I am very fortunate to work closely with a fantastic colleague, mentor, and friend. Dr. Jennifer Branch is the Coordinator of the Teacher-Librarianship by Distance Learning program at the University of Alberta and I have been able to work with her for the last 8 years as one of the instructors in the program. During my PhD program, I worked as Jennifer’s research assistant and I learned so much from her about research and teaching and publishing and academia in general. It was a great year!
Our work together has continued since then as we have developed and taught new courses, conducted research, and attended conferences together. One of the courses we have developed and taught over the last few years is the Exploration of Web 2.0 course that encourages students to play with Web 2.0 tools and blog about their experiences. Since teaching the course for the first time in Winter, 2008, we have taught over 100 students. The course won a Faculty of Education Technology in Teaching Award 2011, which was given “in recognition of excellence in the performance of teaching duties using technology”.
This fall, Jennifer and I are teaching 3 sections of our Web 2.0 course between the two of us and last spring we started talking about what we were going to do with the course and the changes we wanted to make to the course content and assignments. As we were talking about these course revisions, I had a crazy idea that we should team teach the course, combining all 3 sections of the course into one big classroom with both of us equally responsible for teaching. To me, it made a lot of sense to combine the sections and teach them together. And luckily, Jennifer could see the advantages of this crazy plan and agreed to team teach EDES 501 with me this term.
We are now about 3 weeks away from the last day of classes for the fall term and I am so happy that we decided to approach the teaching of this course in this way. Team teaching the course with 45 students in one combined class has been a phenomenal experience for me (and I think Jennifer would agree). Here are some of the things I that I have learned and am thinking about regarding team teaching:
- It’s a lot of work to teach 45 students in one class. Even though I am only responsible for marking one third of the students’ work, we are both reading and responding to discussion posts and we have worked hard to get to know all of the students, regardless of which section they are in. The sheer number of posts (especially in the early weeks of the course) was overwhelming at first (for us and for our students) but now that we are into a regular rhythm we know that our diverse group of students are benefiting from learning with and from one another.
- Teaching a class with 45 students is MUCH easier with 2 instructors. Knowing that Jennifer would respond to a question or a post if I couldn’t get to it that day alleviated a lot of stress. Our students benefit from having two of us available at various times to respond to emails and messages.
- It is so nice to know that someone has my back. When I got sick a few weeks ago, I didn’t have to worry about responding to messages or even checking in because I knew Jennifer would take care of things while I was out for the count. Similarly, when Jennifer was away at a conference earlier in the term, I was able to take over and manage discussions, post weekly announcements, and answer questions posed on the course management system.
- Evaluating student work is hard…grading is hard, but having someone to talk to about grading criteria, assessment practices, etc. has been really helpful. Jennifer and I have spent a lot of time creating grading criteria and talking about how to assess our students’ work fairly and these discussions have helped me be a better instructor.
- Talking about pedagogy and teaching and course content has made the course stronger. Having someone who is teaching the same course at the same time (in the same virtual classroom) has given me a chance to really talk about and think about some of the issues that come up. In other circumstances, I might not think so much about what is working (and what is not working), but because we are seeing the same things, we talk about them and we make changes as we go along. We also have a running list of things to think about and change for the next time we teach the course.
Working as a team to teach this course has been a completely rewarding experience. We are working so closely together that our students have started calling us Jsquared or J²! I have learned a lot about teaching and learning from Jennifer and we have spent hours (literally, hours) on skype talking about how to improve this course (and all our courses), how to make the learning experience more rewarding for our students, and how to become better teachers ourselves. Those conversations have left me with a lot to think about and have given me goals for changes I want to make to other classes that I teach.
Our experiences teaching this class have also made us realize that if this kind team teaching is beneficial and positive for us (and we are experienced instructors in the online environment), it would be so helpful to provide similar kinds of mentorship experiences for new instructors, especially instructors who are new to teaching online. For many people, teaching online can be intimidating and scary, especially at first. If university departments could provide opportunities for new online instructors to teach with an experienced instructor, the benefits could be very worthwhile.
As teachers, I don’t think we often take the time to really talk to our colleagues about teaching and learning. We don’t often have the time (or we don’t feel like we have the time) to think about how to improve our teaching practice. What I have learned this term is that working as part of a teaching team and taking the time to really talk about teaching and courses and pedagogy and assessment has been very valuable to me. It has made me a better teacher. And it has given my students a better experience than it would have been if Jennifer and I hadn’t taken a bit of a risk to try something new.