What Working for an Internet Company Taught Me About Teaching:

(I wrote this years ago and, it seems, never posted it.  It seems somehow appropriate to bring it up now considering recent events.)


First and foremost, people don’t understand how much information is gathered about them when they are online, nor how that information is gathered. People seem to have a vague understanding that they can be tracked through their IP if they are doing something naughty. Heck, the days aren’t that far gone when the myth that Bill Gates personally knew everything each individual looked at was still making the rounds. At the other end of the spectrum, people assume that because they are online, they can take on a mantle of anonymity which cannot be breached. Indeed, there are entire websites (I’m looking at you, Juicycampus and LikeALittle) that are predicated on the anonymity of its contributors.


Why does this matter? Many university and college level courses today are taught with a strong web component. Whether that be merely putting the professor’s notes and presentation slides online, or in an integrated pedagogical environment, like democracylab.org, courses are liable these days to be deeply integrated with media technologies. Though some are hosted by institutions other than the student’s home institution (such as democracylab.org), many integrated components are hosted through the student’s home institution through systems like Desire 2 Learn, WebCT and Blackboard.

Student anonymity in large classrooms, social loafing and the suspicion on the part of professors that students aren’t actually doing the reading are now quantifiable through these integrated technology platforms. The presentation that Edna Keeble did at STLHE, “Smartening Up”: How an Award-Winning Teacher Learned How to Teach First-year Students,” provided a classic example of the kinds of quantifiable data that is possible to gather through these institutional information systems. It also provided clear evidence that the kids either don’t know they are being watched, or don’t care.

Professors can see every time a student logs on. How long they log on for. What they looked at. Where they went on the website. How many responses they viewed in a discussion thread. As students must log onto the course website (more often than not), everything that they do under that ID is monitored. It’s just an inherent part of these pedagogical tools.

Two thoughts come out of this:
  1.  It is creepily Foucauldian that we are granted the ability to watch everything that our students do. I don’t think I have to belabour this point as anyone with the remotest interest can find a bazillion articles online about the information society, the surveillance culture, the police state, yadda yadda yadda. Not to belittle that point, but it isn’t my main interest here.
  2. What is going on is a quantitative measure of motivation and interest in the course. It’s a form of internet marketing that has been going strong since at least the early 2000s.

In marketing, a company needs to be able to distinguish between those prospective clients who are likely to buy their product, and those prospects who are less likely to buy their product. In order to facilitate the sales cycle, clients and prospects are rated based on the likelihood of their purchasing the product or service of the company. A prospect that shows keen interest in the product or service is more likely to buy that product or service, because they are motivated for whatever reason.

When a prospect shows measurable interest (and there are a variety of tools out there to measure that interest, from website hit counters at the most basic to ActiveConversion’s suite of marketing tools at the most sophisticated), then the company engages that prospect in a way to encourage them through the sales cycle.

At its most basic, the sales cycle is:
  1. Finding Prospects
  2. First Contact (Setting up the relationship)
  3. Qualifying the Prospects
  4. Presenting the Information about the Product
  5. Addressing Concerns/Engaging in a Dialogue
  6. Closing the Sale
  7. Getting Referrals

When students are in a class that has a strong internet component, there is no problem with the first step in the cycle. The students ARE your prospects. You don’t have to go out there to find them or canvass in the Student Union building to get people to come to class. Often times, the will show up of their own accord.


And what, you may ask, am I selling my students? You are selling them themselves. More aware, conscious and informed versions of themselves. Versions of themselves with skills sets that they do not have as of yet. You are selling them what they could be. Yes, it is a very learner centred viewpoint, but it sure as heck isn’t the content of the course that you are selling. If it were possible to sell the content of the course like that, it would be possible to package knowledge and take it away. I don’t buy that. Knowledge affects the self because knowledge is a social construct. Thus, you are selling them the self that they will be when they have that knowledge.


So, you’ve got strong prospects. What about first contact? This is where many professors fall down on the job, I think. The relationship many professors set up is an authoritarian model. Not that they are academic Nazis, mind you, but rather that the professor has the knowledge, which s/he will impart to the students a dribble at a time and the students will have to soak it up as they go along. If a professor sees their product as the transferrable knowledge that they have, then the sale has already been made, the students have paid for the course, the professor just has to deliver that information over the course of the semester.

If, however, the product is a transformative experience for the student, then setting up a relationship wherein the student is encouraged to “eat the text,” to take the information and digest it, reflect on it and come back to you with a new version of themselves, is essential to the learning process. Think of it this way: In the most authoritarian of transformative learning processes, boot camp and Zen monastic training, the relationship with the roshi or the Drill Sergeant is set up from moment one.

