Behind the Scenes of Online Teaching and Global Education
by Myiesha Gordon
I have to confess. The idea of taking an online course intimidates me a bit. So, when I try to imagine what it’s like to facilitate an online course — to be at the mercy of technology with an invisible audience — it invokes mild panic. The very nature of an online course differs significantly from its classroom-based counterpart. Despite its loosely held reputation as the ‘wild west’ of education (or maybe because of it), the idea of online education fascinates me. The freedom and flexibility it affords both professor and student is appealing. However, it seems that online courses are rife with potential for some things to go awry.
After learning about the newly created Global Competence Certificate (GCC) program at Teachers College, my curiosity was piqued. Perhaps I could consider enduring mild panic in exchange of being in the same (virtual) environment with like-minded professionals — people from all over the world, of diverse backgrounds who share their ideas and experiences. They use current technology that is familiar — a Blackboard platform similar to Skype, interactive chat room style sessions. Students are even equipped with emoticons to communicate to the professor, thumbs up, for example, to confirm understanding. Throughout the course, students complete work on their own and also with their colleagues in groups and join the entire class for synchronous sessions.
To assuage my skepticism about online learning, I thought I would find out what really happens in these course, from those who know best, doctoral students from the Social Studies Education program who have served as Teaching Assistants for courses within the program. Patrick Keegan, Hanadi Shatara, and John Shekitka (*see below for short bios) sat down with me to discuss their experiences.
Educators enroll in the GCC program for professional development, to acquire new skills, to build a network and learn from would-be colleagues. Engaging educators from all over the country and world is one obvious benefit of online courses. This level of engagement could not happen without technology. “Technology can re-shape how we interact with each other” said John. Prior to teaching the GCC courses, he had not given online education much thought. His experience as a Teaching Assistant caused him to think about the future of education and rethink traditional education — how technology will change the 19th Century university education model.
Even as they assist in teaching educators, the Teaching Assistants are also learning skills beyond typical classroom management. They partner with their lead professors to ensure that the class sessions run smoothly and efficiently — making sure the curtain rises on time. And troubleshooting when necessary. According to John, part of the role of the Teaching Assistant, in addition to helping the professor with logistics and troubleshooting, is to ask “What are the possibilities?” for the course.
So what about the inevitable technical difficulties? “The online environment is always a work in progress” said John. With differing time zones, working around schedules, equipment, and software, it’s not a matter of if but when plans will be thrown off course. Hanadi recalls a situation in which she had to troubleshoot technical issues, and how she learned through the experience, “It was trial by fire,” she said. “Teachers have to be flexible.”
During my conversations with the TA’s, I still wondered if an online course format is an effective way to learn about globalization. I asked for a concrete example of an assignment and learned about a group project assigned in the Introduction to Global Competence course. Students were required to pick a product and use Google Maps to map how the product is produced from beginning to end, documenting the producers and consumers — measuring the global impact of the process. “There are so many topics under the umbrella of global education: sustainability, citizenship, poverty, human rights.” said Hanadi. The advantage of having a classroom filled with people from diverse backgrounds is the discourse that happens as a result of the discovery of varying viewpoints and experiences.
“The students had so much to offer” said Hanadi, who was more familiar with teaching middle school students than experienced educators with their own teaching philosophies. Hanadi is interested in how the teachers will use the information in their own classrooms. Patrick hopes that teachers “start to think about how global education is not just teaching what happens in developing countries.”
Online education appear to be transforming the expectations of educators and can offer a richness to teacher education programs. Facilitating an online course seems to require a different set of skills than that of traditional classroom teaching — the educator becomes a producer, of sorts, who must remain several steps ahead of the lesson and anticipate any issues that could arise, while actively providing a platform that allows students to participate in a meaningful way and without disruption.
Teaching Assistants have to roll with the punches, and remain flexible in the virtual classroom. They have to quickly identify what works without the benefit of seeing their students in the flesh. Learning through an online course mirrors the concept of globalization — working with many people from all over the world, exploring issues and engaging in dialogue to imagine the possibilities of the future.
*Patrick Keegan recently completed his third year as a doctoral student in the Social Studies department at Teachers College. Prior to coming to TC, he taught Social Studies in a middle school in New Hampshire. While in college, he studied abroad in South Africa and helped develop community gardens and is a proponent of students having cultural immersion experiences. Patrick was a TA for the course, Introduction to Global Competence in the Fall of 2014.
Hanadi Shatara will enter her second year in the doctoral program at Teachers College in the Social Studies department in the fall. She taught for seven years in Philadelphia as a seventh and eighth grade Social Studies teacher prior to coming to TC. Her interest in global education was stirred at an early age. Consumed with world cultures in middle school, she recognized that the curriculum in her school was limited, and recalls taking initiative to learn more about her Palestinian heritage and other cultures. Hanadi started as a Teaching Assistant in the spring of 2015 for the course, Introduction to Global Competence.
John Shekitka came to Teachers College in the fall of 2012 to pursue a doctorate in Social Studies. Prior to studying at TC, he was a Social Studies teacher for middle and high school. John was a TA for a few courses, including Global Systems and Introduction to Global Competence — his favorite — which made him think about the world and teaching in a different way.
Myiesha Gordon was a Staff Writer with the Department of Arts and Humanities