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How to Teach Online: An interview with Dr. Angel Pazurek

By Suzan Koseoglu, Aras Bozkurt / August 2019

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Dr. Angelica (Angel) Pazurek, Ph.D. is currently a senior lecturer and graduate faculty member in learning technologies at the University of Minnesota. She teaches undergraduate, graduate, and postgraduate courses and workshops on digital literacy, social media, online teaching and learning design, and research methodologies for learning technologies. Angel is also a researcher at the Learning Technologies Media Lab. Most recently, her work explores international initiatives in online education, equitable gender representation in educational technology fields, and the use of social media for connected learning. Angel has been teaching online classes for nearly 15 years. She has given faculty development workshops, talks and keynotes, and mentored many lecturers and Ph.D. students on how to teach online. In this interview, Angel describes her participatory and community-based approach to online education and provides insightful tips and suggestions for those who might be new to online teaching or those who are looking for new ideas.

Figure 1. “How to Teach Online.” Word cloud of the interview text.
[click to enlarge]

Angel, thank you for taking part in this interview. What would you like to tell those who are new to online teaching? Where do we start thinking about how to teach online?

When approached with the challenge of teaching online, it’s really common for educators to first start thinking about designing the content or selecting the technology tools they will use. And when we think about teaching online, the technology tends to get foregrounded. But when I work with instructors and faculty, the first thing I want them to think about is their educational philosophy and pedagogical values. These are the fundamental elements that guide our practice, and this should always be the case whether we are teaching in a physical classroom or online. I believe we need to lead with our pedagogy in all decisions related to the way we teach online courses. The tools we select and the way we design or deliver content is important, but those decisions should be based on a very intentional pedagogical approach. So let’s start by defining (or revisiting) our educational philosophy and the pedagogical values that will inform our online teaching.

So you are saying we need to focus on our teaching philosophy and think deeply about how and why we teach first. Can you tell us a bit about your teaching philosophy? What are some fundamental educational values and visions you have that guide your teaching?

In my vision for online teaching, I believe we need to design for the learner experience. And by this, I mean the holistic experience you want learners to have in your online course. This is another important issue I encourage online instructors to consider because online teaching and learning is about more than just delivering and consuming content. We need to base our pedagogical approach on fostering an educational experience that is active, not passive, and one that is meaningful, engaging, and thought-provoking. We can do this by actively involving students in the learning process and finding ways to get them intrinsically invested and excited about the course. Ideally, I think learning should be as fun as it is rigorous. So my broader goals are to design for an online learning experience that evokes learners’ curiosity, fosters critical thinking about the world around them, encourages them to seek out creative solutions, and then challenges them to put their ideas into action.

Fostering learner agency is also very important to me, and I find ways to involve students in decision making throughout the course. I see this as an iterative process of learning design that is a shared responsibility with students. I start the design process and have a course framework and syllabus prepared that includes the basic structure, key learning objectives, and essential content. But then I elicit a lot of student feedback and input to build upon this framework and develop a collective plan from there. For example, students expand upon the syllabus and learning objectives by also establishing some personal learning goals for themselves and some shared goals for our online learning community. They are also asked to suggest additional topics or new lines of inquiry we can explore together beyond what is in the syllabus. I even provide opportunities for students to choose how they will demonstrate their knowledge or evidence of goal attainment by selecting from a list of options for course projects that focus on particular learning objectives or digital literacy skills. These are just some examples of shared responsibilities, and I have found that these teaching strategies support engagement through increased agency and personal investment in the learning experience.

In addition to an emphasis on personal agency and investment, I am also concerned about the experience we will all have together. My online courses are all grounded in a social learning model. I think it’s important to build an online learning community in the course where we can connect and interact, share resources and ideas. Students share articles and news stories, but they also interact with me and with one another using a variety of digital media like audio and video recordings to communicate their reflections and participate in asynchronous class discussions. Written discussion forums and blogs have a lot of value, but when participants in an online course can actually hear and see one another as well, it lends to a heightened sense of social presence. We get to view one another as real people in this course together. My own research in online teaching and learning in higher education supports seminal research by Palloff and Pratt that indicates when social presence is leveraged and learners have more opportunities to interact through authentic communication with their peers, a sense of community can evolve and the learning experience can be enhanced [1].

Angel, it is important to consider the teaching context here. Can you please tell us a little about your teaching context? Is it possible to design for the learner experience in any subject or academic discipline? Is it easier to achieve this in some subjects than others?

I agree, context is so important. And educators must acknowledge and then be responsive to the unique needs of the context. And this is why I am critical of the term “best practices” for online teaching or education in general. I think what is “best” will depend on the context. And so determining what will be most effective in a given context or situation requires a great deal of pedagogical sensitivity, insight, and responsiveness. This can depend on many factors and contingencies, like the subject matter and the learning objectives or students’ unique needs, goals, and developmental levels. The best approach may also depend on the availability of tools, time, resources, and so on. I’m also critical of best practices references in online teaching and learning because these prescriptive tactics tend to focus on instruction and the efforts required of instructors and their responsibilities in online courses. I think more discussion and research is necessary regarding the learner’s role and responsibilities as well in order to help ensure learning is most effective and lasting. I’m most interested in the shared responsibilities with students and ways to promote the active role of learners in online contexts.

