What Makes an Excellent Online Educator?

What Makes an Excellent Online Educator?

August 4, 2020

As learning online proliferates amid the disruptive force of the COVID-19 pandemic, economic precarity, and school re-openings, forward-thinking educators across the globe are actively building welcoming virtual classroom “sanctuaries” and “refuges” for their students.  

“A pandemic forced us all to discover what happens when learning is pushed online,” said Sean Michael Morris, faculty member in University of Colorado Denver’s School of Education & Human Development’s Learning Design & Technology program. “Educators are gearing up for teaching and learning through the screen, across time and time zones, while giving students an experience of curiosity and wonder. It’s an awesome responsibility.” Morris recently co-led an international, asynchronous, online Digital Pedagogy Lab in collaboration with the School of Education & Human Development at CU Denver. The event was 500+ participants strong across 15 countries and 20 time zones. 

Sean Michael Morris

The University of Colorado Denver is uniquely prepared and mobilized to provide thought leadership and direction in the area of human-centered digital learning. Learning Design & Technology faculty at CU Denver provide influential courses, certificates, degree programs, faculty development workshops, and experiences like the Digital Pedagogy Lab, so that education professionals and librarians can feel more confident, tech-savvy and student-centered.  

This fall semester, CU Denver has made a holistic campus effort to provide national leadership around online course experiences in higher education. For instance, 150 course sections at CU Denver will employ course assistants who will assist faculty in using digital tools more effectively. These human resources will allow faculty members to think very deliberately about fostering community and thoughtful feedback in their virtual classrooms. “Digital learning and teaching should not focus on tools and technology, but on human beings,” said Morris. “And, this is what CU Denver is doing. We engage students through practices that center them —their lives, their careers, their concerns.” 

To understand these humanizing practices for teaching online, and examples of how educational institutions are adapting, we explore some of the key takeaways for online educators from the Digital Pedagogy Lab conference: 

Advocate at all levels for your students’ needs 

Digital pedagogy has become more urgent, especially as we’re finding that learning online (re)surfaces inequities that we have barely scratched at in our classrooms, and which can profoundly change access to education in the digital.  

Morris notes that, “Too often, I think, online teaching (and instructional design) employs methods to remove the student from where they are and place them where we want them.” Excellent teaching is rooted in understanding and valuing students and their experiences; and so good digital pedagogy can develop from something as simple as talking to students, asking them to reflect on what they need as a learners, allowing them to make choices that align with their interests.  

Center Teaching in Anti-Racism, Accessibility, and Equity

Digital pedagogy should acknowledge the very real circumstances of students’ lives—from the work and parenting they’re doing from home, to issues they may face. Anti-racism work, establishing accessibility, understanding the challenges to equity in students’ lives online and on-ground become necessary no matter the subject matter or content we’re teaching. 

The pandemic only brings this into greater focus, but the work of teaching is never just teaching. We must find ways to reduce oppression and question privilege. The hope is that we build bridges between our own humanity and the humanity of students. 

Invest Critically and Carefully in New Technologies 

The critical digital pedagogy practiced at the event encourages educators to be better users of technology by asking critical questions of edtech—how accessible is the tool for blind students or a hearing-impaired student; how do these tools invade a student’s privacy—and to confront the problems that we’ve long identified with edtech: privacy violations, security concerns, racist algorithms, accessibility and access issues, all-male leadership teams, outsourcing, and so on. 

The conference featured a “tool parade“, an opportunity for online educators to get their feet wet—to consider what’s possible, and what they might want to explore more deeply. 

Get Creative With Your New, Digital Classroom Space 

Laura Summers

Student motivation and efficacy builds when their voices are affirmed, and when they feel included in establishing how the learning community operates. “Teachers can make deliberate decisions about how students engage and feel a sense of belonging in a virtual classroom community,” said Laura Summers, faculty member in CU Denver’s Learning Design and Technology program. “It’s important that students are able to see themselves reflected in the virtual space and that they’re given permission to be creative.” There are several free applications that can be embedded within a virtual course where students can co-create together on a shared document (e.g. padlet, jamboard) and have a synchronous, small group discussion to collaborate on authentic problems of practice that build upon student agency. Students can also “make” away from the computer; and then, return at an agreed-upon time, or through a recording, to share their creative solution to an authentic problem of practice. 

The important thing is to engineer a flexible system that allows for student exploration in order to find the personal connection to their lives, while simultaneously directing their actions and focus toward a specified goal that can obtained. 

Teach With a Flexible and Nimble Mindset 

“The most important digital literacy,” Morris said, “is imagination and creativity.” Teachers can and should feel empowered to be more agile. Rather than professional development and training focused on specific practices, teachers need support becoming literate with a variety of technologies and pedagogies so that, in the case of another sudden move to online education, flexibility and invention will preserve the continuity of the learning experience.