Reflective Journal - The art and science of teaching online

Myth Busting

At a time when teachers are fearful of losing their jobs due to budget cuts, when they hear “online class” they immediately bristle. Part of the bristle is fear that if they do not offer one, they will be pushed out, but a bigger part of the fear stems from the fact that they do not understand online learning. The myths about online teaching must be dispelled before everyone will embrace online teaching and learning. Some of the more damaging myths about online teaching and learning are that online learning is not as social as a face-to-face classroom (Hanna & Glowacki-Dudka, 2000, p. 35). In reality, because of the nature of online learning, everyone has a voice, and everyone is forced to use it. Online courses, if properly designed, can actually be more social than a face-to-face course as students get to know each other better on an intellectual level because they are all interacting with the materials and each other. A proper structure allows students to help each other through the materials, forming stronger bonds and relationships. 

Another myth that is damaging to online learning is the idea that online teaching takes less time. (Hanna & Glowacki-Dudka, 2000, p. 34) One reason this notion is damaging is that it sets up teachers for failure if they think it will be easier. It also takes away some of the credibility and respect of online teachers. Teaching online, when done properly, actually takes more time than teaching face-to-face. For one, you must prepare all of the materials ahead of time and ensure they are ADA compliant so that every student can access them. This happens much more naturally in a face-to-face classroom as the students see and hear you, can read your handouts, and are engaged in other types of activities. In an online environment, the physically interactive activities are more limited, and a majority of the learning occurs through text. Teachers must be much more aware of delivering the materials in various formats so that all students may access them. Online teaching also takes more time because you are grading and interacting with students much more frequently. In a regular classroom, not all 30 students will participate in a class discussion, in an online course, they all must participate. Giving individual appropriate feedback to students for all activities they complete is much more time consuming than in a face-to-face classroom, where participation may only count as 10 percent of a grade.

While there are other damaging myths about online teaching and learning, these two must be addressed in order to build a successful online learning project at your school. Until individuals truly understand the purpose and nature of online learning, it is unlikely to be embraced in schools. This reflective essay will attempt to address some of the requirements of a successful online learning community.

Community Building

Building community is probably the most important aspect of an online course. In courses I have taken, and courses I have taught, the key has been when participants feel like they know and can learn from one another. Thornburg theorizes that we have three learning spaces, the campfire, the watering hole, and cave. The Campfire serves as an area where the experts gather and share their knowledge, this is where the teacher shares their wisdom and resources with the class. The watering hole is for “peer teaching, a sharing of the rumors, news, gossip, dreams and discoveries that drive us forward” (Thornburg, 2001). In this watering hole space, students teacher and learn from each other. The final space in the trio is the cave, a place where learners go to internalize all that they have seen and heard. This analogy that applies very well to the classroom, face to face or online. We learn from our mentors, we learn from our peers, and we learn from ourselves. When any one of these pieces is missing, learning is not as deep. The sense of community in an online course most closely resembles learning that can happen at the watering hole, sharing of stories, ideas and lessons learned. So often, most of the learning online is in discussion board areas, the mentor (teacher) provides the material and thought provoking question around the campfire. As a group, participants respond to the material and each other, learning about what others experience, and then each go to their “cave”, sort out the new information, and apply it to themselves, effectively internalizing. In cases where the sense of community was lacking, students may find themselves tuning out and not connecting to the materials nearly as deeply as they would if the discussions were more deep and meaningful. (Thornburg, 2001)

Building community can be difficult online for many reasons. Developing a shared set of “norms” is key to successful online communities. Establishing ground rules, and identifying potentially dangerous areas is important. One of the hardest things to establish online is dealing with emotions. As Thornburg points out, using text to communicate removes all preconceived notions, and while this can be beneficial, it can also be dangerous as mood, tone, and body language are absent. Palloff and Pratt also point out that for electronic personality to exist, one must have “the ability to deal with emotional issues in textual form.” (Palloff & Pratt, 1999, p. 22) Keeping your emotions in check can be difficult as you have no visual or verbal clues to work with. If a message appears particularly inflammatory, participants must train themselves to step back and re-read it with a different lens. Also, participants must train themselves not to respond in anger, and to re-read what they have written to ensure it does not come across as angry. It can also be hard for humor to come across in text, which can often lead to confusion and hurt feelings that are unnecessary.

Discussion for Critical Thinking

An important part of building community and creating an active learning environment in an online course is constructing and facilitating meaningful discussions. When learners learn together and construct meaning, the new information sticks with them in ways that learning in isolation does not allow. Properly crafted and executed discussion forums can also help build critical thinking skills.

