In order to engage in teaching it is always important to understand student's knowledge and understanding of an issue. Indeed a fundamental aspect of excellent teaching is the ability of the instructor to bridge the student's understanding and new information.
As teaching and learning has moved online I think this process has become more complicated and also more important, especially in the case of topics that are in the public discussion. Here is an example of what I mean:
There is much discussion about the role that vaccines may play in the cause of autism. (See some my other comments on this discussion.) This is an topic that is a major issue for health educators, the medical community and for parents of young children. There is some evidence that an increasing number of parents are choosing not to have their children vaccinated as a result of the information available on this topic. (Note: See Google Trends on this topic.)
My simple insight is that in order to effectively "teach" about this topic on the web, it is important to understand the way this debate is framed online, the participants in the debate, the passions in this discussion and the challenges faced by bridging parent's views of this situation and the scientific evidence. This is what I have been referring to as "Knowing the Public Mind." I don't know if this is a good term or if others have a better term for this idea. At one level this is the same issue faced by all instructors who are trying to teach, but the web is a more complex instructional environment in the sense that at a minimum there are more voices and in particular unlike the enclosed classroom in which the teacher's voice is often respected, teachers on the web have more difficulty in establishing credibility, web credibility is often quite different that classroom credibility.
In an earlier post, I reviewed the ideas of Mishra and Koehler regarding their model of integrating content, teaching and technology. I would suggest that successful online teaching must also include this fourth dimension of "understanding the public mind."