Review: Small Teaching Online: Applying Learning Science in Online Classes

Increasingly, especially during these unprecedented times, people are moving away from on-campus classrooms, large hotel ballrooms, or even crowded conference rooms and opting for online classes, training, and workshops. Building off of James Lang’s outstanding book Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons from the Science of Learning, Flower Darby, with James Lang, provide readers with practical advice and tips that “explore the unique challenges of online instruction.” Small Teaching Online: Applying Learning Sciences in Online Classes is published by Jossey-Bass. Flower Darby is a Senior Instructional Designer and adjunct faculty member at Northern Arizona University for over 23 years. James Lang, well known for his scholarship and teaching in higher education, is a frequent columnist for The Chronicle of Higher Education and the author of Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons from the Science of Learning. Together they present down-to-earth advice, grounded in sound learning theory, that can be applied to face-to-face classes, hybrid courses, and a fully online learning environment. James Lang and Flower Darby met at a Small Teaching workshop at Darby’s institution. After James’ workshop, Flower immediately said, “I want to work with you to write a version of this book for online faculty.” They agreed. The result was the collective wisdom of both educators, written mostly by Flower Darby.

Online teaching and learning are growing, especially during these enormously difficult times. The challenges are enormous for both students and teachers. Most students in America are well schooled in how to sit for hours in a classroom. The bricks and mortar models of teaching and learning reach far back to the monastic orders in Europe. Education and her pedagogies have roots in the Ancient Worlds. Sitting at our teachers’ feet and hearing them deliver their lessons has been with us for a long time. But that way of thinking about how to obtain a formal education is rapidly changing.

Online courses are not going away. They are increasing to the point that more people take at least one class online than enrolled at college campuses (Darby & Lang, 2019). Many students and their teachers are not prepared for methods for teaching and learning in an online community. Rarely are K-12 teachers taught how to teach in a virtual classroom. However, that is beginning to change with a few online teacher preparation programs starting to sprout across the U.S. To that same end, most college instructors are not well trained in virtual teaching strategies and have never taken an online course. When asked to teach an online course, they tend to replicate their face-to-face classrooms into a digital format, resulting in a “read-write-discuss” model that is isolating, unmotivating, and lacks the full array of today’s technological capabilities. Distance learning has come a long way. The days of correspondence education are thankfully over. But there is still room for improvement. The profession must address the quality of distance and remote learning. Darby and Lang’s book addresses quality assurance in a friendly, down-to-earth manner that can be easily applied to any online learning situation.

Flower Darby addresses them head-on in the introduction “If we want to successfully grow our online programs, and many colleges and universities do, to meet the growing demand for rigorous and engaging online education, we must attend to the all-important foundational steps of developing our faculty and helping them thrive in this relatively new learning environment.” (Darby & Lang, 2019, p. XX) I would take this a step further and say that the same can be said for cooperate trainers, instructional designers, nonprofit agencies, and P-12 educators currently facing new challenges brought on by the COVID 19 pandemic. Darby and Lang provide us with a roadmap called “The Small Teaching Approach.” This approach is accessible to everyone and offers small adjustments that will, hopefully, make teaching and learning online more enjoyable and motivating.

The book is divided into three parts: Design for learning, Teaching Humans, and Motivating Online Students (and Instructors). Each chapter is structured to provide the reader with an introduction that describes how learning might occur in everyday contexts. This introduction is followed by a section that delivers the research that supports the recommendations offered throughout the chapter. Darby and Lang provide four to five models that illustrate how to incorporate the small teaching practices into the course design, teaching practices, or communication with students. A teaching and learning principles section guides the reader through ways to create your small teaching strategies. They end each chapter with a section on quick tips and a final reflection that ties the learning theory back to the small teaching strategies. Darby and Lang end the book with a conclusion about finding inspiration.

Flower Darby is an expert in teaching and learning in all formats – face-to-face (F2F), blended, and online, and regularly presents nationally and internationally on excellence in teaching and learning design. Throughout her book, she provides her readers with firsthand, personal accounts from her lived experiences in the campus and virtual settings. She does an outstanding job of connecting her experiences and methodologies to the learning theory that grounds her small online teaching strategies. She is a powerful storyteller who paints a realistic picture of the many challenges of online teaching and learning.

In Chapter Four, “Building Community,” Darby does a beautiful job relating her experience in the classroom with an activity that sparked a heated debate around the premise that “The Storm Troopers are actually the good guys. They’re just trying to keep law and order. It’s the Rebels who are causing all the problems” (Darby and Lang, 2019, p. 75). She uses this story to illustrate the vital role dialogue plays in building healthy learning communities. She points out that creating an organic sense of community and social engagement in the online classroom can be challenging, but it is not impossible. She provides her readers with research, both old and new, that offers the small changes instructional designers and instructors can employ to foster engagement in the online environment. For example, one of the small teaching ideas that Darby shares is for the instructor to show up to the online class as often as possible. She writes, “In my experience, the more we participate in class, the more our students will, too.” (Darby & Lang, 2020, p.103) While this might appear to be obvious advice on some level, we know how easy it is to hide behind the screen. Teaching and learning in a virtual environment can, and often is, a lonely and isolated experience. But if we want our online students to persist, we have to post frequently, engage with our students regularly, give them timely and meaningful feedback, and help them see us as humans and not an image on the screen.

This book is easy to read with straightforward teaching strategies that can be immediately applied to several virtual learning settings. While written for an academic audience, Darby and Lang do an outstanding job making this book accessible to a broader audience. Flower Darby’s advice and small teaching strategies would be easily adapted to the K-12 arena and the corporate training world. Additionally, Darby’s small teaching strategies are perfect for nonprofit educational organizations looking to maximize their offerings through a virtual platform.

As an instructional designer and educator, I love this book and recommend it to anyone interested in instructional design and teaching in the online learning environment. Darby and Lang provide us with an approachable way to instructional design that is timely and much needed. For years, I’ve heard students and educators lament the ills of online learning. My response has always been, “I’ve sat through some amazing classes with professors and teachers who were passionate about their teaching. And I’ve sat through some truly awful classes as well. The same can be said for online courses. And I’ve taken a lot of online courses.” Instructional designers can mentor and guide content area experts and instructions toward adopting Darby’s small teaching online strategies. Suppose you are interested in improving your work as an instructional designer or an online teacher. In that case, this book will help you apply best practices to your virtual classrooms and learning experiences. 

Reference: Darby, R. &Lang, J.M. (2019). Small teaching online: Applying learning science in online classes. Jossey-Bass.

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