There Is No "One Size Fits All": 4 Factors That Should Influence Your Online Teaching Approach
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What Should Be Influencing Your Online Teaching Approach

The longer I spend studying and working in education, the more I seem to see the facilitation approach to teaching gaining momentum. Ask, don’t tell. Try to remove power differentials in the educational environment—we’re all equal. Stop lecturing and use discussions. The learner is queen (or king).

It wouldn’t be a problem except that it is often touted as the only way, the right way, or even the moral way. Those who tell, act as an expert, or dare to engage in direct instruction may even be seen to be enemies of equality and democracy—sacred ground, in the West, anyway.

Before I’m written off as the enemy, let me say that I am not against the facilitation approach. I am only against it being used as the only approach. You could say that I deny the possibility of a ‘one size fits all’ approach to teaching—online or otherwise.

Daniel Pratt developed the Teaching Perspectives Inventory (TPI) to help people understand different views and perceptions of teaching. He lists 5 perspectives: transmission, apprenticeship, developmental, nurturing and social reform. Each perspective is equally valuable, though depending on results, you may find more success in some areas compared to others. There is no right or wrong.

Moreover, a variety of factors impact which teaching style or combination of styles will be most effective. In my experience, four factors have particular influence. You may add more.

1. Your Learners

I regularly facilitate an eLearning course on effective online teaching. Learners take the course from all over the world. Some come with lots of teaching experience, keen to see how they can contextualize their knowledge for the online environment. Others come with a skeptical attitude, wondering whether or not online teaching is a feasible strategy at all. I have found a facilitation approach that encourages further study tends to engage the former group, while the latter group needs teaching enabling them to take small steps forward. Every group and every person is different. I log-on frequently and contact the students personally to understand who they are and how I can serve them best.

Many learner characteristics influence teaching approaches, such as age, previous experience, academic background, motivation or attitude towards the subject, and culture, to name a few. This example illustrates that when learners have relevant knowledge about the content, a facilitation approach makes more sense, whereas if they do not, a teaching approach may be needed. Taking time to understand your learners upfront is important, but not always possible. It is essential to be flexible and adapt to changing needs. Pay attention to how learners are engaging and reach out to them so they know you’re there to help.

2. Context

In my experience doing training in an international organization, there are certain cultures that view relationships, including that of teacher-student, as hierarchical. A facilitation approach may indicate that teachers are not competent for the job, as teachers are supposed to be the experts. While it may be appropriate at certain times to challenge this dynamic, it is usually best to try to adapt to the local context.

This is just one example of how context can impact teaching style. Context can actually mean many things. Is the course being offered in a particular geographic location (e.g. all from the same city, province, state or country)? Or is it offered to people from all over? What kind of eLearning is it? Is it being offered in higher education, a corporation, a non-profit organization, or somewhere else? What expectations are there from leaders, managers or supervisors as to how training is conducted? Understanding the different aspects of context can help you employ the appropriate teaching styles.

3. Type Of Content

When the content is more conceptual, it may be appropriate to use a facilitation approach. However, if the content is more procedural, it may be prudent to use a direct instruction approach. Do you really want someone to ask you what you think is the correct procedure when there is only one way to do it? Connected to this are your learning outcomes. Are you aiming for lower or higher-level cognitive, affective or psychomotor outcomes? Direct instruction is likely a better fit for lower-level outcomes, while facilitation is needed for higher-level outcomes.

4. Your Preferences

As I mentioned above, I believe it is possible and desirable to adapt your teaching style to your context. However, the reality is that you will be more comfortable and potentially effective when working in your strengths. When you take the TPI, what are your results? How does that impact your preferred approaches and methods of teaching? Where do you need to adapt and where can you work in your preferences and strengths?

In sum, to engage in appropriate teaching approaches, seek to understand your learners, the context and type of content while being self-aware of your preferences. Do not succumb to the dominant ideology that facilitation is the only way. One size does not fit all.

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