Crash Course in Online Teaching 1: Starting With Theory (Wait, Wait – Give It a Chance! Really!)

With several universities now coming to grips with the fact that they will still be online in the Summer (and most likely the Fall), several are turning to how to quickly train their entire faculty in online teaching in a hurry. There really isn’t one ideal way to do this, but I want to offer up the way I would do it if given the chance to design a Crash Course in Online Learning (insert your Budgie/Metallica song parody here).

I would personally start off with a very basic intro to… stay with me here… learning theory. Wait – don’t click away just yet. Many would balk at the idea of starting with theory and not practical tool/building skills, while learning theorists would cry foul at thinking that a basic intro to learning theory is even possible. But I have found that a few basic concepts taught at a very intro level can help faculty not only understand how they have been taught in the past, but also how they can try new ideas and designs they may have never thought of.

So give it chance if you are tired of academia and theory, or give me some wide wiggle room for scaffolding if you are deep into learning theory. I’m going to combine and give examples that will make theory easy to digest, but also blur the lines of complexity that exist. Please keep that in mind as we go forward.

First of all, I will point out that I have published and taught this before. I will give the basics below, but if you have 30 minutes to an hour to dig in, there are slightly more explanatory resources out there. The first is the paper that I published called “From Instructivism to Connectivism: Theoretical Underpinnings of MOOCs.” Yes, it is about MOOCs, but the ideas can be applied to any course. Plus, it comes with a worksheet that you can use to plan your course. The second is a video archive of a training session I led from last year on the paper. If you prefer video more than blog posts or papers, this might work for you:

So, for those that are wanting the summary version, here we go….

Overall Power Dynamics

Out of all the different ways to approach learning theory, I like focus on power dynamics first when it comes to designing a course. So think about the overall power dynamic you want to see happening in your course. This can change from week to week, but in general most courses stick to one for the most part. The question is: who determines what learners will learn in your course, and who directs how it is learned? There are many ways to look at this, but I like to focus on three different -isms:

  • Instructivism: The course is controlled by an expert instructor, determined and directed by that expert.
  • Constructivism: Constructed self-discovery, sometimes determined by the expert, but usually directed by the learner.
  • Connectivism: Learner-determined and directed by the learner, enhanced by networking (connecting) with others (including other learners, the instructor, online resources, etc).

Yes, these can mix, and you can move between different ones. The main thing to think about is who is determining the overall knowledge and/or skills to be learned, and then who is directing how the learners will learn those knowledge and skills and then how they will prove they learned them.

Again, there are many different ways of looking at these terms, many other -isms you can use, and a lot of ambiguity that I am glossing over here. These three -isms (and how I described them) are just a good place to start for those that are new. Generally you pick one, but also think how elements of others might also be utilized in your course.

Methodology of Course Design

Course design methodology often overlaps with power structures. However, within various power structures, there still is room for different design methodologies. For example, even in connectivism there it is still possible to design a course that focuses on transmission of knowledge from experts, even if those experts are not always the instructor.

In this stage, you are thinking about where knowledge and/or skills training comes from, not just who controls the overall power dynamics. Again, there are many, many different ways to look at this. I want to start with three popular -agogies:

  • Pedagogy: many people use this as a catch-all phrase for all teaching design, but in a traditional sense for several centuries it has meant focusing on knowledge transfer from an expert (although please note there are many different ways of looking at the term that have gained traction over the past 80-100 years).
  • Andragogy: learners draw upon their experience to connect what they already know with new content / knowledge / skills / etc (some have advocated to use the term “Anthropagogy” in place of Andragogy to be more inclusive, but I use the more common term here).
  • Heutagogy: learners focus on learning how to learn about a particular topic rather than just what to learn. Heutagogy is often seen as a critical response to the limitations of other -agogies.

Typically, you see pedagogy matching with instructivism, andragogy matching with constructivism, and heutagogy matching with connectivism. But it is possible for other combinations, such as constructivist heutagogy or connectivivist pedagogy. There is a chart of page 94 of the article above that explains the nine different combination and gives examples.

The main idea is that you choose which combination of the two you want for your class most often (even if if changes from time to time). I tend to advocate for a connectivist heutagogical approach the most often, as that is what more and more people need in the world today. Rather than memorizing expert facts as determined by a the instructor, we need more learners that know how to grow and learn about a topic by connecting with the people and resources that can teach them what they need to know.

