From its debut in 2017, Didaktikos* has included an article on pedagogy in every issue. I enjoyed contributing an article on pedagogy for online classes in its February 2020 issue.
I recently needed to update an online course I have taught for years because it had been more than the recommended five years to re-film its teaching videos. Though the project came at a good time, the anticipation of the attention and energy required to update and review the structure and materials of the course did not make it anywhere on my “bucket list.”
With a filming date set, I eventually carved out time to reassess the course and surprisingly found it to be a very helpful exercise. The process gave me an opportunity to remove references to films phrases, or events that no longer resonated with my students. The refashioned course design elements more clearly reflect how my philosophy has developed regarding online education. Here are three key aspects of my matured thinking.
Referring to “students who take online courses” versus “online students”
The common reference to “online students” places an emphasis that weighs heavily on the asynchronous aspects of their learning; the person is associated with distance. Referring to “students who take courses online” helps to remove the truncated view of students as two-dimensional images that appear on a screen. This change reminds me they are, first and foremost, people—people who desire to engage in their learning and to grow from what is learned. These are people who have stories and want to be known and understood, who have been instilled with purpose and value, and who ultimately want to know they are uniquely made and loved. This view brings greater intentionality to the development of the learning community and the overall experience of the course.
Using “transformational online practices” versus “best practices”
“Best practices” will seem lacking if there is no inherent purpose for their use. The desire to draw students to truth and to foster changed lives stimulates course-learning activities and assignments. “Transformational online practices” purposefully guide students in their own thinking and behavior as individuals and in their communities. This approach necessarily impacts how threaded discussion prompts are framed and sequenced, how substantive assignment comments are communicated, and the frequency and approach to video conferences.
Stepping away from the screen for times of thoughtful reflection
Our devices are ready conduits for distractions, which are numerous, alluring, attention-grabbing, and just one click away. Technology is a necessary part of our lives, yet the draw to be entertained and pacified is strong and can rob the user of time and mindfulness. There is, therefore, great benefit in promoting intervals of time away from screens for reflection and meditation. These times raise awareness of how the internet promotes distraction and dependence while providing opportunities to explore one’s own thoughts. It is a time to be still and ruminate on what is learned and consider the implications of applied truths for everyday life.
These philosophical stances appeared in the redesign of my course. Viewing students as people who take their courses online informs the frequency and quality of engagement I offer through learning management system features. In video conferences, for example, I am more mindful of what I am able to see on the computer screen—glimpses of their living space and environment. As I observe their surroundings, I’ll ask about artwork I see on the wall behind them or about a parent, child, spouse, or roommate who happens to walk into the field of vision. I listen more intently to their stories, experiences, and shared thoughts. This encourages their participation while validating and valuing their presence, voices, and community.
Well-framed, intentionally sequenced, threaded discussion prompts help achieve the development toward transformational thinking and action. For example, creating three levels of prompts—informational, transitional, and then transformational—help inform the progression toward change. Here are examples of each (applied to reading portions of Scripture).
- Identify two meaningful takeaways from your reading.
- What was easy to understand? What was more challenging?
- Which takeaway most closely resonates with a current life circumstance you are experiencing?
- Share your thoughts on a challenging takeaway with a friend.
- If actions complete knowledge, how will you live out the truth of what you have learned?
- In what ways is God’s Spirit challenging you to trust him?
- Describe the conversation you had with your friend.
These prompts elicit student engagement that fosters transformational thinking and actions. They broaden the learning experience by challenging minds and hearts. Students became more engaged with others and God in more meaningful ways.
I recently included the following statement in my course syllabus:
Stepping away from device screens is encouraged for all students taking online courses. Times to reflect or meditate on readings or viewed materials foster deeper learning, a stronger learning community, and the cultivation of one’s own authentic voice.
Students are encouraged to take a walk or engage in non-device or non-entertainment activities for the sole/soul purpose of thinking and learning more deeply and collecting their thoughts. I anticipate both resistance and relief from students as they encounter times of device-free reflection. The resistance typically stems from their attachment to their phones. Students do not perceive phone use as an impediment to their learning. They see their devices as a ready escape when things get boring or uncomfortable, or when too much thinking is required. To detach will require a measure of curiosity, patience and winsome persuasion. The relief comes as they discover that conversations do not have to be difficult and can add value to their learning and relationships. They just may find an antidote to loneliness, or maybe they will experience personal growth in empathy. They might be surprised by how interesting another person can be when interacting. They may also discover more from their own thought processes and original voice, and more of what it means to be human.
I am an advocate for students who take their courses online, and these philosophical shifts enhance the learning experience for them. I am also, however, an advocate for faculty who teach online. These shifts afford us opportunities to invest more deeply in our students and their learning and thus fulfill and enjoy our calling more completely.
*This article originally appeared in Didaktikos in February 2020. Reposted with permission.
Didaktikos is a journal written by professors, for professors, who teach in biblical, theological, and related disciplines and who help train pastors and other ministry leaders. Published four times a year by Faithlife, the maker of Logos Bible Software, the journal provides a forum for encouraging and supporting professors in their academic calling and personal ministries.
The journal’s content focuses on the vocation of teaching theology, biblical studies, and related disciplines, particularly at the graduate level and in service to the church. Articles address trends in contemporary scholarship, pedagogy (classroom and online), career development, faculty matters and ethics, and ministry-related issues.