In 2015, The Atlantic published a piece by a veteran English teacher, who was concerned that courseware and the blended classroom will soon replace teachers. The piece describes a future student-centered classroom, in which teachers may lose their status as resident experts and turn into facilitators of learning instead, essentially becoming teaching assistants who show students videos, keep equipment running, and maintain order in the classroom.
Some instructors have been reluctant to embrace online learning, despite research that demonstrates the efficacy of online learning experiences when it is grounded in learning science. For example, an Intentional Futures’ survey of instructional designers, for example, shows faculty reluctance to give up a design role in their courses and resistance to new online pedagogies. The instructional designers surveyed report that faculty resistance is the biggest barrier faced by designers.
Similarly, Inside Higher Ed’s 2016 survey of Faculty Attitudes on Technology shows resistance to new ways of teaching with technology — the majority of faculty members surveyed are skeptical about the quality of online education and feel that traditional courses yield better outcomes.
However, the study points out that the instructors who’d never taught an online course were the most wary. Instructors who had taught an online course were much more optimistic about the possibilities offered by online learning and hybrid format learning than their classroom-only colleagues.
This is likely because instructors who have taught online understand that, like a text, a whiteboard, or a gradebook, courseware, when it is based on sound learning science, can be is a tool that helps instructors do what they do best — teach.
Courseware was created to help teachers
Courseware can automate some of the tasks that take up a lot of instructors’ time, such as grading quizzes and other summative assessments. Instructors who are teaching flipped format courses, for example, may use online modules that ask students to complete a unit — reading designated materials or watching a recorded lecture online — before taking a quiz.
Rather than using class time to test students on reading they may or may not have done, students complete both reading and the quiz, which is graded by the courseware, at home. This type of blended course may reduces the amount of time the instructor spends grading quizzes or lecturing.
However, by itself, this doesn’t necessarily help faculty focus more on how they help students. If the courseware incorporates adaptive learning software, each student’s learning experience can be automatically personalized in response to whether he or she is mastering or struggling with any given content. Instructors get a real-time view of a student’s progress toward specific learning outcomes, and that empowers them to make high quality interventions.
In a similar way, the targeted and timely feedback on practice activities that an effectively designed courseware provides frees up instructors to spend more time coaching and tutoring students on the most complex content.
Equally, courseware can offer options to accommodate students’ varying comfort levels with various exercises. Some student may be more comfortable participating in online discussion than they are speaking up in class — especially if they are being awarded points for participating. This may be particularly true of women and students of color. According to the research, including this 2004 study of students at Harvard Law School, male students are more likely to speak in class than their female counterparts. Online discussions may help these silent students find their voices.
Discussion boards can be an important tool in hybrid classes where online communication is important. According to a 2012 case study of blended learning environments in higher education, because blended courses don’t meet as often as their face-to-face counterparts, the instructor will have to use courseware to create an online community for the students and to keep contact with class. The most effective instructors in the case study used a combination of email and news postings to maintain contact with students when the class was not gathered in a classroom.
Professors are still the experts
Online learning is a different animal from classroom-only courses, one that requires its own tools, pedagogies, and supports. Instructional designers, for example, might be needed to help a professor structure his or her online or blended course, or to help them learn how to use the courseware.
Instructional designers, for example, might be needed to help a professor structure his or her online or blended course so that content and practice activities are aligned with objectives, using the course design triangle as a model.
With so many changes, and the prospect of having to work with another person to create a course, it’s understandable that instructors used to face-to-face teaching are nervous. However, courseware is meant to complement the instructor’s work directly with students, rather than supplant it, and the blended model is flexible; there are no hard and fast rules about what pieces of a course must be offered online and what must be offered in person.
For example, although the flipped classroom makes it possible for lectures to be delivered online, an instructor may choose to lecture in person and host class discussions online. That decision should be made by the instructor; elearning may center the class around the student’s needs, but the professor is still the architect of the class.
A.J. O’Connell is a freelance journalist specializing in education reporting and a former college journalism teacher.