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Grizzly Bears & Poisonous Berries, or “What do you think of online teaching?”

“What do you think of online teaching?”

If you’re like the vast majority of educators in America right now, you might have visceral response to that question. Maybe a shudder, maybe an eye roll, maybe a sigh. Probably a lot of very specific feelings and words come straight to mind. (Probably not all of them are classroom-appropriate.)

What if I told you I believe there is a single, correct answer to this question:   “What do you think of online teaching?”

One right answer.

Any guesses what that answer might be?

Well, if you know me, you know that I love educational technology, D2L, Canvas, blended learning, the whole shebang. Overall, I actually enjoy online teaching and course design and personally find it really rewarding.

But I’m not naïve. I would never say that “I think online teaching is universally enjoyable and rewarding” is the correct answer. Because I certainly know lots of people are struggling with – to the point of fed up with – online teaching and learning right now.  Lots of teachers – and students – are quite frankly hating their lives, feeling soul-sucked, and threatening to put a fork through the iPad if they have to do another Zoom meeting, so help me… But hatred and vitriol are ALSO not the correct answers to this very simple question.

“What do you think of online teaching?”

To answer this question, I’m going to talk about human nature (and berries and bears).   I know that sounds a bit random, but hear me out.

As humans, we’re wired to generalize. Get stung by a bee? Stay away from all bees. Get burned by fire? Easy solution: stay away from all fire. Got sick from a poisonous berry? Mauled by a bear? Dated a drummer? Our very nature will then insist: these things are painful; avoid similar experiences at all costs.

Making these kinds of generalizations helps keep us alive, especially when the bears and berries and drummers involved are particularly painful, challenging, or soul sucking. It’s a smart defense mechanism, it’s efficient, and it’s human nature. And the more painful the bad experience, typically the more entrenched the avoidance.

This leads us to my biggest fear right now about online teaching, as someone who absolutely loves and believes in it as a teaching modality (and who also believes that within 5 years we’re just going to call it “teaching,” but that’s a topic for another blog post).  My biggest fear – about online learning and teaching and preaching and coaching and doctor visits and all the things that are becoming our new normal – is that we will let our painful current experiences turn us off of online teaching and learning for good.  Or at least, for the foreseeable future.

And while that’s certainly an understandable reaction, I hope those of you who are feeling particularly poisoned or overwhelmed or soul sucked by all the challenges that come with teaching online for the first time can remember this:  Online teaching in a pandemic with little guidance and no time is definitely a frustrating thing that your protective instincts may tell you to avoid in the future at all costs, yes.  But – even in its current rushed and frustrating state – I’m going to posit that online teaching is more like a poisonous berry than a dangerous bear.

Here’s what I mean by this: when it comes to bears, it’s pretty safe to assume that all of them are dangerous. If you’ve had a painful encounter with a grizzly in the woods, you’re not going to be missing out on much if you avoid black bears or sun bears or the Chicago Bears altogether.

Panda Smash GIFs - Get the best GIF on GIPHY

The same cannot be said for berries.  While some are poisonous, it’s true, lots are very delicious and nutritious.  If you have a bad encounter with a poisonous berry in the woods, your first instinct may be to swear off berries altogether, but pretty soon you’ll realize that the pre-washed organic blueberries your spouse bought at Sprouts are probably not going to do you in.  In fact, they’re kind of delicious on your morning oatmeal.

The tricky thing with berries, though, is that if you’re trying to find them in the wild, it might be hard to tell the poisonous ones from the healthy ones. Even worse, it might be that the most poisonous berries are the ones right off the path and easy to see, while the delicious and nutritious ones require stepping off the path, stooping over, or digging through brambles. And if you were NOT a berry aficionado BEFORE venturing into the woods – if you’ve never experienced delicious blueberries in your oatmeal or delicious strawberries on your ricotta lemon pancakes (note to self: maybe don’t write these blog posts before breakfast) -then it’s likely that you’ll rule out a whole category of food based on one unfortunate and avoidable experience. It’s human nature.

This is how I feel about the landscape of online teaching right now. The experience lots of folks are having at the moment is a poisonous berry, there’s no doubt about that, but there are so many different kinds of berries you could incorporate into your teaching diet. The real problem, to be honest, is that very few of the people making educational policy decisions at the moment are online-teaching-berry aficionados, and so they are rushing to the easiest-to-reach berry (usually teaching as normal, but via Zoom or Google Meet), not realizing that there are other, far more delicious and healthy berries just a few feet off the main path.

