Friday, July 10, 2015

Power of Connections: Teacher Engagement and the Iceberg Dilemma

As part of the build-out of Power of Connections, I've been giving a great deal of thought to the notion of teacher engagement (see here and here). As part of this reflecting process, I've been thinking about how course creation and delivery differ in online and face-to-face environments.

Specifically, it seems to me that we often fall prey ot what I call the "iceberg dilemma" when it comes to online design and instruction. This dilemma, I think, can be attributed to a fundamental difference/assumption between teaching face-to-face and online.

When we're preparing and teaching face-to-face courses, we generally look at the course content as a foundation for the actual course, but are keenly aware that this is only a point of departure. Once the content is prepared we, as instructors, must go in and present that content. We must also elaborate iteratively throughout the course of the curriculum based on feedback we receive from students, and work to connect students and information beyond the base content. Using my iceberg model, we realize that content, and even initial delivery, are only the tip of the iceberg. The real teaching engagement and learning happens beyond that (beneath the content surface).

While it certainly doesn't have to be that way, many of our models for online course design and delivery focus almost exclusively on content, or just the tip of the iceberg. We design our content and build it within a platform, and then we allow the platform to do the majority of the delivery. This is the majority of the course apart from managing assignments. In other words, there is little in-course iteration and sparse effort at student engagement through connection.

The realization I am coming to is that, in online learning, teacher engagement is what happens after the content is built and delivered (with exceptions like Laura Gibbs who build her content openly and engages even at that level). Again, it doesn't have to be that way but it seems to be the rule as opposed to the exception.

What excites me about Power of Connections is that we are going to be spending so much time "beyond the content," working on the part of the iceberg beneath the surface. I think this is where teacher engagement really happens (at least for me), and it's certainly where I'll have lots of fun.


  1. That is a great metaphor, Rob! I've never quite figured out why there is such a disconnect between people's assumptions re: the importance of interaction in the classroom and their willingness to give up the interaction online, and this "course iceberg" metaphor is a great way to think about what we lose when we focus only on content as the visible part of the course. As you know, what I love about teaching online is that it offers SO MANY possibilities to make the other parts of the class visible: the the learning, the sharing, the self-reflection, etc., but of course people have to PLAN to do that; it's not just going to happen spontaneously. The fact that it does happen more effortlessly in the classroom (since that is what we all expect and are used to) is probably another factor here: f2f naturally elicits dialogue... but that doesn't mean online dialogue is any less real or important; it just requires more self-awareness and initiative, which are both good things IMO.
    If only we could get people as inclined to blog as they are to email. I think that would solve the whole darn problem right there!
    One of my favorite threads of Rhizo15 was a "content is people" theme that emerged. It was a spectrum, of course, and I was at the extreme end of the "content is people" end of that spectrum. Fun stuff; there was Soylent Green natch. Here's a post: Content is People.
    I'll be leaving Tuesday but I'll be around on Monday so I'll at least get to catch some of that first-day energy! :-)

    1. You are so right about the "Content is People" theme from Rhizo15. I also agree with you comment about f2f generating dialogue a bit more naturally (at least in the way that folks are accustomed to interacting. That said, while online interaction may seem less natural for some, it can be incredibly more pwerful and expansive. It does, however, reqyuire more self-awareness and initiative as you point out.