Reviewing Chickering & Gamson for online teaching

Week 1 of the #tomooc gave pride of place to Chickering & Gamson’s 7 principles for good practice in undergraduate education. This is great to see because it is also at the heart of our face to face PGCert in teaching in HE. It reminded me of how it is both a useful evaluative lens through which to review a course and a useful course design tool.

With this in mind, and following on from Dr. Dreon’s article, I thought I might use it to explain my thoughts on the First  Steps into teaching in HE MOOC (#FSLT13) we ran earlier this year and plan to run again at the start of 2014.

1. Encourage contact between students and faculty.

One of the key design principles we embraced was to make sure learners got responses when they posted discussion. To help with this we used volunteer ‘expert’ participants in addition to tutors (see the forthcoming issue of JOLT vol.9, no.2 article by Waite for details). We also feel it is important that, just as in a face to face classroom, tutors pose challenging questions in the discussions to enhance learning and understanding. The key flaw I think we need to address for FSTL14 is in making sure that the ‘experts’ do not dominate the discussions.

Like many MOOCs we also used regular webinars to allow real time contact between tutors and learners.

The idea that Dreon mentions of ‘office hours’ is interesting but the challenge there is how to deal with a global audience. For example, the #tomooc webinars occur at about 1am for those of us based in Europe (now I like to start my work early so staying up until that time is a bit beyond me!) So i think we have favoured asynchrony (with a quick response time) as the preferred mechanism for contact.

2. Develop reciprocity and cooperation among students.

One of the big challenges that I see with cMOOCs is that often student – student contact is encouraged but expected to happen organically. Learners are supposed to organise themselves. I remember a colleague who could not find partners to work with her on a topic during one MOOC, which meant she ended up working alone.

Would we do this in a face to face classroom? I think we should, as tutors, help learners to connect and design our courses accordingly. With this in mind FSLT13 organises live sessions for group work. We ask learners to sign-up for working with groups to share their work with peers. Learners do not have to sign-up but at least it provides an opportunity for connection without in any way excluding organic connections.

3. Encourage active learning.

For this, we have a weekly discussion and weekly tasks (which links into the design for student – student contact). Active learning is crucial but we must not forget that reading and thinking about what you read can also lead to learning. How active do we need to be, active reading on your own seems part of ‘active’ to me.

4. Give prompt feedback.

For us, this is a crucial aspect of 2 & 3 above. We want learners to produce a wide diversity of tasks that were not suited to computer feedback, therefore the need for human feedback. But how do you scale that up from a classroom of 30 to possibly hundreds or thousands. For us the answer we went with was peer feedback. I feel that peer feedback is massively underused for university education. On the FSLT MOOC students can get 10 UK credits on work entirely marked by peers (although moderated by tutors.)

5. Emphasize time on task.

I find this a tricky one because we are all busy and have competing demands on our time. Personally, I would characterise my use of the internet as ‘snacking’ which I don’t think is conducive to really transformative learning. MOOCs seems to include a huge range of content (try to justify their existence?!) that can’t possibly all be consumed. I think this can encourage a surface form of learning even when there are tasks that specifically draw upon that content. I think there is a fine balance to be made.

6. Communicate high expectations.

Always but again  communicating this online can be difficult. There is a risk that the workload and content can feel like too much for some. So they drop out. I think going back to point 1 really helps. When you teach face to face you inevitably explain an assignment because not even the best assignment briefs can pick up the nuances of what is required and the expectations of the tutors. I think webinars offer a good way of communicating high expectations.

7. Respect diverse talents and ways of learning

I think of all the seven items this one seems almost to be built into the notion of a good online course and MOOCs. The multimedia aspect of the web seems to encourage tutors to think more about diversity than they might do in their face to face teaching. So a diversity of content; text, audio, video etc and a diversity of tasks / assignments for learners.


So overall, I’m pretty happy with what we have done in the past. They all still pose challenges for the next run and further discussion and tweaking but I think we are on the right lines.


One comment on “Reviewing Chickering & Gamson for online teaching

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