Because, just like not all berries are poisonous, not all online teaching is frustrating or overwhelming. Online teaching doesn’t HAVE to use Zoom or Google Meet, it doesn’t have to require 42 different logins, and it doesn’t have to be painful or soul crushing.  Just like face-to-face teaching, it can be anything you want it to be and anything that you make it.  Just like berries, it comes in all different varieties, and while not all of them will be palatable to everyone, you can probably find at least ONE that doesn’t upset your stomach.

Like I say in my e-book, The Skeptical Educator’s Guide to Teaching Online, the internet is a utility, not a pedagogy.  It’s a tool, it’s not a prescription, and it’s not any one type of experience.

Which brings me back to the question I started this blog post off with: “What do you think of online teaching?”  I said that I believe there is a correct answer. And I do.

The correct answer to the question, “what do you think of online teaching?” is: “Can you be more specific?”

Can you be more specific?

What do I think about online teaching?  Well, are you talking about synchronous or asynchronous delivery?  Proximal or remote learning?  Are you talking about course design or course delivery?  Is the online teaching happening during a global pandemic or no?  Because those are all very different things, each with their own pros and cons, and I may very well hate one but love another.

Does the online teaching you’re referring to involve ample time to plan, and ample training for the instructors?  Do all the instructors and students involved have equal access to wifi or laptops?  Have assignments and expectations been re-imagined for online delivery or am I just trying to teach the way I always have, but with a webcam pointed at my face?  All of these variables can GREATLY affect my experience with and opinion of online teaching.

Now, it goes without saying that there are as many answers to the (slightly different) question, “What has your experience with online teaching and learning been like so far?” as there are students and educators in the world.  Everyone has their own experiences, frustrations, and emotions surrounding our current reality of online-teaching-for-the-first-time-on-the-fly-during-a-freaking-global-pandemic, and all of them are valid.  I’ve talked to self-proclaimed “technologically-challenged” teachers who are in tears trying to keep up with everything they have to manage, and I’ve talked to teachers who are actually loving the change to remote teaching because their students focus better when they’re all logged into Zoom than when they were in the classroom together.

That is why, for the very generic question, “what do you think of online teaching?” the singular correct answer is, “can you be more specific?”

“But Amanda,” you might be thinking, “that’s all well and good, but what if I’m currently being force-fed a really poisonous berry right now?  I don’t have any say in how I’m being asked to teach, and even if I did:  I don’t have time to learn about all the different types of online education – I barely have time to take a shower!  What can I do to help me get through this week/this month/this semester / 2020?”

That is a great and important question!  First of all, know that you are not alone. I would wager that most educators are feeling the exact same way about now.  As one of my musical theatre professors liked to say, “It’s not your fault, but it’s your problem.”

Also, it bears repeating that what the entire education system is being asked to do right now is just, flat out HARD.  In ideal circumstances, as an instructional designer I would take an entire semester, working one on one with an instructor to help them move a course online, and often that would mean doing a lot of the tech grunt work FOR the instructor.  Even for the teachers who are lucky enough to have instructional design/instructional technology support right now (because I know there are LOT of educators who don’t), it’s still basically an impossible task to move EVERYTHING online INSTANTLY. 

“All we can do is all we can do,” is a mantra that I’ve been repeating a lot lately, and in that spirit, the first piece of advice I would give you is to just embrace the idea that online teaching is going to be messy and yucky at first, and you’ll probably screw a lot of things up. It’s going to be a “shitty first draft.”  And that’s ok.

On a slightly more practical note, however, I do think there are some quick thought exercises that could be helpful for teachers trying to figure out some new online teaching survival strategies.  While they are not a magic bullet, and they’re not going to change the whole poisonous berry at once, they could help inject a little light and clarity into your current teaching experience.  So, to that end, I’d encourage you now to take out a piece of paper and jot down your thoughts on these 5 questions.

Question #1: What is out of your control?

Accepting the things we cannot change is probably one of the most difficult parts of pandemic teaching.  So let’s get that crap out of the way right away.  What are the things you cannot control about your current teaching situation? Write them down, accept them, and give yourself permission to quit worrying about them.

Here are a few ideas to get you started:

  • I cannot control the kind of internet access or support my students have at home.
  • I cannot control the decisions my school district makes about whether or not we are online, hybrid, or face to face.
  • I cannot control the learning management system or online gradebook my school is requiring me to use.
  • I cannot control the amount of time that my district is requiring me to be on Zoom with my students.
  • I cannot control the fact that I am working from home, with a toddler no less.
  • I cannot control the fact that there is a global pandemic right now, so everything’s going to be different and harder.
Write down your list, and take a deep breath.  Let it out.  Let’s keep going.

