Who or what is a teacher – on #edcmooc?

Teaching a class of 27 at the same time as a MOOC inevitably encourages me to ask what being a teacher means in both cases.  Are the students teaching themselves?  Well, yes, in the sense that they’ve having to manage and regulate learning (their own).  Are they teaching one another?  Yes, in the sense that they offer resources, feedback, support, encouragement and challenges.  Is the software teaching them?  Yes, in the sense that it will present and sequence material and offer alternative ways of displaying, aggregating, curating and storing ideas.  All these might be regarded as functions for the teacher – and all can be seen happening both courses.

On the MOOC, the students are using peer review to assess and grade products of learning.  This happens on some smaller courses too, though not on the one I am currently teaching.

So what is left for me to do? What is it that gives me the identity of a teacher?  I’ve been a student on an earlier version of the first course in our Masters programme where I’m now teaching, and also on a MOOC, so I am aware that there is a difference. As a student in both courses I was conscious of teacher experience and their expertise.  I was aware of their presence and of my pleasure in catching their attention.  I was also aware of a concern of catching their attention in a ‘bad’ way, by not being the right sort of person for the course  (although as a teacher, I don’t see it as a bad thing that some courses don’t suit some students).  I was aware that there was an intention behind the course, based on their knowledge, and that by completing it successfully I was in some way fulfilling the intention of the teachers.

On both courses, the teachers intended to expose the students to ways of thinking about the world: the MOOC I took did not go much further than that but in the Masters course it was clear that the teachers wanted to create experiences that encourage critical thinking on the topic  (The latter, is, of course, easier to say with hindsight now that I am a graduate of the programme and teaching on it!)

All of the highlighted expressions might provide a useful job description for a teacher.  The fact that another person or machine could complete them does not abrogate the teacher’s responsibility that they should happen.  However, even that responsibility could be shouldered by someone who designs courses rather than teaches them (I have had such an identity in the past).

I have come to the conclusion – assisted by some reading over the years that I’ll now want to revisit – that what is essential to the identity of a teacher on any specific course is that they actively care about all of the highlighted expressions.  And they care about them throughout the duration of the course and also before and after it.

There may be people who have ‘teaching’ in their job description who don’t care about any of these things.  Though they might be an expert or an authority, they wouldn’t fall into my definition of ‘teacher’ here.

Christine Sinclair


6 thoughts on “Who or what is a teacher – on #edcmooc?

  1. I like your comment that a teacher’s identity is connected to her caring…and whether in a small seminar or massive online course, it may also be reflected in how that caring comes through to the students and helps them to care as deeply about the subject being explored.

  2. Pingback: Shoring the fragments of #edcmooc | Teaching 'E-learning and Digital Cultures'

  3. Thankyou so much Christine for your very thoughtful post. I can’t stress enough how much I appreciate the fact, and the way, that the teaching team in this course are openly sharing thoughts about pedagogy, I’ve never seen anything like it, and it has multiple benefits…

    I couldn’t agree more that much of the presence and activity of academics in (too) many university courses doesn’t constitute teaching… it’s one of the main reasons a job like mine exists (in so-called ‘learning development’), though no-one admits it quite in those terms…. essentially, people in my role are tasked to fill gaps left by other teaching academics, that if left unfilled, create a quite devastating experience of neglect for learners…. all under the pretext that university students ‘ought’ not to need what is then construed as ‘extra help’… when what it is they require is simply dialogue along with their information resources..

    It’s a complex dance, trying to get it right for both sides of the dance partnership. On the one hand, the discussion Hamish is having here in another thread about students who feel neglected, and how best to identify, understand and manage what that might mean, and on the other, this discussion about teachers who may have several job descriptions in their kit of expectations and strategic planning…. it can be a real labour of love to work out (and it can take many years, as you indicate) what’s involved and where lines of responsibility might best be drawn.

    It varies of course according to students’ experience, so the undergraduate course will work differently to a ‘masters’ program, but then, in many so-called masters programs these days, the diversity of students’ experience with the discipline and the language of instruction is so great that teaching strategies developed for first year undergraduates and school education seem more appropriate than stand offish lecturing…

    In contexts where it’s clear we can’t simply assume students already ‘know’ how independent learning works and how fluency in academic discourse develops, it can be very shocking the degree to which some lecturers do not care – not knowing much about pedagogy (and not caring to), they seem sometimes to be simply identifying naively with their favourite character in the popular story that radically distinguishes university lecturing from school teaching, and, in their mind, rightly abhorring the comparison, as though being considered a ‘teacher’ were some kind of insult to their intelligence as researching beings aloft in the esoteric wonderland of disembodied ‘ideas’ that are inherently hard to grasp, for mere mortals…. who must prove themselves god material by surmounting impossible odds in the grand quest for… ‘knowledge’. Hence, the lofty lecturers job seems appropriately, to make life difficult for learners… and to construe those who see things otherwise as ‘helpmates to the weak’… and of course, such storylines are extremely, boringly, yawningly, gendered much of the time.

    As a researching AND teaching AND learning being, I’ve found much of the stimulus material and conversation in this course very helpful harvest in a couple of my ongoing epic discursive battles with big narratives on campus…. and in my ongoing narrative construction otherwise known as a thesis! All the consideration of what it means to learn and know is, I find, most interesting – so, thanks 🙂

    (love your Pinterest board btw Ruth!)

  4. Great to hear from everyone here – and literally to hear Ruth speaking on her Pinterest Board which is fascinating and profound. I feel honoured to be referenced in it. It’s good to connect over this idea of caring about teaching: this is important to our team. I think the observation about our openly sharing our thoughts on pedagogy is a significant one, worth exploring widely.

  5. Thank you Christine and Epurser. The attitude and open reflectiveness of the team of five running this has been very important to my sense of connection and trust. This blog and the hangouts in particular demonstrated the team’s thoughtfulness, experience and intelligence. Your willingness to share information about and reflect on the process of running a MOOC have been as interesting and helpful as the content of the course itself. Thanks!

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