Philosophy of Online Teaching
Diana Dell, Ed.S.

"There's no word in the language I revere more than 'teacher.' My heart sings when a kid refers to me as his teacher, and it always has. I've honored myself and the entire family of man by becoming a teacher." --Pat Conroy, Prince of Tides

“Teacher” is indeed an honored title.  For this reason, it is essential that all teachers, elementary, secondary, undergraduate, graduate, face-to-face, or online, be aware of the intrinsic power of their role and are self-reflective about their practices. Teachers must have a well-thought-out philosophy of teaching, based on what research has revealed as best practices, to guide them as practitioners.  This is especially true in the online environment.   Online teachers need to be more focused on students and their needs because they lack the luxury of physically interacting with students one on one. (Palloff and Pratt, 2003)

My philosophy is at the heart of what I think, feel, and do while teaching either face-to-face or online.  It also encompasses what I want my students to think, feel, and do as a result of being in my classroom. I am constantly aware that I must serve as a role model of the kind of learning I strive to encourage among my learners. 

What is this learning of which I speak?  “My definition of learning is eclectic in nature as I draw on several learning theories, taking parts from each to make a meaningful whole. It has been developed from formal study of learning theories such as constructivism, behaviorism, developmental theory, neuroscience, brain-based learning, learning styles, multiple intelligences, right brain/left brain thinking, and social cognition. I have combined the knowledge gained from the study of these theories with my own experiences as a learner, facilitator, and observer of learning.” (Dell, 2002)

“Key components of my definition of learning:

  • Learning is more than the acquisition of knowledge.  It is a quest for meaning.  Learning necessitates understanding "wholes" as well as "parts."  "Parts" must be comprehended within the framework of "wholes."
  • The process of learning is unique to the individual.  Individuals perceive and process information in different ways.  Each develops a method to discover solutions and resolve problems they encounter.
  • The brain, the biological basis of learning, is a self-organizing system. Thinking alters the physical structure of the brain.   Patterns of connection, which I refer to as "hooks", are strengthened as we use our brain, making each connection easier to create the next time.  New learning "hooks" to old learning.  Piaget calls this scaffolding.
  • A state of confusion or disequilibrium indicates that learning is about to happen.  Learners naturally attempt to resolve confusion.  When confusion is resolved, learning has occurred.
  • Learning is a social process.  Learning occurs through interaction within communities.
  • Skills and knowledge must be applied.  "Knowing" does not occur without "doing."  We learn by doing.  Learning occurs with the application of skills and knowledge in the creation of a product.
  • The process of reflection stimulates metacognition or "thinking about thinking."  When learners can reflect and explain what they have learned, they will be more able to apply their learning to new situations.” (Dell, 2002)

To facilitate this kind of learning, I must act not only as an instructor, but as an instructional designer as well.  My classroom, either brick-and-mortar or virtual, consists of a caring community of learners who work collaboratively and support each other’s learning.  In a typical unit or course of study, my learners spend about one-third of the time acquiring what I refer to as "essential skills."  The remaining two-thirds of their time is spent in the process of construction of knowledge, the creation of relevant learning product, and the processes of reflection and self-evaluation.  The common thread that guides my selection of instructional theory is that of congruence to constructivism, collaboration, and the integration of instructional technologies.  I never lose sight of the fact that the purpose of instructional theory is to help people learn better.  Therefore, just as my beliefs about the process of learning are eclectic in nature, so are my practices as an instructor and instructional designer.

The new paradigm in instructional design parallels the changes in thinking regarding the process of learning.   Key characteristic of the new paradigm as presented by Richey (1997) include constructivism, cognitivism, problem-based learning, hypermedia/ multimedia performance technology, electronic performance support systems, and systematic thinking.  The most important factor triggering the need for changes in instructional design theory is the societal shift from the industrial age to the information age (Richey, 1997).   “There is greater need for methods of instruction that allow for much greater customization of the learning experience and much greater utilization of information technology, fellow learners, and other resources for learning” (Reigeluth and Moore, 1999, p.51).  Apparently in agreement with Reigeluth, Moore and Richey, Jonassen states, “Since knowledge cannot be transmitted, instruction should consist of experiences that facilitate knowledge construction” (Reigeluth, 1999, p.217). 

One of the most crucial factors an instructor and instructional designer must address in the new paradigm is the uniqueness of the culture or climate associated with the community of learners for which one designs and instructs.  The need for customization requires that instructors and designers develop styles of communication, instruction, and collaboration that are in harmony with the distinctive "voice" of the target community. Gayeski (1998) states, "One size does not fit all.  Many organizations are looking for an off-the-shelf system to 'automate' or 'standardize' the design and development of learning materials. Although certainly such software and hardware can and have been developed, they may wind up producing 'cookie-cutter' outputs."

