How Much is Too Much in Online Classroom Observations?

When I was a student teacher years ago, my cooperating teacher used to “observe” me teaching by going to the main office and listening to the class through the school intercom system.  It was a great way for him to hear how things were going without his presence influencing the dynamic of the class.  For me, this method had great results.  He helped me hone my craft in all sorts of useful ways as a result of these unconventional observations.

This idea of classroom observations is a common practice in many K-12 and higher education institutions.  For most, it is an infrequent activity (a few times a semester perhaps, for some only once every year or two).  In some schools, it takes place in the form of peer observations, fellow teachers visiting one another’s class and giving each other feedback.  In other instances, it is a teaching and learning coach or a school administrator who does the observing.  One great practice is to have a meeting with the teacher in advance, walk through the lesson, have the observation, and then have a debrief meeting.  This can be a helpful activity, although some teachers are not especially comfortable with it.  The idea of an observation, for some, conjures fears of being judged or deemed inadequate.  For those who work through those fears and have an observer who really has their best interest and professional development in mind, it is usually a rewarding experience.

How about online classroom observations?  In my survey of online high schools and Universities, I meet few schools that include online classroom observations as a formal part of online faculty growth and development; although I am aware of many schools that use rudimentary “observations” to ensure that online teachers meet minimum standards. This sort of observation is really just an analysis of the analytics that are automatically recorded in a typical online classroom within a Learning Management System.  These might include data points about how frequently the teacher logged into the course, how quickly they replied to student questions, how promptly they graded student work, and whether or not they were sufficiently active in the online discussions.

However, some of the most promising practices entail a more qualitative aspect of the “observation” as well.  For example, it might involve looking at the types of comments that are posted by the instructor in the discussion forum, and considering whether or not they challenge students to higher order thinking. It might look at how the instructor creates a social presence, how they use weekly announcements to build rapport, encourage, highlight key concepts, and customize the course to a specific group of learners. Such observations don’t need to simply focus upon the instructor’s actions, but it also provides a second pair of eyes to consider the dynamic of the overall classroom interactions.

Of course, there is what some consider a dark side to observations, especially as we think about the online classroom. In a typical face-to-face classroom, teaching happens and then it passes into history: unrecorded, available only through the memories of those who experienced it. In the online class (with the exception of unrecorded synchronous / real-time sessions), pretty much everything is recorded.  If you have adequate access to a given course, you can look at how many times a person logged in, at what times, and for how long.  You can look at what pages they viewed and which ones they ignored.  You can see the number of posts that a person makes to a forum discussion, the number of words in a post, the number of replies to other posts, and even the number of replies that others made to a given person’s post.  You can look at when and/or if assignments are submitted and when they are graded.  You can see the grades, the comments that an instructor makes on individual student work, and much more.

In some ways, with unlimited access, an observation of an online course would be like having a video recording of a face-to-face class, having a copy of the instructor’s grade book, having a file cabinet of all student work with the instructor’s comments and grades on them, having a written recorded of all student/instructor interactions before and after class, having a tool that counted the number of times that the instructor spoke, to whom and at what time.  From one perspective, having this sort of data can provide rich insights.  In fact, I’ve analyzed all such data in my own online courses several times, and I’ve been humbled by what I discovered about my response rate on grading assignments, the types of comments I did or didn’t provide on student work, whether or not my comments were informative and/or encouraging, and my level of inactivity in discussions.  I also use such data to adjust my teaching practices in future courses. In fact, analyzing such things even led me to become less active in online discussions during some weeks of my online courses, because my analysis of the data from earlier courses indicated that too many comments from me shut student the rich student-student interaction that I wanted to encourage, or it led to students not reaching types of dialogue that seemed to reach higher levels in Bloom’s Taxonomy.

It is one thing for me to look at all of this data for my own course.  What do you think about a supervisor, a faculty mentor or a department chair looking at all of this?  Is it crossing a line? As you have time and interest, I would appreciate hearing from you in the comment section.



Posted in blog, e-learning, education

About Bernard Bull

Dr. Bernard Bull is a President of Goddard College, author, podcast host, and blogger. Some of his books include Missional Moonshots: Insights and Inspiration for Educational Innovation, What Really Matters: Ten Critical Issues in Contemporary Education, and Adventures in Self-Directed Learning. He is passionate about futures in education; leaner agency, educational innovation, and social entrepreneurship in education.