TLO 5: The Self-ish-ness of Teaching and Learning Online

At the upcoming Korea TESOL convention in Seoul, to be held on 12 and 13 October, I’ll be presenting a paper on teaching and learning online (TLO). As the theme of the conference is “Exploring the Road Less Travelled: From Practice to Theory,” I will be talking about how the practice of TLO is informing the theory of TLO. It’s good to see the usual direction reversed, and appropriately enough, I will be giving the presentation from the home of a family member (my brother, as mentioned in my second blog, 28 Aug) in Birmingham, England. Unfortunately, because of the time difference between England and South Korea, I will be presenting at 1 o’clock in the morning, UK time. But this does reiterate a recurring point, which is that, for the first time in several centuries, the confines of time and space no longer define when and where teaching and learning take place.

I’ve been going to KoTESOL, which I always very much enjoy, for 15 years, since 1998. Back in 2001, just as the new millennium was just getting underway, I published a paper titled “Teacher Development as a Selfish Activity,” based on a presentation I had given at KoTESOL in 2000. In the write-up of that paper (PDF), I claimed that effective teaching required the “development of necessary ‘self- ish’ traits, such as: self-assurance, self-confidence, self-discipline, self-reliance” (Curtis, 2001, pp. 22-23).

Connecting those two particular dots, between my KoTESOL presentation 13 years ago and the upcoming presentation there in a few days, I realized that those same “self-ish” traits that I wrote about in relation to reflective practice and teacher professional development also apply to TLO. I did write at the end of TLO Part 4 (Sep 25) that all teaching and learning methodologies and technologies have their limitations, which need to be explored just as thoroughly as their benefits.

So, the need for traits such as self-confidence, self-discipline, and self-management may be one of the limitations of TLO. For example, in an online MA research methods course I was recently teaching, one of the course participants wrote that he had been very ill, which is why he was falling behind with his course work. In traditional bricks-and-mortar, face-to-face courses, it is immediately obvious when a student is missing, so the teacher can take the appropriate follow-up action to support the student. Or, if the student can meet with the teacher in private, they can talk face-to-face about what has been happening and how best to proceed.

But in online environments it can take much longer for such “absences” to be noticed, because course participants do not usually post replies and responses to readings and tasks every day. In fact, most of the MA TESOL students I work with are doing their degrees while teaching. Also, the course participants on these kinds of programs usually have more teaching experience, which means they are older, and they often have families. So, juggling all those competing priorities means that the course participants usually have to wait for the weekend to get caught up on the readings, the tasks, and the postings. As a result, a missing student may not be noticed for some time, in which case, he or she may not get the help needed.

So, I’m going to go out on a bit of a virtual limb here and write what some teachers of online courses say privately, which is that TLO may not be suitable for students who do not have highly developed traits such as self-confidence, self-discipline, and self-management. Such students may be much better suited to traditional bricks-and-mortar, face-to-face classrooms and courses.

TLO is not for everyone. And that includes some teachers as well, who also need those “self-traits,” as it can be very difficult for some teachers, when they are without a classroom, an office, or college/university to physically go to. So, although TLO has enabled us to do all kinds of things we could not do before, it is not for everyone!

What are your thoughts on this?

About Andy Curtis

Andy Curtis
From 2015–2016, Andy Curtis served as the 50th president of TESOL International Association. He has coauthored and coedited around 200 publications and worked with more than 50,000 language educators in more than 100 countries. His current research is focused on the New Peace Linguistics. He is an online professor in the Graduate School of Education at Anaheim University, and he is based in Ontario, Canada, from where he works as an independent language education consultant for organizations worldwide.
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3 Responses to TLO 5: The Self-ish-ness of Teaching and Learning Online

  1. Andy Curtis Andy Curtis says:

    Hi Darlene and Sara

    Thanks for your responses to this blog (from a while ago, in Darlene’s case, and more recently, in Sara’s) I’m glad that my comments resonated with Darlene’s experiences, particularly the point that “TLO is not for everyone”, and that TLO is not necessarily the answer to all pedagogical problems. As I write in this week’s blog (out tomorrow, Dec 4), whether or not LTO is in fact “the answer” depends very much on exactly what the question is! And thanks, Sara, for the link to the ‘Learn to Teach Online’ course, which encouraged me to start tackling that same topic, starting with this week’s blog (TLO 9). I should also add my apologies for the delay in responding to your comments, which I very much appreciate, as I have been working in some ‘technology limited environments’ in recent weeks, which has been a useful set of learning experiences in relation to TLO!

    Thanks again, Andy

  2. Sara says:

    For those of us without the natural ‘self-ish’ traits, having a proper support system in place to provide training and mentorship can really help. In my neck of the woods, teachers in the public school system have access to this:, which is definitely a good start.

  3. Darlene says:

    I feel so identified with this post. I am an online teacher and I struggle with this and other issues such as misconception of collaborative work, misinterpretation of instructions, plagiarism, etc., which are undetectable in an online environment until it is too late. I agree that TLO isn’t for everyone, and that the ones who succeed do because they have developed the three self traits you mentioned. I also share your point that not every teacher can be an online teacher, and that they need a specific training to develop self traits and skills to actually teach online, as for many this reduces to just grading assingments.

    Nowadays, many public universities are using online courses as a way to make education available for anyone, people in remote areas, people with dissabilties, in disadvantage, etc., who often do not have skills for online study. In an effort to cope with this situation, introductory courses are offered before instruction, and some times results are positive. However, the development of self confidence, self discipline and self management is still far from what is desirable.

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