I currently teach both theoretical and practical courses about how technology is impacting our culture in the ways that we live and learn. In this context, the learner experience is more easily acknowledged and prioritized because as common practice students are readily and regularly encouraged to apply the content to their own life and lived experience. So it is a bit easier, I think, to draw upon or leverage their personal interest and investment in the subject matter.

But I have also previously taught in healthcare education or, more specifically, dental education. I designed and taught online courses in pharmacology and pathology, which are subjects that require a foundational understanding of essential facts and concepts that are sort of black-and-white rather than philosophical. When teaching these subjects, the learning objectives are very different. Students’ ability to remember and retain specific content tends to place the content at the center. But we must always remember to keep the learner at the center, regardless of the discipline or the subject, and seek ways to humanize the online learning experience. For example, in addition to effectively learning foundational content or subject matter, how can we also ensure that the experience is enjoyable? How can we encourage learners to interact with one another and engage in dialogue about the application of the content rather than simply memorizing it? How can we promote active rather than passive learning? Traditionally in these types of courses, lectures and tests or exams comprise the whole course. But this alone can be very disengaging for students. So when considering the experience you want learners to have in your online course, even if there needs to be some direct instruction and exams are expected and required by your institution, I also recommend making time and space for social interactions and authentic projects. Opportunities to apply course concepts to real-life scenarios and discuss their relevance with others can also be a more authentic means to assess skill development, understanding, and knowledge gains. I tend to think this is a more enjoyable way to learn as well.

Let’s go back to the notion of designing for the learner experience…what is your role in this process? How do you foster creativity or curiosity? How do you help students think critically about their learning, their studies, their world?

I see my role in this process as being a facilitator and supportive guide. When we are designing and teaching an online course, we must think of ways to promote engagement through active learning with digital tools that allow learners to connect with and participate in the world around them. My early dissertation research shed some light on how adult learners may experience engagement in online courses, dynamics that impact feelings of engagement, and pedagogical strategies to help support it [2]. Based on the findings of that initial study, I proposed a pedagogical design model to foster engaging online learning experiences that has evolved but continues to inform my practice today (see the illustration below).

Figure 2. Designing for the learning experience.<
[click to enlarge]

To foster curiosity and creativity, I draw upon an inquiry-based learning model in my online teaching that values opportunities for exploration and discovery.  I start by selecting content and class activities that are relevant to learners’ real lives and relate to their interests, passions, and goals. I think this has a tendency to pique learners’ natural curiosity about the subject matter. I also enact this value by encouraging students to suggest additional course topics and to seek out additional readings and resources beyond the content I provide. They then share the things they find with me and class peers so that we can discuss and consider alternative case examples or diverse applications. To support this, they must learn about various ways to access resources online, assess the credibility of sources, and develop informed perspectives based on a balanced consideration of diverse viewpoints. As students are learning about the real-world relevance and application of class topics, they are also developing digital literacy. Reflection prompts and class discussions can be designed in a way that elicits analysis and critique to develop critical thinking skills, identify challenges, and suggest creative solutions. This is one way to help them think critically about their studies and the world around them.

Course projects are also designed in a way that encourages and rewards curiosity, creativity, effort, and critical thinking. These markers actually serve as assessment criteria in my online courses in addition to students’ ability to meet content-specific learning objectives. I do not use quizzes or exams to assess learning. Instead, I use more authentic assessment measures of class participation in discussion activities and the production of class projects. Some examples of projects that are wildly popular in my courses include creating a website, a podcast on a topic of interest, a screen capture video presentation, or a digital story about a challenge in their local community. Students are graded weekly on their level of participation in discussions and throughout the course on the projects they produce. My courses do not have a final exam, but they do have a final project to demonstrate cumulative knowledge gains or skill development. A final project could involve something like a digital portfolio created as a website with digital artifacts that reveal what they learned or accomplished throughout the semester. Exposure to a variety of digital tools to create and express themselves allows students to demonstrate their skills and understanding in unique, fun, and creative ways. Ultimately, I want to help ensure students find personal relevance in the content and topics we explore in the course and that they are invested in an online learning experience that involves more than just reviewing content and then taking an exam.

But can’t we achieve all of these in face-to-face environments?

I love this question, and I get asked this a lot. Good teaching is good teaching, right? The principles I am advocating here are as important in face-to-face learning environments as they are in online settings. But the ways in which those pedagogical values get enacted in online courses or enabled through digital media or technology tools may look very different than they would look in a physical classroom and they will require different supports. The ways learners participate or engage in an online course may look very different as well. In a physical classroom, we may only hear from the most outspoken students in class discussion. But in an online course, activities can be designed that require everyone to participate and contribute to the conversation. Enacting a value for social interaction, for example, will require designing and organizing activities for learners to communicate with each other online through specific technology tools. And those conversations can be facilitated by the instructor in a way that is sensitive and encouraging to those less eager to share. Students’ digital literacy levels may also be very different; some will require more support while others may be more adept. So the supports necessary to enable online communication and interaction may also be different than what would be needed in a physical classroom and this must be planned for very intentionally and thoroughly.

