The Teacher as Migrant: How Teaching Online Can Change Classroom Practice

By Lowes, Susan | Distance Learning, March 1, 2010 | Go to article overview

The Teacher as Migrant: How Teaching Online Can Change Classroom Practice


Lowes, Susan, Distance Learning


INTRODUCTION

Online and face-to-face courses are often seen, and studied, as two separate worlds. In the past, most of these studies have been comparative - Is an online course in such-and-such subject more or less effective that a face-to-face course in the same subject? - but increasingly the focus is on evaluating each on its own terms (Sener, 2005). This is progress, but it still considers the two environments separately. Although face-to-face and online courses do indeed take place in separate environments, the social field of the teacher who teaches them increasingly includes both. Much as immigrants leave the cultural comfort of their home societies and move to places with very different cultures and social practices, those who teach online leave the familiarity of the face-toface classroom for the uncharted terrain of the online classroom. And when they subsequently return "home," they are likely to bring back ideas, strategies, and practices that worked well for them in the online environment, which may in turn transform their face-to-face classroom practice.

The metaphor of the migrant comes from some of the recent social science literature on migration. Those migrants who maintain contact with their home societies, either by physically returning for visits or by sending and receiving visitors, remittances, and information, are referred to by some migration theorists as "transnational" migrants. In a recent article, two of these researchers made a distinction between "transnational ways of being" and "transnational ways of belonging" that are suggestive for the classroom context as well. Here is the quote: "Those who engage in social relations and practices that cross borders as a regular feature of everyday life . . . exhibit a transnational way of being. When people explicitly recognize this and highlight the transnational elements of who they are, then they are also expressing a transnational way of belonging. Clearly, these two experiences do not always go hand in hand" (see Levitt & Glick Schiller, 2004, p. 4). In what follows, there are already teachers who not only practice in both venues - and thus exhibit a transclassroom way of being - but whose reflection on that practice has led to deliberate to changes in their face-to-face classrooms, thus exhibiting a transclassroom way of belonging.

It is the transformation, of the course and of the teaching, and the two-way interactions, or flow, between online and face-to-face classrooms, that were the focus of this study. The research on which this article is based looked at the full migration path of a teacher and a course for 215 Virtual High School (http://www.govhs.org) teachers as they moved from face to face to online and then back to face to face. This article will focus on the return path, taken by about 75% of responding teachers, and will report on how the VHS professional development course, combined with what they had learned from the constraints and affordances of teaching in an online environment, led many of these teachers to transform their face-to-face courses, both in terms of content and pedagogy.

This research began with a series of interviews of current and former VHS teachers in order to better understand the issues surrounding creating and teaching online courses. These interviews took the teachers through the entire circle: from teaching a face-to-face course, to developing and then teaching an online course, and then (where applicable) to teaching face to face. They elicited a long and complex list of the kinds of changes these teachers had made in adapting their faceto-face courses for the online environment, in teaching their online courses over several semesters, and in their subsequent face-to-face teaching. (For more information on the sample, response rate, questionnaire, and for more detailed results, see the full report at http://www.ilt.columbia.edu)

VHS was chosen as the setting not only because of its long history of offering highly rated online courses in many subject areas to students in schools across the United States, but for two additional important reasons: first, most VHS teachers also teach face-to-face courses in their own schools at the same time as they are teaching online, and second, VHS requires that all of its teachers prepare for teaching online by taking a demanding professional development course (delivered online) on the pedagogy of online teaching (Pape, Adams, & Ribiero, 2005). …

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The Teacher as Migrant: How Teaching Online Can Change Classroom Practice
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