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Book Review: Boettcher, J.V., & Conrad, R.M. (2016). The online teaching survival guide (2nd ed.). San Francisco: John Wiley & Sons.
Introduction & Purpose:
What is common to St. Augustine, Being Julie and Julia, and the productivity expert David Allen? They feature as references in “The Online Teaching Survival Guide,” a pragmatic, and user-friendly textbook on online teaching strategies by Judith Boettcher, and Rita-Marie Conrad.
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It is rare to find textbooks that serve up usable knowledge and skills in a modular format where no matter which page the reader lands on, they are rewarded with knowledge and information that is succinctly presented as bullet points, checklists, or tables.
The content present in the textbook is most appropriate for educators teaching at the undergraduate or graduate level. However, the modularity of the instructions would also make the book appealing to educators teaching at the high school level. This book review presents an overview of the textbook content, identifies its unique strengths and concludes with recommendations for updates that could be included in subsequent editions.
The purpose of the book is to serve as a resource for educators interested in developing and teaching online and blended courses. The authors explicitly state that the book “particularly meets the needs of faculty with limited access to support for designing and teaching in technology-enabled, mobile environments.” (Judith V. Boettcher & Conrad, 2016, p. XXV). The authors acknowledge that many resources are already available for educators interested in developing online courses. However, they offer the Online Teaching Survival Guide as a resource for educators interested in understanding how teaching principles and theories inform and undergird online teaching best practices presented in the book.
The central thesis of the book is that online and blended courses that are rooted in theory- and practice-based approaches will allow for a more meaningful learning experience for the online learner. This is borne out in every chapter of the book where the authors link the content presented to the theoretical underpinnings and the practical application of the theories. For example, in chapter 5, the authors summarize key takeaways for the four stages of an online course. In summarizing the course beginning stage, the authors recall definitions of community and cognitive presence and provide appropriate references to the theoretical works that generated those definitions. The practical aspect of the instructions is evident in the summaries of the four stages presented in a table format, with each table listing key goals and activities, the supporting learning principles, and best practices as they relate to the four elements of learning experiences (learner, faculty-mentor, content knowledge, and the environment).
The book is organized into three parts:
- Part one equips the reader with basic concepts, pedagogical theories, a list of essential best practices, and popular distance learning technologies.
- Part two provides the bulk of the content and is divided into a chapter each on course beginnings, the early middle (stages of a course), the late middle, and the closing weeks. Chapter ten provides additional guidelines for educators teaching accelerated courses.
- In part three, the authors reflect on how educators can evaluate their teaching and learn from past online teaching experiences. Part three ends with quotes from other online educators.
The major points of the textbook are organized around ten core principles and fourteen best practices. The principles and best practices are grounded in theory and developed from the authors’ decades of experience in teaching online courses. For example, Best practice 1 is “Be present at your course,” for which the authors draw on theoretical works around social presence, teaching presences, and cognitive presence (Judith V. Boettcher & Conrad, 2016, p. 45).
The major points are repeated throughout the textbook as are inferences from what the authors call “brain science,” such as Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development which posits that when a learner is in their zone of proximal development, an appropriately timed and customized learning experience mediated by a faculty-mentor can bridge the knowledge gap between where the learner is now and what the learner can achieve with the new learning experience (Judith V. Boettcher & Conrad, 2016, p. 14).
The authors draw on diverse sources for their content. They build their core concepts and principles on theoretical works and by drawing on their decades of teaching and instructional design experience. Where possible, they provide real-life examples that accentuate the concepts presented. For example, in chapter 6, the authors provide several examples of what they call “graphic syllabi” which the reader can access by visiting the website links provided in the content (Judith V. Boettcher & Conrad, 2016, p. 126). The textbook provides an appendix of additional resources for learning and a comprehensive list of references for the reader.
Boettcher and Conrad acknowledge that faculty members at undergraduate and graduate levels are increasingly called upon to facilitate online and blended courses without necessarily receiving the training and guidance on designing online courses. They offer their textbook as a resource for online and blended courses for all educators but point out that it is particularly useful for educators teaching in environments without institutional support for curriculum and instructional design. This implies that the textbook caters to educators at small colleges or institutions that are not adequately resourced to provide instructional training for online educators.
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The authors also acknowledge that online instructors new to this method of teaching may not be able to fully appreciate the value of the textbook until they have taught a few online courses. This suggests that the textbook ought to be treated as a manual of reference that educators can return to as they build their working knowledge on online instruction.
The writing style is conversational and directed at the reader. The language employed is simple, and easy to understand and not steeped in jargon. The simplicity of the prose coupled with the directness makes the textbook very accessible for first-time online instructors. An example of the conversational style is evident in page 128 in chapter 6 where the authors refer to Julie and Julia, a 2009 Hollywood film about Julia Childs, culinary expert and cookbook author, and Julie Powell, a writer. The authors draw on the narrative style of the movie to explain “bookending” as a concept to wrap course discussions and material: “Then the writers’ closing bookend is the scene that shows Powell and her husband visiting Child’s kitchen at the Smithsonian Institution and Julia Child in the same kitchen receiving a first print of her cookbook and celebrating the event with her husband. In between these two scenes is the story of how Julia Child’s search for her life in the cooking profession parallels Julie Powell’s challenge as she blogs about cooking her way through all the recipes in Child’s first book…”(Judith V. Boettcher & Conrad, 2016, p. 128).
Dr. Judith Boettcher is an educational expert with decades of experience in instructional technology and distance learning. Dr. Rita-Marie Conrad is the interim Director of Teaching and Learning Excellence at the University of California, Berkeley with a background in instructional design, and technology. With a combined experience of over 40 years as educators and distance learning experts, Drs. Boettcher and Conrad have the appropriate qualifications and experience to write this book.
Conclusion and recommendation:
My criticism about the book is mainly around the intended audience and style. While the authors suggest that the book is accessible to educators in both small and large educational settings, they could have been more explicit about the audience for the book, which, from the examples presented in the book, is geared to undergraduate- and graduate-level instructors. Additionally, while the tables and figures that are peppered throughout the book make for easy reading, most of the tables refer to the four stages, learning principles and best practices using abbreviations such as CB for course beginnings, LP for learning principle and BP for best practice. Readers would benefit from a list of abbreviations to aid the interpretation of the tables. For example, table 4.1 on page 69 in chapter 4 lists technology tools by their pedagogical uses and relates each use and tool to tips listed in the chapters assigned to each course stage (course beginning or CB, early middle or EM and so on). However, it is not until page 109 that the reader is introduced to the use of “CB” as an abbreviation for Course Beginnings. Some might see this as a criticism not worthy of mention. I would argue that a book that seeks to provide easy-to-use guidelines and tips for online teaching must also include a list of abbreviations, especially for terms that are new to the reader. Suggestions presented here could be easily incorporated in subsequent editions.
Although the textbook is not necessarily meant for educators designing curricula for adult learners in professional settings, future editions could be updated with specific best practices and guidelines for use in professional development contexts. Alternatively, the authors might consider releasing a supplement catering to online courses for continuing education and professional development.
Notwithstanding the critique presented above, I would highly recommend this textbook for online instructional designers and educators. It is accessible without being simplistic, equal parts pragmatic and theory-driven, and replete with practical examples. Boettcher and Conrad draw on a blend of academic, practitioner and popular references to support their core principles, best practices and guidelines. This is a great way to make the content accessible to diverse educator audiences – educators interested in the theoretical underpinnings and those who are interested in practical application.
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