You are selling the students a new self that has skills and knowledge that they do not have at present and the way that the students are going to “purchase” that self is through the web component of your course in conjunction with the regular classroom component (or in lieu of the classroom component). This necessarily affects your relationship with your students. If you make it seem as though you are pawning them off on the internet because it is easier to mark, it frees up class time, or what have you, then you are going to have unmotivated students who don’t want to do the web-work.

So, setting up the relationship is key. Personally, I cannot take on the authoritarianism of a drill sergeant at my university, nor do I want to. Further, because students seem to respond better when you yoke their egos to the material in question, I prefer to use an approach that puts me on their level. I note from the beginning of the class that yes, I am an expert in these matters. But that does that really mean? Not much. Through the course of the semester, the students will be discovering things in the texts that I have never seen before. They will be able to find things that are new, and that is not threatening to me – that is exactly what I want! By putting myself on their level like this, I attempt to straddle the expert-student divide.


Internet based courses are clearly useful for this. Most of your students will never want to be transformed by their experience in taking a course. They still subscribe to the open-my-head-and-fill-me-with-knowledge model. So when you have an internet based course, you can qualify your lead prospects very easily based on the amount of time and effort they spend on the course.

It seems surprising to some professors that students don’t want to dig in to the course material as much as the professor would like them to. The old saw that you should spend 2 hours outside class for every hour of class time working on the material is almost never actually done by undergraduates. So, with lower performance, should we lower expectations? Not quite. Rather, we have to be able to identify clearly the students who are most likely to buy the changed vision of themselves that we are selling them. That is, most prospects are deeply sceptical about the importance of the change, the value of the new self and are quite happy with their present neuroses, thank you very much.

Using web tools to track student performance allows you to gauge which students are buying what you are selling at any point in the semester. Some students only “get it” after a few weeks. Some students never do. But with these web tools, you can rank student engagement in the class and start a dialogue with them about their engagement. You need not go to each individual one of them and say, “Gee, Tommy, I see you aren’t posting much to the discussion board. Is there a problem with the materials that you could like to discuss?” Rather, you can open the discussion more broadly to different groups of students. Some of them are buying it (generally the A students, but not always), others are not (generally the Cs and below, but not always), others are considering your product (Bs). I say not always because inevitably there are students who struggle with the material of a course deeply, and who recognize the value of the future self that is coming out of this process of struggle, but are still getting Cs. This, more than any other reason, is why you can’t trust grades to do your lead qualification for you.


Presenting information about a product and engaging in dialogue about that product comes next. Once you have identified who your best leads are, you have to be able to sell the product to them. Remember, you want to sell your product to everyone in the class, but you have to shepherd your resources to sell to those most likely to buy first. They can then go forth and sell the rest of the class with you. The dialogue is clearly setting forth the information on the knowledge that they need and the skills that they have to master in order to do well in the course. The assessment component of a course is the students showing that they have the knowledge and the skills that you have required of them. At its worst, assessment works essentially one way. Students receive written feedback on their lab reports, discussions, presentations, essays. Usually it is some time after the actually essay into the craft and whether they read that feedback or not is up for grabs. At its best, feedback is instant & comes in multiple streams – from peers, from the professor and from themselves.

(From peers? Yes. 360 Evaluations, for example. But also, and less controversially, in the form of pedagogical games like Jeopardy. It may only test rote knowledge, but it is a social game at its best and allows for the students to evaluate themselves against each other.)


How do you close the sale? Sadly, more often than not there is no “aha” moment where a student realizes that they have been transformed through the course of the semester and they now have skills and knowledge that they wouldn’t have had earlier. Or if they do recognize that, then it is somehow downplayed – of course I know more about Art History than I did in September, that’s why I took the course. Though many courses offer summative examinations wherein students are expected to show the professor, TAs (and hopefully themselves), their mastery over the course material, summative exams rarely encourage self reflection on the part of the students. They are hoops to be jumped through rather than places to inhabit.

You close the sale either when the student recognizes that the skills and knowledge that you are offering them in the course is necessary for them, or when they recognize that they have developed a set of skills and specialized knowledge that they didn’t have at the beginning. Either when they’ve already bought the product or when they are highly motivated to get the product through an external force. An example of the previous might be an engineering student who needs to do well in the 4th year project management course in order to get their degree. That’s a fairly motivated student. They come into your class already buying the product.

(I’m not sure I explained that very well. Oh well, let me know.)

Finally, getting referrals is usually accomplished on campuses through word of mouth. “Have you taken anything from Professor X before?” “Is Y a hard marker?” and so forth. Again, since the first part of our cycle is usually fairly constant, this is not as big a problem for academics. That said, it is important for the tenure committee, but that’s another story.

So there. Working in the internet marketing business actually has taught me something about how to teach and what to teach. The key has always remained having a good product. If you don’t have a strong product, you can’t do much with it. I mean, sure you can sell pet rocks for a while as a fad (assuming pet rocks are a bad product), but you sure can sell a lot more people on health and long term happiness.

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