Many course management systems, such as WebCT and BlackBoard, have built-in collaborative learning systems to support communication, document sharing and asynchronous conferencing systems.  Successful customization of these systems, however, is dependent on appropriate instructional design.

How can instructors and designers use these systems to foster communication, instruction, and collaboration? The following guidelines are a compilation drawn from the works of the Johnsons, the Kagans, Palloff and Pratt, Felder, Millis, Bailey, Ko, Rossen, and Luetkehans.  Additionally, I have drawn on my experience as a distance learning student and teacher.  These guidelines are of significant relevance in distance learning situations.

1.   Explain to the students the importance of collaborative group work.  Make it a requirement and not an option. Many distance-learning students tend to prefer to work alone, but allowing them to do so reduces the likelihood of a meaningful distance learning experience.

2.   Form groups that are heterogeneous with respect to gender, age, ethnicity, learning styles, abilities, and experiences.  Groups of 2 - 4 learners are best.  Instructors and designers should consider the purpose of the group and the cooperative structures that will be used as they determine the number of team members.

3.      Allow time for icebreaking and team-building activities. Icebreaking and team-building activities allow learners to begin to form a sense of community.  The activity may be a specific team-building structure or may simply encourage students to introduce themselves to the group.

4.   Give clear instructions and guidelines regarding not only the assignments, but about the method and tools of communication that will be used.  Start simple to give students time to understand the structures and methods of communication.

5.   Set reasonable goals and provide a place for the group to interact.  Many course management systems provide areas intended solely for this purpose.  The tools available, such as group asynchronous discussion boards, live chat, and interactive whiteboards, vary with the system chosen.

6.   Supervise the group’s progress and be available to prompt or assist groups that are having difficulty.  Your “presence” will help to ensure participation by all members.  Be prepared to intervene and mediate conflicts of an interpersonal nature without taking sides.  Suggest that the group explore alternatives and reach consensus.

7.   Design evaluation criteria to include peer evaluation.  This rewards extraordinary team members while at the same time penalizes non-contributing members.

8.   Provide a place for team to share their work and learning products with the larger learning community.  Many projects can be posted on a web site or added as an attachment to a discussion thread.

It is through communication, interaction, and collaboration with students that they understand my goals for them.  I believe the primary role of a teacher has little to do with conveying information to students.  It would be egotistical of me to see my students as empty vessels waiting to be filled with my perceptions of the world.  Instead, I believe teaching is encouraging students to take responsibility for their own learning, rousing their intellectual growth, and fostering a love and pursuit of life-long learning. 

 "The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn." ~Alvin Toffler

I do this by placing emphasis on the application of concepts and processes acquired in the courseroom to real world situations.  I use technology as a tool to support learning, encourage self-sufficiency, to promote the creation of useable products, and to establish skills that will be needed throughout the learner’s lifetime.  When students can transfer new learning to the real world, it indicates to me that meaningful learning has taken place.  This meaningful learning translates not only into new skills and information but into an uplifted spirit as well.  Nothing elevates the spirit as much as learning how to learn.

I find that students who engage in reflection are more likely to transfer the learning from the course room to the real world.  Reflection is not a skill all learners have mastered.   Instructors must guide learners though the process of reflection until it becomes a natural part of the learning process.  I require a reflection statement from each learner in every course that I teach.  I do this because these statements provide valuable insight into the learners’ thought processes.  Additionally, reflection statements benefit the learner as they review and think about the entire course content.  It helps then to see how the “parts” connect to make a “whole” and their learning can be applied.

One the most important tools I have for implementing my philosophy in the online environment is the syllabus. The syllabus is typically the first communication between the teacher and the learner.  It makes the first impression.  It should therefore provide clear instructions about weekly assignments, major projects, goals, and expectations. The more detailed the syllabus the better the student will understand the mechanics of the course.  Students learn to turn to the syllabus for answers regarding the nuts and bolts of the course rather than the instructor.  This encourages self-sufficiency.

I create a course atmosphere that encourages group interaction and the sharing of ideas.  I ask students to make personal introductions.  I find that if I share information about myself, the learners are more open to sharing information about themselves.  My manner, both in the classroom and when interacting with individual learners, is one of respect, understanding, and encouragement.  I see personal interaction with learners as one of the most important characteristics of quality online teaching.  Knowledge of my students as people is vital to the development of a good rapport with them.  I make myself available outside the classroom by encouraging students to communicate with me through email when they have a need.  All interactions are intended to convey an unconditional respect for the individuality of each learner. 

I have a willingness to listen and answer any questions.  In the online environment timely feedback is crucial.  It helps to reduce the feeling of isolation that some online learners experience.  I periodically ask for learner feedback and have the students evaluate me as an instructor.  I continually strive to improve my teaching practices and to grow as a scholar/practitioner.  Learner feedback is essential to this process.  With every class that I teach, I learn a little more about my learners, the content, and myself.  The most important lesson that I have learned through teaching is that I receive as much as I give.



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