Are there any unique opportunities online environments hold for learning?

Online technologies support learning as part of daily life and, often, as self-directed. Online courses can be fertile ground to help students gain skill in learning with technology and the ability to engage in independent inquiry or participate in a community of inquiry with others.

I think online environments hold unique opportunities for social learning and engagement. Reflection and discussion activities in online courses require everyone to participate and contribute, and there are a variety of digital tools that can be uniquely integrated in online courses for communication, interaction, and building community. For example, social media applications like Twitter, WhatsApp, and GroupMe can be used to communicate with class members and connect with others who share our interests. I have also used Ning as a social networking platform that allows for more dynamic social interactions rather than a typical learning management system that serves as more of a content repository than it does a social tool. Class discussions can be facilitated with VoiceThread and Flipgrid to enhance social presence through audio and video recordings.

Online environments hold unique opportunities for expression and creativity as well. Audio and video-based communication tools help exercise students’ verbal communication skills or articulating their knowledge and understanding through speaking. That is a very different skill set than communicating one’s understanding in writing. Written communication skills can be targeted using Tumblr or Wix for digital writing, blogging, or website and portfolio development. Students can create their own podcasts about course topics using a tool like Soundtrap to record audio and SoundCloud to host it and share with others. Demonstration videos can also be made by me or by students using Screencast-O-Matic to record and then YouTube or Vimeo to host and share. We also occasionally hold live, synchronous web meetings in small groups, and we use a tool like Google Meet or Zoom with video functionality so we can see one another.

Some technologies Angel and her students use for online learning are:

Twitter, WhatsApp, GroupMe, Ning, VoiceThread, FlipGrid, Tumblr, Wix, Soundtrap, SoundCloud, Screencast-O-Matic, YouTube, Vimeo, Google Meet, and Zoom.

I’m really excited about ways to help students learn how to use social media as more than just an entertainment source, but rather as a productive source for connected learning and building a personal learning network. The connected learning model emphasizes the importance of online networks to connect one’s personal interests with mentors and resources to build supportive relationships and educational opportunities. Most of the emerging research on connected learning focuses on youth. But I see profound potential for this approach for adults as well. So that is the focus of my latest research projects that are currently in progress. I have recently integrated Twitter activities in all of my online courses. I model how to use Twitter to seek and share information on course topics and connect with people interested in similar issues. And then I encourage students to do the same. We participate in critical inquiry together on Twitter by posing questions about contemporary issues and discussing these questions with others (for an example see illustration below).

Figure 3. Dr. Pazurek uses Twitter to engage her students.
[click to enlarge]

Can you tell us a bit about your research and other interesting things you’re involved in?

My scholarship, both my teaching and my research, focuses on the human-centered nature of learning with technology. I am very interested in humans' relationship with technology and how it affects our experiences. I use interpretive methods like case study and contemporary approaches to phenomenology to collect qualitative data and narratives about learners’ experiences in online environments.

As a female in the field of educational technology, I am also deeply invested in advocating for equitable gender representation in technology fields, so this has influenced my research interests as well. Tech fields in general have historically been male-dominated, but this is slowly shifting. Women's representation is increasing, and I find that promising. But there is still much more work to be done. I am concerned that women's contributions are less visible, especially in terms of traditional forms of academic publishing.

I am also interested in how online education is being practiced around the world and feel a responsibility to learn more about the innovative work being done outside the U.S. I've worked with and learned from educators throughout Africa, Europe, Asia, and South America in order to share ideas and to learn how issues of culture, access, and equity are impacting the practices of online educators and the experiences of learners in other countries and regions. I'm currently seeking research partners to study and share online education practices outside the U.S. and am particularly interested in online and mobile learning in developing areas where so much great work is being done but is getting less attention.

Thank you, Angel, you have given us so much to consider in online teaching. If you could name four things that online teachers could aim for in their teaching as a final comment?

Foster learner agency, encourage shared responsibility, provide opportunities for social learning, and build community!


[1] Palloff, K., and Pratt K. Building Online Learning Communities: Effective strategies for the virtual classroom. Jossey-Bass, San Francisco, 2007.

[2] Pazurek-Tork, A. A phenomenological investigation of online learners’ lived experiences of engagement (Doctoral dissertation, University of Minnesota). Retrieved from ProQuest Dissertations and Theses. Accession Order No. AAT 3667747. 2014.

About the Authors

Dr. Suzan Koseoglu is an academic developer (Research and Development in Technology Enhanced Learning) at Goldsmiths, University of London. Suzan holds an M.Ed. and Ph.D. in learning technologies. Suzan's recent research focuses on gender inequality and the place of feminist theory and practice in open and distance learning.

Dr. Aras Bozkurt is a researcher in the Department of Distance Education at Anadolu University, Turkey. He holds M.A. and Ph.D. degrees in distance education. He conducts empirical studies on online learning through resorting to critical theories including connectivism, rhizomatic learning, and heutagogy. He is also interested in emerging research paradigms including social network analysis, sentiment analysis, and data mining.

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