Question #2:  What CAN you control?

Here’s where you get to start thinking a bit creatively. Everyone is going to have different requirements set forth by their administrations, but are there ways that you can work around or with those requirements to improve your current situation?  Be creative, and, if it’s helpful, use the things you cannot control or change as jumping off points for these statements.

For example:

  • I cannot control the kind of internet access my students have at home, but I can choose to make most of my assignments low-tech, so that this is not a huge barrier.
  • I cannot change the amount of time my district is requiring everyone to be logged into Google Classroom each day, but I can control WHAT my students and I are doing during that time, and that can involve asynchronous assignments.
  • I cannot change the fact that my district requires us to use Canvas, but I can choose to use Google Docs within Canvas if I feel more comfortable creating content in Google Docs.
  • I cannot change the fact that I have to submit grades, but I can change my grading policy so that is less reliant on class participation and more reliant on topic mastery.
  • I can choose to reduce the number of books we are reading this year.
This may be a list that you create immediately, or you may keep adding things to it over time.  Spend a little time pondering and brainstorming, and then let’s shift gears a bit.

Question #3:  Name at least one example of a time when you truly enjoyed learning from someone who was not in the room with you.

I’ve already talked a lot in this blog post about how “online” or “remote teaching” doesn’t HAVE to involve Zoom, Google Classroom, or Canvas.  YouTube videos, podcasts, nonfiction books, even the Great British Baking Show could all be considered enjoyable examples of remote learning. Think of a very concrete example of a time when you enjoyed learning remotely, and write it down. Then spend a few sentences describing why you found it so valuable or enjoyable.

(P.S. In the next 2 questions, we’re going to mine this example for inspiration, so make sure that it is something you feel pretty strongly about, even if you have to think back to your childhood to do it — Reading Rainbow was the bomb, after all.)

Question #4:  What are some surface-level ways you could incorporate that enjoyable remote learning experience into your teaching?

For example, if you really enjoy learning from podcasts, could you assign a podcast episode as an alternative to a reading assignment for your students? Or maybe share daily audio recordings that you’ve created instead of a video-streamed lecture?  If you loved Square One on PBS back in the 80s and 90s, could you find clips to share with your students today? If your example was a Ted Talk video (like this amazing Brene’ Brown one), could you have students watch a similar video, or even create their own Ted Talk?  If your most beloved example was The Great British Baking Show, could you include video clips or gifs from the show in your online classroom? (You may think this is far-fetched, but please enjoy this clip I have used in workshops about the Flipped Classroom.)

Pizza Flip Gif


The bottom line is that most of us already have probably already had lots of positive experiences with remote and online learning – we just need to reconfigure our definition of online teaching to include those different experiences!

Question #5:  Now, look beyond the surface of the example you chose and to the psychology behind WHY you liked that type of remote learning.  Are these things you could infuse into your teaching?

Back to my podcast example:  One of my favorite things about the TOPcast podcast (Teaching Online Podcast) is how they start off each episode by talking about coffee and finding a way to tie in their coffee of the week to the subject of the podcast.  I love this because it is a quirky little ritual the feels familiar each episode, but it also shows the personality of the presenters.  Maybe I could do a similar “song of the day” or “silly shirt of the day” or “what’s for breakfast?” routine with my students, to hopefully have the same effect.  Another thing I think I really enjoy about podcasts is the fact that no one is forcing me to listen to them – it’s my choice.  Could I give my students a chance to feel that same agency by giving them a few different options to chose from on their next project?

Take some time with this question to try and find as many different traits, qualities, and aspects that you can steal for your own teaching.  While they may not be universally enjoyed by all of your students, the important thing here is that you enjoy and appreciate them – because your attitude will set the tone for your students as we all get through a challenging time together.

Ok.  Now that you’ve answered all 5 of these questions, take a few minutes to go back over your answers and come up with 1-3 action steps you can take this week to help make your online teaching experience a little more rewarding, and share them in the comments below.

By taking baby steps to make the things that you can control more personal and more enjoyable for you as the teacher, you will absolutely make the experience of online learning better for your students as well.

“What do you think of online learning?”   
The correct answer = “Can you be more specific?”


“How has your experience been with online education so far?”

The easy answer = “It’s sucking my soul.”
The better answer = “Teaching in a pandemic is freaking hard, but there are definitely things about remote learning that I enjoy.  I’m trying to incorporate as much of that as I can for my students, and that’s all that I can do.”  

Good luck, hang in there, and please let me know if you have any questions or ideas to share!

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