To answer the question What Does The Excellent Online Instructor Look Like? a recent post to the Tomorrow’s Professor blog offers an excerpt from R. Palloff’s and K. Pratt’s recent book, The Excellent Online Instructor: Strategies for Professional Development (Wiley & Sons, 2011). Although geared toward faculty teaching wholly online courses, it struck me that some of their observations would be useful for faculty teaching blended courses with online or computer-based components.
In many ways, their recommendations simply reflect good, learner-centered teaching practices that would be as applicable to wholly classroom courses as they would to online or blended ones: for example, using “well-designed discussion assignments to promote cooperation among students” or “allow students to choose project topics.” However, it is easy to see how some of these recommendations, such as the importance of good discussion assignment design, would be particularly important in a computer-mediated environment, in which the instructor and students are not physically present in the same time and space.
In fact, their overall argument could be summarized as: Online courses require more self-direction and peer collaboration on the part of students to be successful. Therefore, in order for an online course to succeed, it is absolutely essential that instructors adopt a learner-centered paradigm and become “a learning facilitator, allowing the students to take charge of their own learning process.” (I would play devil’s advocate here, and argue that student self-direction and peer engagement are equally crucial to the efficacy of any course, but are simply more trackable and therefore more visible in online ones.)
However, they do stress that becoming an effective learning facilitator does not simply mean providing online resources and then “getting out of the way.” In fact, they argue that online instructors need to establish an “active and strong online presence” and help guide students through the learning process. Students take responsibility for their own learning, but learning is not wholly independent and self-guided — it is profoundly shaped by conversations with their professor, with discussions among peers that are enabled, facilitated or guided by the professor, and by assessments designed to advise students and encourage them to reflect on their own learning and the steps they need to take to move forward. This conclusion is backed by research — a U.S. Department of Education meta-analytical study of research on blended and online learning found significantly greater effect sizes in courses where learning was directed by instructor than in independent learning courses (xv).