A review of Claire Major’s Teaching Online

I have always been a skeptic of online education. As someone who thrives on the power of face-to-face instruction, I have always doubted the ability of online education to equal that experience. Yet, as someone in a faculty development role, I have to acknowledge that online education is something we have to give attention to in today’s environment. To that end, I have an excellent resource to recommend to anyone thinking about teaching online or trying to support those teaching online. My colleague and coauthor on Teaching for Learning has a new book that provides a valuable discussion of the research and practice related to online education. In today’s post, I will share my review of Claire Major’s Teaching Online: A Guide to Theory, Research, and Practice (Johns Hopkins, 2015).

Photo credit: University of Maryland Merrill College of Journalism

I was familiar with the basics of online education, but found Major’s Teaching Online did a great job providing a mix of research findings and practice questions to consider. 

Specifically, below are ten takeaways that I found from reading her work that help the way that I think about how to support online education.

  1. Technology doesn’t just serve as a fundamental tool of instruction, but mediates the environment. This is such a fundamental concept but an important foundation for thinking about teaching online.
  1. Most faculty aren’t products of online education and we don’t have good models of what teaching online looks like when done well. We have excellent models for teaching our face-to-face classes (although this isn’t sufficient for teaching well). Teaching online forces instructors to make content knowledge visible and tangible. Moreover, online can’t make use of bodies in the same way as we might in the classroom (i.e. group work). As a result, students connect more directly with the content and with less focus on the instructor.
  1. While there is a growing body of research suggesting the benefits of learning online, scholars have yet to redefine the concept of learning in online spaces. Instead, we tend to just make comparisons between face-to-face and online learning. Unfortunately, I believe this is holding us back from figuring out how to effectively guide online learning.
  1. Major offers the range of types of online classes such as open and closed, asynchronous and synchronous. However, it is striking how little the research informs choices here. She does a nice job laying out examples, but faculty as often forced to operate within institutional constraints (such as the learning management platform). We need more research on how to best set up courses both generally and for specific disciplines and student populations.
  1. Perhaps the biggest difference in teaching online is in planning for a course. We always need to have a syllabus, readings, and assignments at the beginning of a term. Yet, the content of individual class sessions can be planned as we go. Not so with online education— at least not well done online education. Instructional designers and technology support may be involved. Activities and tools will be identified from the beginning. As Major says, “what we do and how we do it matters.”
  1. Teaching online challenges how we think about instructional time. Length of class sessions or even the schedule of a course may vary substantially from face-to-face courses. Research into online teaching agrees with the common adage that teaching online is more time-intensive. We can debate why this is or how much more time (findings on these points are less clear), but institutions need to address the fact that online and face-to-face teaching are not equal in terms of time.
  1. I’ve always been a big believer in the power and potential of the teaching persona. The teaching persona can influence student learning and the student experience in class. Major spends a significant amount of time explaining how to manage and project a teaching persona online. I found this part of her book the most compelling. She challenges faculty to consider authenticity, management, and teaching role. In addition, she offers some specific suggestions such as considering one’s user name, how to meet students, and creating a profile.
  1. Obviously, teaching online requires using online communication tools. Without face-to-face contact, instructors need to emphasize detailed, clear, timely, and consistent feedback for students. Strong communication can improve student satisfaction, motivation, and performance.
  1. Fostering student engagement online is vital to student learning. Instructors have to get students involved, motivated, and encourage the use of deep-learning strategies. There is a growing body of evidence on the use of pedagogies of engagement in online education that should be required reading for anyone teaching online. If online instructors can figure out how to design activities to promote engagement, students will learn (perhaps even better than in face-to-face classrooms).
  1. I have always considered one of my primary jobs as an instructor is to promote a positive learning community in my class. The same is true in online classes. While students play a role in developing class community, instructors must play a key role in creating opportunities for community to develop. I know many worry about what community looks like in online education and if instructors develop this—everyone wins!

I hope this review of Claire Major’s Teaching Online provides you with some useful ideas to consider when thinking about online education. I encourage you to get a copy of the book and share it with colleagues teaching online. There is still much we don’t know about effective online pedagogy, but I believe Major’s work is a step in the right direction.