Can [my course] really be taught online?


This is not an atypical question in my line of work.  More often than not, I’m invited to a meeting where people expect me to prove that any given course can be taught online.  And it’s usually assumed that whatever course or content matter at hand cannot be taught online.

I find these meetings a little awkward, in part, because teaching online is as much a learning experience for the faculty person as it is for the students.  And I’ve found faculty members frequently uncomfortable being back in the student “seat” again.  My approach is to frame the discussion in terms of ‘here’s what an online course could look like, but doesn’t have to.’  I’m not completely happy with this approach, but I don’t want faculty to see an example and think that’s the target.  Anyway, I say all of that just to put this whole conversation in the context in which it usually happens in person.

To answer the title question: YES, your course can be taught online.  And it can be learned well online.  In fact, your course’s learning goals and objectives can be matched or exceeded in an online class when compared to the same course taught face-to-face.

Does that seems like a bold and broad statement?  Probably so.  But, I’ve yet to meet a course/content that wouldn’t work well online.  This, however, is not the most useful question for faculty members and curriculum planners to ask.  More appropriate questions might include:

  • What might this class look like online?
  • How do I restructure learning activities to meet the course objectives?
  • If I want to lecture, how do I design and create those lectures to be effective online?  If I don’t lecture, how do I teach?
  • If I choose not to offer this class online, why?  What significant thing happens in the F2F class that cannot happen online?
  • Futhermore, what am I restricted in doing in the traditional class that might work really well in an online class?

I was in a meeting a while back where it was said “There’s a hermeneutic of suspicion for what’s happening (or not) online compared with what’s happening (or not) in the traditional classroom.”  I think this is so true, in part, because the traditional classroom is typically centered around the faculty person.  An online class levels the playing field, in terms of ability to contribute and engage the teaching and learning.

Also, though, I think many people have no other frame of reference to think about “education” than in a classroom setting.  Desks/tables, chairs, rows, projector, laptop, and PowerPoint.  This, or something similar, is our current picture of “teaching”.  Yet, this is just one option in a potentially large repertoire of teaching methods and environments.  For sure, it is a very efficient way of teaching.  But is that our goal?  Efficiency?  I hope not.  Especially in theological education, where transformation is key to curricular goals and Kingdom effectiveness.

Reality is, your course can be taught and learned very well online.  But it may not look much like your traditional class.  And that’s OK!

It makes me think about Jesus’ teaching style.  From what we read in the NT, he used many different styles and very few (one?) would be similar to our classroom model: talking to large crowds.  And these were large crowds… 5000+.  Jesus’ teaching was highly contextualized.  He taught as he walked through fields, walking down the road, lounging at the supper table, watching people give their tithe at the temple.

It was very inefficient, though.  But effective, don’t you think?  VERY effective.

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