Online Learning Book Recommendations: And Why I Read so Few Books on the Topic

Apr 06, 2020

The following is the latest installment of the Toward Better Teaching advice column. You can pose a question for a future column here.


Dear Bonni,

In the midst of this current COVID situation, I'm looking to up my game … as an educator … especially in the online environment. I’m wondering if you might recommend what top three books would you suggest I read outside of ‘Urgency for Teachers,’ ‘Pedagogy of the Oppressed,’ ‘The New Education?’ PS. I’ve ordered your book as well.

—Tim Carson, Skilled Trades and OER Advocate


First, allow me to tell you why I don’t typically read books about online learning. Then, after I have really heightened your curiosity and you can barely stand the suspense anymore, I will share a few books that I have found beneficial in growing my skills as an educator.

The way that books have nourished my teaching has been in the area of identifying and refining my teaching philosophy and general pedagogical approaches. I haven’t read many books that are focused strictly on online teaching. Staying more holistic when developing my teaching—whether facilitating learning in person or online—has been central in my reading motivations. Even the book that I wrote about productivity was envisioned initially by the publisher as for online instructors, and then they asked if I would be willing to broaden the audience. Books specifically about online teaching, despite having some appeal to me, generally wind up lower on my ‘to-be-read’ book stack.

Experience Online Learning

The biggest ways that I have been able to develop my skills in online teaching is to experience it myself. Sometimes that takes the form of becoming a student. For instance, I took an online course taught by Sean Michael Morris through the Digital Pedagogy Lab a few years back. What I recall about it now is that he didn’t make use of a bunch of different tools. Instead, he used a familiar set of educational technologies, but often used them in unfamiliar ways. He once had us take a photo of where we were as we responded to a discussion board and include it in our answers to some introductory questions. This gave me such a sense of presence and being with the people who were entering into a learning community together. One woman took it a step further and gave her introduction from the seat of her motorcycle, as she traveled around her town.

Technology is not what makes or breaks an online class. Instead, the tech is best when it floats in the background, supporting the overall learning goals of a class without seeming like it is the “show” itself.

Someone who agrees with my perspective on not reading many books about online classes is Michelle Pacansky-Brock. Pacansky-Brock refers to herself as a college teacher turned faculty developer, and she has some good guidance for how to best continue to grow our skills at online teaching:

“I would encourage that people start building their personal learning network (PLN) and follow these hashtags on Twitter: #KeepLearning #HumanizeOL #PivotOnline #OnlineTeaching.”

Pacansky-Brock stresses how valuable it can also be to take an online professional development course, as I did previously through the Digital Pedagogy Lab. Pacansky-Brock emphasizes that taking an online course is the “…best way to gain empathy for students and an outcome no book can provide.”

An educator who has opened up his course to allow any of us to experience it is Mike Wesch, a professor of cultural anthropology at Kansas State University. Wesch’s Anthropology 101 course is centered around ten different lessons that each have a challenge associated with them. Each lesson has a well-curated collection of videos, readings and other resources. After exploring the content, Wesch invites us to click the button to take the challenge. His meaning-making challenge presents three different options for demonstrating and further exploring our learning. We don’t have to be enrolled in his class to access it. In fact, he welcomes us to share what we are learning by using the class hashtag across a variety of social media.

Book Recommendations

Now that I have gotten that part out of the way, here is an actual answer to your question. I’m going to share my book recommendations, along with the specific needs I have found them to best meet in my own teaching.

If you want to understand some of the primary educational technologies that have been shaping education for years (and to be better equipped to select tools for use in your classes, I recommend:

25 Years of Ed Tech (Issues in Distance Education), by Martin Weller

If you want to align the teaching and learning goals for your class with a relevant technology and address the why behind its use, I recommend:

Intentional Tech: Principles to Guide the Use of Educational Technology in College Teaching, by Derek Bruff

If you want to select low-cost, practical tools to support student learning, and be provided with “showcase” examples of the technologies that are shared in the book, I recommend:

Best Practices for Teaching with Emerging Technologies, by Michelle Pacansky-Brock

Finally, if you want ideas on how to engage learners and how to structure your course to support students’ learning, I recommend:

Small Teaching Online: Applying Learning Science in Online Classes, by Flower Darby and James M. Lang

Since I ended with Small Teaching Online, if you haven’t yet read James M. Lang’s first book in that series: Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons from the Science of Learning, it is the book that I have picked up more than any other about teaching.

I would be leaving out a significant contributor to my pedagogical development if I didn’t also mention Stephen D. Brookfield’s The Skillful Teacher: On Technique, Trust, and Responsiveness in the Classroom (3e). When I read Brookfield’s words, I have this eerie feeling—like he has been in the classroom with me during some of my greatest struggles and can gently nudge me forward into growth—with hope and purpose.

As I conclude, I realize that you asked for a list of three books. I cheated and gave you six. Hopefully the recommendations about how these books have shaped my teaching will help you narrow them down a bit.

I’m also certain that as soon as I consider this article done, I will think of six more that should have absolutely been included within the list. I appreciate your question and this opportunity to reflect on what has influenced my online teaching practices.


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