A Principled Online Teaching Journey: Part 1

Three monarch butterflies in three distinct stages of development.
Photo by Suzanne D. Williams on Unsplash

This article is part one of a two-part series. The next part will include a showcase of faculty capstone projects from the CVC/@ONE Advanced Certificate in Online Teaching Principles. 

I sometimes do things backwards. Not intentionally. It happens when I’m captivated by an idea and run with it. That’s how I initiated my pursuit of CVC/@ONE’s Advanced Certificate in Online Teaching Principles (Advanced OTP). @ONE (the Online Network of Educators) is the professional development arm of CVC, the Chancellor’s Office-funded initiative aimed at improving access to high quality and fully supported online courses for more students.

Although the Advanced OTP certificate is no longer offered, the five @ONE Principles for Quality Online Teaching that form its framework are compelling and vital to effective learning and teaching. What follows is my own journey as a student of Advanced OTP and then as a mentor for others.

First, as a student in online learning

In 2017, I had just completed local online learning certification on campus. I heard about CVC/@ONE, surveyed their online classes, and decided to enroll. My first course was Equity and Culturally Responsive Teaching in the Online Learning Environment with Arnita Porter and Fabiola Torres. In quick succession came Digital Citizenship with Aloha Sargent and James Glapa-Grossklag, Dynamic Online Teaching with Dayamudra Dennehy and Matt Calfin, and Humanizing Online Learning with Michelle Pacansky-Brock and Tracy Schaelen. These courses comprised the Advanced OTP certificate pathway which, combined with a capstone, lead to the certificate. What I didn’t realize at the time is that the Advanced OTP certificate was suggested to be completed after the Certificate in Online Teaching and Design (OTD) program, which consists of four other courses. So after completing the Advanced OTP, I backtracked and completed the OTD certificate, too. As it turns out, completing the two certificate pathways backwards was one of the best mistakes I’ve made.

@ONE course facilitators walk the talk

The four courses of the Advanced OTP certificate focus on online teaching principles, and the facilitators of those courses put the principles into practice, giving me a front row seat to see how learning spaces are created with the student in mind. Every facilitator, and @ONE facilitators are California Community College faculty, fostered connecting, growing, and sharing in the OTP courses, creating the space for each of us as students to be present, to give and take, and to learn.

The courses provided valuable opportunities to build relationships and participate in teaching communities that too often are not available to part-time faculty, and the facilitators encouraged such community building throughout the courses and beyond. This was an unexpected and welcome benefit which I continue to enjoy, and I heard this refrain repeated from my part-time colleagues around the state.

Principles before practice

The five @ONE Principles for Quality Online Teaching underscored in the Advanced OTP courses are human-centered. I describe them as:

  1. Equitize the learning space.
  2. Humanize the learning space.
  3. Adapt the learning space.
  4. Navigate and expand the learning space.
  5. Learn and grow as an educator.

Let’s break them down 

These principles are designed to meet the needs of the diverse students that we serve in the California community college system.

  1. Equitize: Equity ensures that each student has access to what they need to succeed. Turning “equity” into a verb, making the learning space more equitable includes not just providing opportunities for students to learn based on what they know, but also providing support for them to fill in gaps in their knowledge, stretch their wings, access services they need, and reach their full academic potential.
  2. Humanize: I like to think of humanizing courses as “showing up”—not just for me, but for my students, too. The Humanizing course took me out of my “professorial” persona and gave me back my personal attributes, those traits, qualities, and quirks that make me, me, and make my courses different from other English instructors. My students, too, show up more in my courses now, building relationships and creating community.
  3. Adapt: Even instructors who had no previous experience with online learning prior to spring 2020 had to pivot to an online modality because of the pandemic. That’s one way to adapt. But the principle conveyed by adapting refers to more than that. When I adapt my teaching to predict and respond to student performance and feedback, I increase students’ level of interaction and agency; they grow stronger as independent learners. They also adapt with exercises in meta-cognition and self-assessment.
  4. Navigate and expand: Navigating and expanding the learning space is about traversing the disciplinary field and its  manifestations in my students’ world. My courses address this principle by strengthening students’ ability to navigate the information landscape skilfully and by fostering their curiosity. By making sense of content in the open web as opposed to only in Canvas, students develop information and digital literacy, skills that are critical for success in today’s world. Practicing this principle, I’ve also adopted OER and ideas from Open Pedagogy to increase student access to quality course materials and to engage students in learning by exploring, creating, and sharing what they’ve learned.
  5. Learn and grow: The fifth principle, learn and grow, is about me. Although I teach, I’m also a student. I continue to learn, experiment, assess, and improve. My students and colleagues form my learning community. 

