Here’s a little secret: when I started teaching people how to teach online, I had no clue what I was doing.

It was 1998. I was a graduate student, without extensive computer skills or even teaching experience. I’d been a high school English teacher for a few years, and I’d taught GED classes, but my online facilitation background was limited to helping students figure out how to search song lyrics on Altavista.

Then I took a part-time job for my university coordinating a fledgling online M.Ed program. This was new stuff, then, with few best practices available to build on. The college had bought a bright and shiny “online learning platform” and it was my role to facilitate seminars teaching faculty how to use it.  Just as soon as I figured it out myself.

I started out all wrong.

I was afraid – as is so often the case in teaching – to appear ill-prepared, unqualified, a fraud. To cope with my imposter syndrome, I loaded up on All Of The Information and delivered my first session like a rapid-fire gunner. Where to click? How to link? Forgotten passwords? You name it, I rattled it off.

One faculty member in that first seminar particularly didn’t want to teach online, and he didn’t much like my approach to the whole enterprise. He stood up in the middle of my bombardment. I froze. He very nearly spat the words at me.

“I don’t care WHAT we do to teach with this…” his hands flapped at the desktop cart we’d wheeled to the faculty lounge, “…this MACHINE. I care WHY. WHY should I do this?”

A beat of silence in the room.

The funny thing about teaching with technologies, online or even in a face-to-face context, is that if you focus primarily on the technologies themselves the important things can fade from view too easily.

In that hushed moment in the little seminar room, it occurred to me that I’d never have taught ANYTHING else the way I was teaching that morning.

I paused. I met his eye.

“You’re right. This isn’t about the machine – the machine is just the door to a classroom. I can help you learn to get in there, and find your way around.

“But why? For all the reasons you ever teach.”

And then I asked him what those were. He sat down. I sat down, joined the group and facilitated the first conversation I’d ever had in my life about what it might mean to connect with students across time and distance. I asked what the faculty’s concerns were. I re-framed my how-to information so it fit what they wanted to know. The professor who pulled me up short that day gave me, in the end, a valuable learning opportunity.

The program went on to be a long-term success. But fifteen years later, many online programs are still marked by a tendency towards the mistake I made as a neophyte facilitator: they focus on the technology and the how first and foremost, to the point where the purpose for the learning gets lost.

Still, it’s possible to go in the other direction, too, and to ignore the ways in which technological affordances create and shape very particular learning experiences.

Ten years ago I enrolled in a program designed as an online/offline hybrid. From September to June we were an online cohort: in August, we spent our days in face-to-face seminars.

It was 2003. People’s familiarity with regular networked interactions was, for the most, non-existent. But we were keen. The first week, we got an email from the program with our usernames and passwords, and within twenty-four hours all of us had logged in.

All of us, that is, except our TA. One of the program’s drawing cards was well-known faculty from points abroad, but it was made clear early on that these ‘luminaries’ would not be a part of the online preparatory aspect of the program. The introductory email told us to expect to hear from our TA shortly with instructions and information regarding expectations, participation, and grading.

None came. We posted little introductions anyway, hesitantly: short threads of hellos and pleasantries. We waited. One guy started talking about a book on the reading list, but as we hadn’t even seen a syllabus, many of us hung back. I started up a thread about the various things we were excited about from the reading list.

But none of us knew what to do.

In a physical classroom, we’re acculturated from childhood to the norms and expectations of the space, in terms of both social and learning behaviours. In an online environment, a key role of any facilitator is to make those norms and expectations explicit, so learners can begin to take ownership of their own participation on shared, sanctioned terms.

Sure, we could have all just leapt in, and we tried. But we were spread all over the world in a brand-new program, and we had no sense of how to gauge what would be appropriate on the terms of the program or the person who held the power to grade us.

Three days in, the TA showed up. An upper-year student, she’d just been on vacation. But her early absence set the tone for a very hands-off kind of approach to the year: she was seldom present on our course site, and when she was, she contributed very little of the overt, communicative work it takes to help build and foster confident learners in an environment where social and feedback cues need to be overt and explicit.

I’m often the one in a MOOC saying “C’mon folks, this is a different social contract! We can’t expect the teacher to be at the centre of everything!” But that doesn’t mean that active leadership still isn’t central to the success of an online learning endeavor. It sets the tone for participation, and mitigates the ways in which distance and asynchronicity can lead to isolation and uncertainty, especially in new online learners. Had that course with the TA been my first experience with online learning, it would likely have been my last.

Luckily for me, I’m still here, wading in and learning and teaching.

In the end, my experiences have taught me two key lessons. When I work and teach online I try to hold their seeming contradictions in conversation with each other, because each, in its own way, is true. Online is different, in the sense that bringing people fully into an experience requires some explicit scaffolding that face-to-face tends not to. And yet online is no different at all, in the sense that it is teaching and learning for all the same reasons as any other teaching and learning experience, and we need to approach it with our whole selves, not just as mediators of technology.

This is the fourth of a four-part colloquy of articles, each piece contributed by authors who have intimate experience with the struggles, failures, and successes of online learning programs. The series kicked off with “Why Online Programs Fail, and 5 Things We Can Do About It” by Sean Michael Morris and Jesse Stommel,“The Failure of an Online Program” by Sean Michael Morris, and “The Early Days of Videotaped Lectures” by Audrey Watters.

[Photo by ClickFlashPhotos / Nicki Varkevisser]