At this point, you will start considering what activities and assignments you will be using in your course. It is also good to have some well-written and aligned goals, objectives, competencies, or other standards. I will cover that as a separate post next, but more than likely, you are transitioning a course that already exists on campus into an online course. So I will continue with the theory first, but keep in mind that even if you already have goals and objectives, it would be a good idea to review them after you work through learning theory.

Types of Interaction

Of course, your class will have all types of interaction. However, I have found that once people jump into creating activities and assignments and content first, they leave out interaction until after the bulk of the course activities have been created. At that point, interaction becomes an afterthought or an add-on addition to what has already been created. Which is not ideal.

Thinking through the types of communication that can happen in a course is a good way to proactively plan out different ways to foster interaction as you create content and activities. Most of us think of different types of communication like student-to-student, teacher-to-student, student-to-content, etc. There are already 12 types that have been identified in the literature, but there could be up to 20 emerging. I gave my run-down of communication types that currently exist and how they might change in the future here:

Updating Types of Interactions in Online Education to Reflect AI and Systemic Influence

You will probably want to pick several types of interaction for different parts or times in your course. Again, if you don’t plan for it from the beginning, it may never make it into your goals, objectives, or lesson plans. However, please keep in mind that you can come back and change/add/remove types throughout the design process.

Also, make sure to match the different types of interaction with the methodology and power structure you selected earlier, at least as you initially see them working out in your course. If you don’t have a good match for your previous choices, then you probably need to consider adding some appropriate interaction types.

Communicative Actions

The final theoretical part to think about will probably be something that you consider now, but come back to once you have an idea of what activities you want in your course. But I will cover it here since it is also in the article above, and it helps to think about it from the beginning as well. Once you know the power structure, methodology, and types of interaction you want, you will need to think through the form that various communication acts will take in your course.

There are many different theories of communication – one that I have found works well for instructors is Learning and Teaching as Communicative Actions (LTCA) theory (based on the work of Jurgen Habermas, but created mainly by one of doctoral committee members Dr. Scott Warren for full disclosure). Current LTCA theory proposes four types of communicative actions:

  • Normative communicative actions: communication of knowledge that
    is based on past experiences (for example, class instructions that
    explain student learning expectations).
  • Strategic communicative actions: communication through textbooks,
    lectures, and other methods via transmission to the learner (probably
    the most utilized educational communicative actions).
  • Constative communicative actions: communication through
    discourses, debates, and arguments intended to allow learners to make
    claims and counterclaims (utilizing social constructivism and /or
    connectivism).
  • Dramaturgical communicative actions: communication for purposes
    of expression (reflecting or creating artifacts individually or as a group
    to demonstrate knowledge or skills gained).

As you can see, you will most likely need to mix these during the class – even for each lesson. The goal on this part is not to pick one or two, but to think through how you communicate what is happening in your course. Think through the activities you will have in your course, and then match those with at least one communicative action and power dynamic/methodological combination.

Pulling It All Together

So that is really it for a quick run through some of the basics of theory that can help you begin to design an online course. Like I have said, there are many other theories than those covered here, and deeper/more complex ways of looking at the ones that were covered. This is meant to be a quick guide to just get started, whether you are designing a new online course from scratch or converting an existing on-campus course to an online version. If you looked at the article, you saw that there is a one-page worksheet at the end to help you work through all of these theories in a fairly quick manner. I have also created a Word Doc version, a Google Doc version, and a PDF form version that you can use to fill out and use as you like.

In parts 2 and 3, I want to go back to some topics I have covered before – but for now, here are links to past posts that cover those basics if you can’t wait:

Goals, Objectives, and Competencies

An Emergency Guide (of sorts) to Getting This Week’s Class Online in About an Hour (or so)

Update: Apparently I wasn’t clear enough that this is a basic beginner’s way to look at the terms and ideas that are used in learning theory. This will continue as I look at other areas of theory in future posts. Some people are not happy that I avoided using the term “Critical Pedagogy” anywhere in the article. Others are probably glad I avoided it. To some, it is a good term. To others, it is a term associated with groups that are mostly male and very white. I personally don’t share the wide and generous definition of pedagogy that is generally accepted by the Critical Pedagogy – I feel the term should be evaluated for the problems it has caused as well. Additionally, most critical examinations of education tend to look at an examination of power dynamics as a foundational piece of critical examination. I felt it was a bit too much on the nose to point out I was being critical after directly discussing how to examine power dynamics. Kind of like a person that says something anti-racist and then turns around and wants to point out to everyone how anti-racist they were. Oh, well. Lesson learned.