Writers are many things: communicators, artists, thought-provokers. But first and foremost we are teachers. We want to convey grand ideas, challenging concepts, and foundational knowledge. So why aren’t more writers teaching? Perhaps it is because we don’t know how to teach.
I’m a writer, but my day job is helping people do distance education for the LAMP Learning Consortium. When the pandemic hit in March 2020, I became extra busy. More than ever before, people wanted to know how to teach online. A recent Lulu webinar on how to publish workbooks reminded me that authors, too, would like to know how to deliver their content (and add a revenue stream) through online courses.
Writing and teaching have a lot in common. Both authors and instructors hope that recipients (readers and learners) will engage with their ideas. But there is one big difference. At its heart, writing is a solo activity. We toil away, finding just the right phrases, then send our work to our beta readers, our editors, and ultimately to our readers for them to (hopefully) appreciate and enjoy.
Teachers also author material. They do send it out into the world. But where an author hopes to develop a fan base that will interact and provide feedback, a teacher requires it. Authors can be successful even if they never hear from a single reader. Teachers who do not know if their students have gained knowledge or skills are myopic, even narcissistic.
Teaching online thus must solve the fundamental interaction problem. Teaching isn’t a one-way street.
Synchronous or Asynchronous
Broadly, teaching online falls into two camps: synchronous and asynchronous. Synchronous courses mean that the instructor and the students are interacting in near real-time. Asynchronous teaching allows students to access and learn the material on their own time, without the presence of the instructor.
An old-fashioned, in-person classroom is a synchronous environment. The give and take between a teacher and students happens in real time. Online we can model that environment using tools like video-conferencing and chatting. Most of us are now familiar with Zoom.
At the Lamp Learning Consortium, we prefer a tool called BigBlueButton because it is built into the learning platform we use and is much easier to set up. Tools like these allow you to see your students in real-time, read the expressions on their faces, present your material, chat with them, and more. These are powerful, important tools for teaching synchronously.
But synchronous teaching requires that you be present. It requires scheduling in advance. “Our class will meet online next Tuesday at 6:00 PM” is an indicator of synchronous learning. What if you don’t want to have to be there each time? What if you want your class, once you have built it, to teach itself? Could your students do their learning in a self-paced way?
Yes, they can. With the proper tools, you can put your material online in a way that students can access it on their schedule. You may provide things for them to read, images to view, quizzes for them to use to test their understanding, videos to watch, even threaded discussion forums for them to interact with you and with other students. Just not in real-time. And they can do it all on their own schedule.
The Key is Engagement
Where synchronous learning is necessarily engaging, asynchronous teaching must pay close attention to keeping the learner interested and desiring to learn more. What is called “instructional design” becomes even more vital in asynchronous courses.
Teaching also can be broadly separated into two approaches named after the Greek philosophers often credited with their origins: Aristotle and Socrates. The Aristotelian approach is more linear: first, learn this, then that, then this other thing. Socratic teaching is based on questions: why do you think that? what else might be related? what other conclusions can you draw? Both are perfectly valid, as are hybrids of the two. The Aristotelian approach is easier to design when the environment is asynchronous. Socratic questioning lends itself to a synchronous approach.
Learning Management Systems
Online teaching is usually accomplished with a class of technological tools called a Learning Management System or LMS. In one place, an LMS gathers together ways to provide resources (print, visual, video, and more) for students along with tools for interacting and collaborating with you as the instructor (and with each other) as well as tools for assessing how well they are understanding the material, perhaps even providing feedback in the form of grades. Of course, many of those tools are available as disparate platforms. You could teach online using a combination of Zoom for online discussions, DropBox for handing out materials, Facebook for threaded discussions, and email for communicating with students.
Such an approach is complicated, painful, and unprofessional. It has an air of the cobbled-together rather than reflecting your genuine desire to teach. A good LMS provides these tools under one seamless umbrella. Tools for providing content, watching videos, posting messages and responses to other messages, providing quizzes, turning in assignments and much more can be accessed through one user account and in a consistent, visually pleasing and organized way.
You may have heard of some of the better-known LMS: Blackboard, Canvas, Moodle, Desire2Learn. These are complex and often expensive. Our group prefers Sakai because it is open source (meaning it is less expensive) yet it has features used by well-known institutions such as Duke, Columbia, New York University, Pepperdine, and many others around the globe. Even though Sakai is well thought of by some big-name schools, it is surprisingly easy to learn and works well for smaller organizations, even single authors who desire to teach.
