Teaching on the Internet: A Guide for Beginners

To Bridge the Technology Gap, Focus on Learning Outcomes and Student Relationships 

Jeannine K. Brown | Bethel Seminary

There are many ways to be successful teaching online. Online pedagogy is almost as varied as the professors who teach in this delivery system. Just as there is no single way to be successful teaching in face-to-face classrooms, there is no single path for good online pedagogy. With that said, I have found a handful of approaches and ideas helpful over the years. 

START BY (RE)THINKING PEDAGOGICALLY

I encourage instructors to think pedagogically about their online courses from the start. It can be easy to think about teaching online as a matter of conversion—taking my face-to-face (f2f) course and converting it to online. A minimalist approach that was popular in the early days of online teaching involved video recording in-class lectures and streaming these for online students. Throw in a couple of online discussion forums, and voilà!—you have an online course.

What if, instead, you think about learning outcomes and build online modules that provide students the inputs and activities to achieve those outcomes? You may decide to give a lecture that is similar to something you would teach in class, but you might choose to focus it differently or break it into smaller segments to enhance learning. I have learned a great deal from working with instructional designers at my institution who are available to lead faculty through a pedagogical process for online course development.

Lead with the question “What do students need to achieve the desired outcomes in an online environment?” This offers an organic way to plan an online course. Almost twenty years ago, I was asked to develop our Bethel Greek sequence for hybrid delivery (a mix of fully online and intensive-based courses). When I thought through what students learning Greek online needed for success, my answer was (and still is) accountability and encouragement. Students taking Greek f2f have a similar need, but the online environment potentially intensifies the isolation a student might experience in the language-learning process. 

So when we began teaching Greek online in 2000, we implemented a coaching system. Each student was assigned a Greek coach who led five students in their weekly Greek exercises in real time, initially by phone. (Now our coaches use Google Hangouts, Zoom, or Skype.) We intentionally chose student coaches who had successfully learned Greek and who were natural encouragers. This combination provided students with both regular accountability and the encouragement they needed to succeed. 

Another area where my teaching has changed from f2f to online relates to the length of the media I provide for students. In an f2f setting, an hour-long class often includes a lecture punctuated by frequent student questions and large- or small-group discussion. In an online video or narrated presentation, there is no such opportunity for give-and-take, so it can be helpful to provide the needed lecture material in smaller doses, potentially between eight and twenty minutes. If I have a longer stretch of material, I will often record it in smaller segments and then playlist these recordings. The sequence is maintained, but students are able to view and review the lecture in its smaller units.

YOU DON’T HAVE TO BE A DIGITAL NATIVE

One of the misconceptions about teaching online is that you need to be really good at technology to be a good online instructor. Some of the professors who are most beloved by our online students struggle with technology. What they bring to their classes is a passion for their discipline and a deep commitment to relational dimensions of teaching. Seminary students want to know and be known in their classes. If you are committed to caring for your students, they will respond and engage.

Yet it is important to stretch ourselves in the area of technology. Given that technologies are always developing and improving, consider trying out something new, especially if it fits well with your discipline and teaching style. I was an early adopter of wiki pages (now eclipsed by Google Docs) because it was a great tool for my New Testament courses that provided a platform for collaborative writing. Students can study a text together, each providing their comments, and I am able to rearrange and thematize the material so it can be used productively in follow-up discussions. 

THINK RELATIONALLY ABOUT YOUR ONLINE STUDENTS 

As I’ve noted, bringing your relational self to online courses covers a multitude of (technological) sins. Consider ways to foster peer relationships among students, as well as your own relationship with students. All interaction doesn’t need to be (and probably shouldn’t be) between student and instructor. By helping students connect with each other, you will enhance their opportunities for learning. I’ve also learned to take my cues from the students themselves in pursuing relationships further. I look for signals that a student may want to connect outside of usual in-course channels and then follow up with an invitation for a potential synchronous connection. 

HELP STUDENTS SEE THE COHERENCE OF THE COURSE

As teachers, we understand the coherence of our own discipline and often communicate that coherence in informal ways in f2f courses (e.g., making connections between sets of ideas as we introduce a new lecture topic). I have learned that it is important to highlight coherence in online courses, as students will not easily infer these connections. I tend, for instance, to link together a number of weeks in a term under a single module and then show connections among the various inputs and activities of that module. (For an example, see the video at the bottom of this Bethel webpage. I might also include with my weekly email a brief video that introduces a sequence of related upcoming activities. 

DON’T BE AFRAID TO ENLIST OTHERS FOR HELP

Most of my TAs across the years have been younger than me; nowadays, they are often quite a bit younger! So I never hesitate to ask a TA to do some research on a new kind of technology and then brief me on how I might use it and the essentials for learning how to do so. I’m also quick to ask our university technology team for their help. They have great ideas for how to accomplish something online I didn’t dream was possible. I have also benefited from new ideas and technologies my colleagues are using. One of the great values of being in a learning community is the propensity of teachers to share their ideas with one another. 


Jeannine K. Brown (PhD, Luther Seminary) is professor of New Testament at Bethel Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota, and a member of the NIV Committee on Bible Translation. She is the author of Scripture as Communication: Introducing Biblical Hermeneutics and two commentaries on Matthew. She also contributed to The Baker Illustrated Bible Commentary and is a coeditor of the revised Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels. current projects include Gospels and Stories: A Narrative Approach to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John (Baker) and Philippians in the Tyndale New Testament Commentary series.


This article was first published in Didaktikos: Journal of Theological Education.

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Written by
Tavis Bohlinger

Dr. Tavis Bohlinger is Editor-in-Chief of the Logos Academic Blog and Creative Director at Reformation Heritage Books. He holds a PhD from Durham University and writes across multiple genres, including academia, poetry, and screenwriting. He lives in Grand Rapids with his wife and three children.

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3 comments
  • Great article! I co-lead Sunday school and small groups at my church and am always looking for ideas to enhance my delivery and teaching methodologies. You gave me some good ideas. Thanks for sharing your ideas and experiences. May God bless your teaching ministry!

  • Before retiring, I spent many years in instructional design for corporate employees. In the 1980’s and early 1990’s it was “text-based” CBT, later with the growing popularity of the internet other media elements were added, today there are affordances for all types of media and modality. I have done it all, from face-to-face to blended learning and real-time online facilitated workshops. Even before my corporate life, I taught high school for a couple of years. So in one way or another, I have always seen myself in the role of a teacher with a passion to help others to learn. In recent months, I have become acutely aware of the great opportunity for helping Christians to learn via online Christian training and education conducted by churches. Some churches are taking advantage by hosting online classes similar to those conducted by colleges. Some are even doing small-group Bible studies online. Although, I don’t believe “online” should ever be used as substitute for face-to-face connections. But the fact is that most people have a mobile device or computer which makes the opportunities to reach larger groups of people mind boggling. Think of who may be reached: the homebound due to illness or disability; those too shy to walk into a new church or Bible study; those whose work or school schedules make attendance difficult or impossible, or those who live too far away. From my experience, the biggest online challenge is to understand how learning takes place (not just cognitive learning) and then how to structure and deliver the learning experience online.

    • Really important thoughts here on considering the potential audience. Thanks, Ric.

Written by Tavis Bohlinger
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