The values that underlie these five principles are those that lay the foundation for relationship: mutual respect and caring, appreciation for diversity, recognition of the whole person, and desire for growth. The @ONE online teaching principles are the articulation of these values.

Backwards was better

And that is why completing the two certificate tracks in reverse order worked to my advantage: I learned and practiced the principles before tackling the OTD certificate courses that focus on implementation. I learned “why” before learning “how”.

Learning why I should learn something creates a fertile field for then learning how to do something. We know that a context of meaning—meaning that speaks to the student—fosters learning.

Automaticity is not enough

Of course, we want our students to learn how to do something and to do it well. We want them to achieve mastery of practices, to achieve a level of automaticity so that they don’t have to struggle to remember how to do something or do it well. This level of mastery reflects a level of acquired knowledge and repeated practice translated into habit. When I believe I’ve mastered an individual skill in my teaching practices, I can say I’ve achieved a level of automaticity that facilitates my practice.

This automaticity is well and good, but it’s not enough. Not enough for our students or the world in which they live, and not enough for us. If I learn how to use Canvas to create a welcoming place, one which engages students in learning the course goals, which is accessible and incorporates various design elements to facilitate comprehension, and consider the course “done”, then I’m not putting the principles into practice. Instead, I’d be implementing what I learned without continuing to learn and adapt, and thereby place my courses and methods of teaching at risk of becoming irrelevant or worse. That’s the price of action devoid of principle.

Principles as lifelong goals

On the other hand, the @ONE Principles for Quality Online Teaching are best understood as goals, as signposts that point still further ahead. Yes, I can achieve a level where goals are realized to some degree, where I am closer to the goal, but I can get even closer if I continue the journey.

Learning is personal and social

Here’s one example of how practicing the principles covered in the OTP courses changed how I teach.

In course surveys I provide to students, I ask open-ended questions about their experiences with the online course, to reflect on their learning and the course environment. Requesting this kind of feedback speaks to the principles of increasing student presence in courses, adapting the learning environment to increase student success, and promoting student agency.

Many times, these surveys come back with comments that acknowledge the benefit of this or that element of the course or why students liked a particular assignment above others. But in one such survey, I got a response that stopped me in my tracks.

One student wrote in the nicest possible way, “I wish you would use ‘you’ and not ‘we’.”

At first, I didn’t know what to do with this feedback, though you may be nodding your head now thinking, “rookie mistake.” I had used the first-person plural intentionally throughout the course as a way to emphasize togetherness. I believed the word “we” could forge a subtle bridge between me and my students and between students, helping to create a community of learners.

And then it hit me. When I used the word “we”, I wasn’t talking directly to each student; instead, I was talking to an amorphous entity without an individual personality, goals, and background. The word “we” doesn’t create the space for a student to be present, for that student’s voice to be heard, for that student to interact with agency.

Learning online is an intimate experience. Students enter online courses from their personal spaces, even if that’s a coffee shop. More significantly, they enter as individuals; there’s no corner of the classroom in which they can sink into a desk and remain unseen. In an online class, each one of them shows up.

Thanks to this student’s feedback, I improved my courses by addressing the individual “you”, while continuing to provide opportunities for students to engage in social learning. In fact, social learning relies on individual agency; without “you”, there can be no “we”.

But this evolution in my teaching would not have happened if I was already satisfied that I had achieved successful course design and therefore didn’t solicit feedback or didn’t consider it necessary to iteratively adapt the learning space to meet student needs. This is where practicing the principles—viewing the signposts as pointing further ahead—makes the difference. My courses will never be complete. And that’s paramount.

Posted in Equity, Online Teaching, Online Teaching Principles, professional development.

Colleen teaches English at Cuesta College.

One Comment

  1. Love the five @ONE Principles for Quality Online Teaching. They define for me in a succinct way a kind of framework for an integrated approach to quality online instruction. I’m particularly intrigued by the description of the experience of Humanizing online teaching as one that took you out of your “professorial persona” into being your authentic self. I find this truly liberating and transformative because what you eloquently refer to as a professorial persona is a professional straight jacket that must be at odds with the complex and dynamic process of teaching and learning.

    Just reading your article makes me feel as part of your learning community. Thank you for this gem which has already contributed to my professional growth and resilience.

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