Online Teaching: “Small” but Powerful

Review: Flower Darby with James M. Lang, Small Teaching Online (Jossey-Bass, 2019)

In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, I’ve been desperate to read advice on how to teach well online. Since we may well be teaching remotely again sooner or later, I decided to read and review Flower Darby’s Small Teaching Online.

Bottom line: Yes, I think it’s well worth a read.……..

But before you read:  Clear your mind. Give yourself a treat for having survived the spring. Take a vacation.

Darby’s advice is firmly based in research about what we know students need to learn. Small Teaching Online is easy to read with concise, clear explanations and some lovely examples and analogies. (You can tell Darby teaches English.) The book is well-organized, too – each chapter ends with a reminder of the guiding principles and a discrete number of tips for how to implement them.

I’m also a fan because empathy for students taking online courses is infused through the entire book. This starts from the Introduction’s opening vignette, which I don’t want to spoil for you. There are regular reminders of who the students are on the other end of the Learning Management System and what it’s like for them to be there.

If you prefer a how-to-guide on how to design a course from scratch or recommendations for specific technology tools and the steps for how to use them, this probably isn’t the book for you. But if you have taught before and are a bit daunted about how to adapt to the online environment, this will make you think and give you practical ideas for what helps students learn.

Many of the book’s suggestions make sense in any teaching context: motivate by offering choices, hold students accountable, leverage community, scaffold big assignments, offer prompt feedback, be very present, activate prior knowledge, help students make connections, and convey caring and support.

But for faculty like me who feel kind of clueless about how to carry out these good practices in an online environment, the book is really helpful.

Like James Lang’s original Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons from the Science of Learning, Darby’s book is premised on the assumption that “small” or incremental changes can pay off in big ways – if those changes are smart ones, based in research on learning (xxii). Lang’s book has been a popular one for centers for teaching and learning to recommend because it recognizes how daunting it can be to overhaul our courses and instruction.

The last chapter advises us to identify one challenge – just one – that we have in online teaching, and to think carefully about how to address that challenge using an approach from the book “in a way that you – not your colleague down the hall, not your instructional designer, but you – can manage.” She suggests that new practice be one that we can sustain.

“As you consider which new strategy to adopt, be careful not to bite off more than you can chew. If a strategy overwhelms you, it’s not a good strategy.” (209) I wanted to laugh when reading that line; Darby clearly wrote the book without knowing how circumstances were going to force us to try what felt like a million new things mid-semester.

Now, however, we’ve got a little bit of time to step back and reconsider how we’ll teach online the next time. Her book may help you think about how to build your own self-efficacy along with that of your students by breaking a complex task into more feasible chunks.

“Don’t set out to scale Mount Everest in your next online course. It’ll only make you want to quit (210).” [Yes. LOL.] She advises, “Surmount a small hill. Then set your sights on the next one, slightly higher than the last. Keep climbing.”

If you don’t have time to read the book, check out Darby’s “How to Be a Better Online Teacher Advice Guide” in the Chronicle of Higher Education. It includes 20 principles from the book and points out some common misconceptions.

And don’t forget the vacation.

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