The Division of Health Policy and Management and MPH-PHAP Program have outstanding teaching faculty and instructors. We’ve asked one of our most respected instructors about her teaching philosophy and to provide some practical advice, especially for people who haven’t taught online before.
Ruth Mickelsen JD, MPH
PubH 6742 Ethics: Practice and Policy
Ruth Mickelsen’s recent course evaluation comments include “finest online class I have taken at the University” and “I wish the course lasted all summer!” The course is a required MPH core course, in both face-to-face and online formats.
How did your teaching philosophy form?
Many years ago I read Parker Palmer’s seminal book, The Courage to Teach. He notes “good teaching cannot be reduced to technique, good teaching comes from the identity and integrity of the teacher.” He doesn’t mean integrity in the classic sense, as in I do what I say I will do. He means the whole-self: intellectual, emotional, psychological and spiritual. I remember my best teachers. They were fully present in the classroom and passionate about their subject matter. Some teachers lectured, while others facilitated discussion and collaborative exercises. Irrespective of style, they inspired me to learn.
How do you know you’ve taught a good class?
In order to answer that question, you have to back up and unpack what is a “good” class? Is it a class that the students rate highly? Is it a class that teaches the “right” content? Is it a class that inspires an appreciation of the subject you are teaching?
I’m trained as a lawyer and 25 years ago law school education was all about the “sage on the stage” and mastering an immense amount of material. I strive to be a “guide on the side” as opposed to the most knowledgeable content expert in the room. When I see students taking ownership and responsibility for their own learning, searching for their own answers and the class forming into a learning community, it increases my confidence that it will turn out to be a good class.
Like most instructors, I establish learning objectives for each course and for each lesson within a course. At the end of each class I ask myself: did we do this? Constant two way feedback is incredibly helpful. After each FTF class session I ask students to provide “fast feedback.” There are usually three questions along the lines of 1) what went well, 2) what could have been done differently to support your learning, and 3) what is the muddiest point needing further clarification. We begin the next class addressing these issues.
Any tips on how to organize online courses or online course management (Moodle) sites?
There is an overwhelming amount of information on how to organize an online course, available via Google and professional associations such as the Online Learning Consortium and the UMN Center for Educational Innovation. I have been an online student and I try to keep the student perspective front and center. I completed the Sloan-C Online Teaching Certificate on distance and blended learning, which helped me with online pedagogy. I follow the Quality Matters rubric and take advantage of whatever technology assistance is available. The SPH Office of e-Learning Services is incredibly helpful. Never underestimate the power of technology to enhance or undermine a course!
Translating a course from a classroom to online setting often requires new pedagogical and technical skills and I rely on instructional designers to help build the basic infrastructure. There is no doubt that the development and maintenance of an online course requires significant faculty time. As I design the syllabus and course, I try to look at the course through a student’s eye. Is the syllabus a clear roadmap of the course? Will the organization of the course make sense to a student encountering this material for the first time? Is the course navigation easy and intuitive? Have I used a variety of learning modalities and assignments? Are the assignments and expectations clear? Have I repeated critical information several times? Does the design of each lesson fully support the learning objectives for that lesson and the course as a whole?
How does face-to-face teaching compare to online?
Classes in all formats have different strengths and weaknesses. I started teaching face-to-face (FTF) in the early 1980s in law school settings. It is only within the last five years that I have been teaching in an online or blended format. I know there are ongoing debates within pedagogical circles as to which format is better. The pros and cons differ for different academic subjects and students. I enjoy both formats. FTF is a very familiar and comfortable format. It allows immediate feedback to students and it’s easier to gauge attentiveness and comprehension. You have the benefit of visual cues and body language.
It is harder to get to know students in a totally asynchronous format. It’s also a bit harder to build a learning community, although cohort models significantly diminish that problem. Just as I miss seeing students in an online course, I know many students miss “seeing” the instructor. I hope the School of Public Health can continue to enhance the visual aspects of our online courses through video files.
Online students post each week or complete another type of written assignment, so I have a good fix on the level of subject mastery of both on line and FTF students. Shy students must “speak” on a weekly basis in an on line class, as well as the verbally gifted students. Weekly online assignments mean providing weekly individual and group level written feedback. This means significant time each week in front of the computer. On the other hand, FTF instruction requires preparation of a weekly lecture and carefully planning class time to discuss the material, practice hypotheticals and apply new content. I know there is considerable disagreement as to whether online teaching takes more time than FTF teaching. After teaching online for several years, I find that online teaching, while less time consuming than at the beginning, continues to be quite time consuming due to both instructor/student interaction time and grading and assessment.
For public universities like the University of Minnesota, with a mission to serve the community and support lifelong learning, online and blended courses enable the University to reach individuals who cannot come to campus regularly or not at all. We need to continue the conversation about the appropriate mix of courses and how to continuously improve all of our course formats.
Perspectives on Teaching and Learning is a quarterly interview series from the MPH-Public Health Administration and Policy Program, Division of Health Policy and Management, School of Public Health, University of Minnesota.