Costs for gaining access to an LMS can vary widely. Most of the big players aren’t interested in a sole proprietor like an author or other single teacher. We in the LAMP Consortium cater to the smaller organizations and individuals by using a single setup of Sakai and then making it available on a subscription basis. Costs can go as low as $50 per month while still providing access to all of the tools for teaching you could ever want.
How Do I Get Started?
Designing an online class is a lot like plotting a novel. There is a beginning, a middle, and an end. In Act 1, people need to get acclimated, learn the basic settings and concepts. In Act 2, the real work gets done, moving the characters (your students) from the initial premise (not much knowledge about the subject) to a fuller understanding. In Act 3, you want the main characters to exhibit transformation.
For me, writing fiction has been immensely helpful in developing good courses. The idea of a character arc aligns nicely with what I hope my students are experiencing. Joseph Campbell’s mythic archetypes and Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey have influenced my approach to instructional design in profound ways. I find myself thinking in terms of story when I sit down to create a course. Even though I may be conveying what is essentially nonfiction content, I need to explain it in a way that tells a good story and connects with our shared humanity. Lisa Cron’s Wired for Story has been particularly helpful.
Often I will develop a course outline much as I would sketch out the plot of a short story or a novel. I’ll break the material into a sequence of chapters (read: lessons) that will lead the learner from here to there.
Then I will begin to think about engagement. How can I hold the learner’s attention here? What “plot device” can I leverage there to offer an element of surprise or discovery? At what point should I check the learner’s comprehension or offer some kind of plot summary review? Can this material be done asynchronously or will I need to plan to be involved at specific times to guide the learning in a more Socratic way? The plot begins to develop details; the bare-bones take on flesh.
One of the advantages of teaching, particularly with LMS, is the wealth of tools available. Unlike writing, where the printed word is the single medium, online teaching lets me use recorded video, interactive websites, threaded discussions, self-assessments, live video conferences as well as the printed word to communicate my message. Different people learn in different ways. The best instructional design offers a variety of ways for the learner to engage. What doesn’t work so well for one person may be just what clicks for another.
Then it comes time to work with the software to build the course. My outline provides the overall structure. The details suggest which tools I should use: a video to watch first, then a resource to download, followed by a slightly controversial question to engage learners in a discussion with each other and with me. There will be resources to download, quizzes to take (perhaps only for reflection purposes, not for a grade), even assignments to turn in.
I also enjoy instructional design because it engages my creativity. How can I make the course more visually appealing? What is the best way to guide my learners so that they never feel lost? How can I provide ways to engage that are accessible to learners who are visually impaired? What overall design theme should I use?
It starts to become obvious how much involvement I’ll need to have. While set-it-and-forget-it courses can be a nice source of residual income, I don’t find them to be particularly satisfying. As an author I desire to hear from my readers; as a teacher I want to be a part of my learners’ lives. If I set up a threaded discussion in my class, I should expect to check in periodically and respond to what my learners have posted. If I make an assignment, I feel a duty to review and comment on my students’ work. Of course, if I have designated videoconference times, I had better show up! I may be in my PJs from the waist down, but being online and engaged is part of teaching. (See my “Exploring the Secrets to Excellence for Online Meetings” video for more on this.)
To me, teaching isn’t throwing content over the transom and hoping someone on the other side catches it and does something with it. Teaching is engaging with learners; it is a two-way street.
Don’t Forget the Print
This all started with Stephanie Chandler’s Lulu workshop on publishing workbooks. Now it is time to come full circle.
Many learners appreciate having a printed workbook to enhance their learning. I love that Lulu does such affordable and high-quality spiral-bound notebooks. This lets me produce a physical artifact to go along with my virtual learning courses. I now consider workbook design to be an integral part of my instructional design process.
Workbooks also give me something else to sell in addition to the course. Or I can give a workbook away as a part of the registration fee. Either way, Lulu’s capabilities for printing workbooks enhance my teaching.
You Can Do This!
My tag line for my monthly webinars is “You can do this!” I firmly believe that. Almost everyone, especially authors, have something worth saying and worth learning from. Authors are well-positioned to become teachers. The basic talent is readily apparent; many of the same skills that support writing a book are needed to create a course. If you crave more interaction with your readers and have a burning desire to see your concepts make a difference in people’s lives, consider teaching.
You can do this!
Martin Ramsay is the author of Lightly Salted Stories and The Possum Principles. as well as the Managing Director of the LAMP Learning Consortium.