One interesting characteristic of being a college instructor is the way you’re frequently asked to present a statement of your teaching philosophy. I don’t know if this ritual is limited to college teaching: I know that entrepreneurs write mission statements for start-up companies, for instance, but I don’t know if the proverbial doctor, lawyer, or Indian chief is ever required to articulate her or his professional philosophy. Do plumbers, mechanics, or firemen ever sit down to explain their philosophy of plumbing, machinery, or firefighting, or is this an exclusively white-collar or even Ivory Tower thing?
I don’t know how it is for other professions, but in my field at least, having a statement of teaching philosophy is as necessary as having an up-to-date copy of your CV. A CV and teaching statement aren’t only required when you apply for a new job; they’re also included in the teaching dossiers many schools require you to assemble to keep your job, whether that means applying for tenure or seeking reappointment as an adjunct. If you’re a college instructor, it’s not enough to simply do your job; you also need to be able to articulate why you do your job the way you do. What implicit philosophy underpins and inspires your teaching?
I recently realized that although I’ve written various versions of my own “Statement of Teaching Philosophy” over the years—a new, updated one every time I came up for reappointment as an adjunct instructor at Keene State, for instance—I’ve never written a statement of my online teaching philosophy. Just as the teaching tasks and responsibilities of an online instructor are slightly different from what is required when you teach face-to-face, these two kinds of teaching require a slightly different philosophical outlook. Having recently crafted a statement of my online teaching philosophy, I thought I’d share. If you’re wondering why I’ve recently had reason to articulate the philosophy behind ten years of online teaching experience, I won’t say anything other than “Keep your fingers crossed.”
Statement of Teaching Philosophy
A recent series of television commercials touts the customer-friendly approach of a particular bank. In the ads, customers go to a competing bank that is ominous and impersonal, with a cavernous lobby studded with grim gray pillars. There are no human tellers in this nameless corporate bank, only a disembodied voice admonishing customers for stepping out of line, tugging a pen tethered to a counter with an impossibly short chain, or daring to arrive a minute after closing time. After reassuring viewers that the customer-friendly bank doesn’t have rope lines, provides free pens, and is open both nights and weekends, a voiceover suggests it’s time to “bank human, again.”
I start with a description of these bank commercials because I think they match many students’ worst nightmares about online classes. No one wants to feel like their bank is peopled by robots who ignore the niceties of human interaction, and no one wants to feel like their college classes are similarly impersonal. When students log into their online classes, they want to know there is an attentive, qualified, and responsive instructor behind the electronic interface: a human being who will gladly answer their questions, encourage and respond to their participation, and provide constructive feedback on their assignments. Given the understandable desire on the part of students to be treated with decency and respect, it’s time that online instructors “teach human, again.”
I’ve taught face-to-face college writing and literature classes for twenty years, and I’ve taught a mix of face-to-face and online classes for the past ten. During this decade of teaching both online and face-to-face, I’ve learned that all my students want the same basic things. Students want an instructor who knows their name, reads and pays attention to their papers, responds to their emails, and treats them fairly. Students want to know their instructor is “there” even if they need help outside the stated office hours. Students don’t expect their instructors to be available 24/7, but they appreciate a prompt, considerate response to their questions and concerns. Students want their instructors to be engaged enough to notice if they skip class and to care enough to ask why they might be struggling.
Anyone who is a teacher or a parent knows you can’t watch all of your charges all the time: those stories about teachers who have “eyes in the back of their head” are, unfortunately, the stuff of myth. But even though human instructors can’t be “there” for their students at all times, modern technology makes it possible for instructors to be remarkably responsive to their students’ needs. Years ago when I first experimented with Blackboard, I wanted a way to keep in better touch with my face-to-face students even while teaching on multiple campuses. I quickly learned that an online learning management system made it possible for me to hold virtual office hours from home the night before a paper was due and thus be more “connected” with my students in their dorm rooms than I was when I sat in my isolated and Internet-free campus office.
In my face-to-face classes, I notice with regret how students’ personalities sometimes hinder their academic performance. There are always a few extroverted students who dominate discussions, for instance, while their more introverted but equally intelligent peers are less eager to participate. In an online class, however, no one can sit in the proverbial back of the room where an instructor might overlook them. In an online class, everyone participates, and everyone has a chance to think before they contribute. In an asynchronous threaded discussion, you can easily refer to something a student posted earlier in the week and connect that comment to something another student said today. In an online class, all students’ contributions are recorded regardless of how outgoing they are in person.
Because of the electronic footsteps students leave in their online classes, instructors have a wealth of data they can use to ensure student success. Whereas a student can sit in a face-to-face class and quietly nod even though they don’t understand the presented material, in an online class, silent nods aren’t enough. In an online class, students need to articulate their understanding of the material, and that gives instructors like me a clear indication of whether students truly comprehend course concepts. If I’m concerned a particular student isn’t doing well, I can review that student’s discussion posts, blogs, and other assignment submissions. Given those indicators of student comprehension, I can reach out to students who are struggling and need more help. Instead of waiting for confused students to approach me, I can take the initiative to reach out to them.
Regardless of whether they take classes online or face-to-face, college students spend a lot of time and money on their education, and like any consumer, students want to get something of value in exchange. If we are going to give online students an education worth the time and money they invest in their studies, we might take a page from the playbook of that customer-friendly bank I mentioned in my opening paragraph. Both bank customers and college students want to be treated like human beings, and one way to assure that is to hire real live humans to help them. Given how faceless much of our mechanized modern life has become, online instructors should make a conscious effort to be engaged, responsive, and respectful, bringing the niceties of human interaction into their virtual classrooms.