwise I’ll have them flitting around like butterflies becoming increasingly confused and frustrated and little will be achieved.

    • Hi, Helen – there is plenty of literature that indicates faculty who change things up and require more active participation of students – even in fully in-person classes – encounter resistance and often receive lower ratings on their course evaluations – even if the students ultimately learn more. So I think the challenge is not so much in introducing technology disruptions, as pedagogical disruptions, to what students have come to expect.

      Now, if you add on top of that new technologies that students may not be familiar with, it really can be a challenging mix. This is where faculty have a huge role to play in helping students to understand not just the how of the course but the why – and also a modeling role as a fellow learner/explorer where mistakes are okay and failure is part of the learning process.

  8. Hi Helen, Jim Julius did a great job explaining the role of Instructional Designers. Our department is in development so roles are a bit looser. For instance, my wife who has a MA in Distributed Learning acts as the official ID and her partner who formerly taught elementary school does editing and usability advising in the design. We have a media person who does video and a graphics person building manuals.
    My role was invented to cover two main areas. First is the informal research needed to learn if we are duplicating programs from other nearby colleges. I’m good at talking across silos and getting inside information–people love to talk about what they do and I’m not afraid to cold call and admit I don’t even know what question to ask about the field I’m researching.Showing curiosity and genuine interest are job qualifications in my position.
    Second area is working with instructors who are generally unconvinced that change is worthwhile or necessary. Having seen my career fall out from under me a few times plus working with apprentices without any support or resources I can sympathize the disconnection they feel. Teachers are inadvertently thrown in to the ranks of the unappreciated by admin that are fools for technology and efficiencies. No one likes to be devalued which is the message teachers are getting. I try to be the human face of technology and given my limited tech skills that’s easy.
    My interest in this course relates to my experience working with teachers and “non-traditional” learners in construction. Online learning isn’t going to progress a long as all problems are perceived to be fixable with technology. So I guess I’m a believer but not an enthusiast.
    As a constructivist do you have any tips on getting students to begin taking ownership of the content we present to them? We try to invite students into the worlds they are studying but they still seem like they are visiting a museum of untouchable objects and abstract ideas.
    Have you read “Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher” by Stephen Brookfield? Great book.

    • I appreciate the detailed explanation of the field of instructional design, thanks Scott. It was very useful to have this clarified.

      Your point about the advancement of online learning and that any associated problems are fixable with technology accords with me greatly. Technology is only one half of the equation, the other is people, and it is here that I think a social literacies perspective is useful. Viewing online learning environments as places of textual practice helps appreciate that such matters are rooted in the social world and therefore carries meaning for the learner. “Challenging E Learning in the University: A Literacies Perspective” can give a full explanation of what I mean.

      As to do I have any tips on getting students to take ownership, I’m not sure I do as my field is literacy, and is not what I would call a subject. As well as the grammar rules and the cognitive side of things that are required for reading and writing, it’s an individual’s social practice. The trick therefore is for me to get inside the learner’s world and see if I can facilitate development of their literacy, which is certainly not abstract. It just doesn’t work the other way round.

      Yes, Stephen Brookfield’s “Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher” is a great book. Apparently, another book by Brookfield, “Discussion as a way of Teaching”, is just as powerful, and very applicable to online teaching, but I have yet to read it.

  9. I think the key element of being a “people-person” for online instruction is authentic empathy and honesty about the challenges of learning online (or onsite for that matter). If we try to imagine ourselves in the students roles–keeping in mind how we actually act when we are in their roles–than I think we are more humane and human as well as more engaging online.

    Thanks for your thoughtful post.

    • For me, that’s been one of the biggest benefits of POTcert. I’d never taken an online course before teaching online, and that’s true of the vast majority of my local colleagues as well. Training for online teaching should generally be delivered online, so that teachers get at least some glimpse of what it’s like to be a student in this medium.

  10. Agree with Ted that taking online courses prior to teaching online is vital. I dropped out of a certificate program on New Technologies for learning for lack of support from the course sponsoring university and the remarks of the departmental dean. She obviously knew nothing of the disengagement one can feel learning online when the feedback is absent or, in her case, condescending. Her only supportive response was to suggest I come into her office to discuss my concerns. My being located 1000 miles away? Not within her awareness.

    Almost every staff member in our department is a former teacher which really helps ease the tensions instructors feel when we are assigned to mess around with “their class.” Teaching is at least 50% performance art which makes our intrusions feel personal. The hardest thing I find in doing design is sustaining a sense of human voice in the text–the personality that teachers insert into a course can be lost especially when we are asked to make our courses “standout” by making them all editorially and visually similar. This mind-set comes as marketing advice from consultants who work in the world of undifferentiated products and phony uniqueness. We try and resist this branding advice as much as we can.

    By the way, the “first adopter” of online class presentation here was an instructor whose f2f classes had the most personality, quirkiness and instructor presence of all our courses. She’s a natural actress and an extremely empathetic people person. Many of her students are single moms or disabled, can’t easily make it to campus and she connected right to online practice without any prompting. Many of our instructors fear losing connection with their students with the switch to online delivery And I Imagine this is something all designers struggle with.

  11. […] Week 2: In this introductory stage questions like “where the hell do I start?” were very real, and thanks to Lisa and the a whole bunch of people in the POT Cert community, I managed to make a start. I identified a textbook as my guiding force and was given lots of help and support in thinking about a platform for delivering an online course. […]

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