Sensemaking and teaching online

Over the years of working with faculty to create and teach online courses, I’ve observed an interesting ‘phenomenon’.  I use the word phenomenon because faculty members rarely talk about it (especially amongst themselves), yet, almost all experience it.  It’s a strange thing to experience and even more difficult to address.  The phenomenon is the felt need to make sense of his or her self in the new environment when learning to teach online.

Karl Weick‘s theory of sensemaking has given me a way to think about and articulate this experience with faculty members.  It goes beyond the need to make sense of the role of an online teacher, while that is still a part of it.  Teaching online, after being a successful traditional classroom teacher, forces the faculty member to make sense of who they are in the classroom.  The process of learning how to teach online pushes the internal buttons of identity, not just role.

Faculty members work hard to develop a solid reputation for great teaching and noteworthy research among students and colleagues.  After a considerable amount of time, they become accustomed to how that world of teaching and research “works”.  They know how to function in it.  They know when to give or take more or less from either area.  But when this faculty person is then introduced to online teaching the structure and framework they know and love seems to come crashing down.  All of a sudden they’re not sure of the “rules” anymore.  They don’t feel like the expert any longer.  They aren’t comfortable with the change and having to find their way through this new maze of possibility.  They feel as if what they have to offer, what they are good at, who they are… all comes to a halt and they must start from the beginning.

While comfort may not be as plentiful in the beginning of this process (online teaching), most of this couldn’t be further from the truth.  Students taking online classes still view the faculty member as the expert.  They still need the passion and energy of the faculty member to engage the content.  But, learning how to function in this new world of teaching is a must for faculty members.  Many faculty members have always taught the same way.  They teach how they were taught.  Until lately, any changes from the traditional lecture model classroom were handled in auxillary arms of the institution so regular faculty didn’t need to worry about anything different.  But with the Internet we see major research institutions and researchers moving online – and loving it!  It is different.  It requires change.  It requires faculty members to let their guard down and learn new ways of teaching and learning.  They must be willing to explore different methods of teaching, especially allowing the structures of power to disintegrate and allowing students more control over their learning environment.  Through this process they begin to make sense of who they are in this new teaching environment.  After they become comfortable teaching online, many find that they enjoy the differences and challenges.  Many find that their online teaching strategies and communication patterns offer solutions to a more engaged learning environment in the traditional classroom.

Have you been through this process?  Have you found these comments to be true or not?

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