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Teaching without a class

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Yesterday, Amazon announced its steps into the online education market with Amazon Inspire. The growing expansion of online education, from the early days of VLEs to MOOCs in all disciplines and languages, has me thinking a lot about teaching and how it is increasingly escaping the physical classroom.

As a PhD student, ordinarily I would be expected to undertake some teaching, in particular if I aim to enter academia after I earn my PhD. As a part-time, long-distance student with a full-time job, however, the reality is that regular teaching isn’t possible, even if my institution’s admin team were working proactively to try to make it happen for students in my situation (spoiler alert: they’re not).

Being a sometime MOOC fan, and now working with Dino Felluga and his team on BRANCH (Britain, Representation, and Nineteenth-Century History), I’ve been thinking about how digital media might make it possible to teach outside the traditional classroom.

Ordinarily, we think of online academic provision from a learner’s perspective: how well are their needs met, how robust is the learning and examining process, how does such an education compare with traditional university experiences? However, what if we diverge for a moment from models of academic provision that remain centred on traditional institutions?

MOOCs mostly follow traditional course structures with weekly homework, readings complemented by video lectures, often delivered with PowerPoint, and forums to replace office hours, where teaching assistants answer queries. Coursera restricts itself to organisational “partners”—for-profits, universities, not-for-profits, etc.—and edX does the same. That means that, for teachers, MOOCs do not remove barriers but reinforce the priority of academic institutions over the individual educators that make them up.  Academics, particularly PhD students and ECRs often talk about blogging, online-only journals, etc., as a way to get our scholarship out there, but what about the opportunities for getting our pedagogy out there too? The articles on BRANCH, for instance, are certainly educative, but they are scholarship, not pedagogy. 

Lots of lecture courses from traditional universities make their way onto YouTube or Udemy as platforms, but it seems that the possibility for cross-fertilisation of ideas—between students, students and lecturer, etc—is limited. Such platforms are “stuck on transmit”. TED Talks, although maligned, feels less staid, but the form is much the same from an online perspective (the live experience may be different). Discussion forums underneath videos are not much different to comments under news article, and we all know what’s said about those.

Teaching online is an increasingly prevalent mode of educating that merits PhD students’ and ECRs’ attention. What is expected of us now as teachers, especially in cases where traditional teaching opportunities might be closed to us because of the changing HE landscape? I don’t have an answer to this, but I do have some more questions:

What are some of the ways that you have seen effective teaching being done outside traditional environments, in particular online? What sort of distinction is there now between online scholarship and online pedagogy? Is the act of making scholarship freely available and accessible—to those who can engage with it—an act of pedagogy? Are attempts at online pedagogy—particularly those that are fairly low-engagement for the teacher, as MOOCs often are—inevitably less effective than classroom-based teaching? Will moves towards more online or open-access teaching detached from ‘real’ (classroom) teaching only exacerbate an attitude in academia of treating PhDs and ECRs as contingent labourers by replacing more of our traditional work? Would promoting one’s ability to teach through, for example, one-off Prezis/YouTube videos or Udemy courses actually be counterproductive for a job candidate?

 

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