The Questioning Toolkit explains the different levels of questions that can be asked, from Essential questions, the big questions that are essential to our lives, to Probing questions, which allow us to dig deeper into a topic ("Questioning Toolkit," 1997). Each type of question has a purpose, and each is important in it’s own right. Penn State offers advice on the types of questions that can be used in an online discussion. Questions that require simple regurgitation of factual knowledge do not build the type of rich discussion forums that help facilitate learning. Asking questions that allow students to analyze, synthesize, evaluate, apply, comprehend information tie in to building critical thinking skills. When crafting questions, it is important to provide guidelines for students, and to ask them to expand upon their thinking by providing supporting quotes and details from lecture materials or readings ("Penn State Learning Design Community Hub," 2008). This helps to bring the questions from simple knowledge recall to more advance critical analysis of the information.

Crafting perfect questions is only the first step in conducting engaging and meaningful discussions. The power of a discussion forum relies on the quality of the posts. Proper facilitation of a discussion ensures that students take away from the discussion everything they can. Penn State offers further advice on conducting online discussions, including requiring student to respond to at least 2 posts, praise students for good work, and setting specific timetables for initial posts and responses. ("Penn State Learning Design Community Hub," 2008) It sometimes becomes necessary to refocus or redirect a discussion that has become divergent, or to ask students to dig deeper into their thinking. As George Collison points out in Facilitating Online Learning, the tone and voice you use can have a great impact on the response from the students. Collison recommends “avoiding interventions that keep you standing in the middle (or in the way) of being perceived as owning or directing the discourse” so that the onus of learning the materials remains with the students (Collison, 2000, p. 102). He offers eight tones, six voices and six critical thinking strategies that you can use to help engage students in discussions. Combinations of each of these items are used for different reasons, and for different results in online discussions. Being properly present in an online discussion forum goes a long way in ensuring that they are productive and appropriate for learning.

Assessment of Online Learning

Assessment of learning and knowledge takes many forms, both online and off. Probably the easiest form of assessment from a teacher’s point of view are multiple choice quizzes and tests. This holds true in the regular classroom as well. The danger is that they can be difficult to use to truly assess learning. As the Centre for the Study of Higher Education points out “such approaches to assessment can have direct negative effects on student approaches to learning by encouraging narrow reproduction rather than the development of higher order cognition that involves, for example, critical evaluation.” ("On-line assessment," 2002) Multiple choice type assessments should be used sparsely, but can be an effective measurement of fact-based knowledge. More effective measurements of student learning in online courses are discussion forums, the use of a student ePortfolio to show how the new knowledge has been applied, essays, reflective papers and case studies. Each of these types of assessment ask the student to do something with the new knowledge, rather than simply recall it.

Another assessment measure that can be used online and off is the use of student self assessment. This form of assessment asks student to look at their own work and judge how closely they came to meeting the requirements of the assignment. When students are required to look for evidence that they have met the learning goals, it allows them the opportunity to see where there are gaps in knowledge. This can be particularly effective for students who need that extra guidance to make sure they are doing what is asked. It can also backfire for two different groups of students - those who feel that they closely followed the rubric and become disgruntled that they have to “grade” their own work - and those students who put little effort into the assignments in the first place and are unlikely to use the self assessment as a learning tool and check list. Getting to know your students and how they think and feel about their own learning process is important when making a decision about using self assessment.

Along with assessments that require students to show their learning in more formalized manner than a quiz or tests comes the danger of plagiarism. Students who do not understand copyright law and plagiarism are in danger of accidentally committing violations. Centre for the Study of Higher Education offers a practical guide to help minimize and address plagiarism in your online classroom. One of the keys to helping students understand that plagiarism is a violation of copyright is to be sure to model appropriate behavior in your classroom. Be sure to always properly cite your sources of information, and follow copyright guidelines. Although a picture found in Google Image Search may be perfect to illustrate your materials, be sure to include a citation rather than simply uploading it to your course. When preparing written lecture materials, be sure to tell students where you got your information. In this manner, students will see that plagiarism and copyright apply to everyone and it is not just designed to make more work for them.

Information Fluency

Students who wish to be successful in this current culture of information would be best served by becoming information literate. This includes giving students the skills they need to be effective searchers, consumers and producers of information. Knowing where to go for quality information, or how to decide if something is worth reading are skills that serve every individual. Information fluency should be built in to every single curriculum, online or face to face, but are particularly important in online environments. When student engage in online learning, they become more reliant on information found on the internet, because that is how the curriculum is delivered. They become more complacent and trusting of what they read online, and thus it is important to help them understand what is good and what is not. Arming students with information literacy skills has long been the job of the School Media Specialist, but when taught in isolation, these skills are easily lost. Students do not often translate the information skills they learn in the library to other papers and projects that they work on unless they are reinforced by content area teachers. Online courses can prove to be a fantastic way to introduce students to these skills, where a School Media Specialist can develop small modules that you fit into your curriculum on an as needed basis.

On the Horizon

Each year, new technology is introduced to the world, and each year, something becomes a game changer for education. According to the Horizon Report, the technology that is likely to have the biggest impact on K12 Learning in 2013 are mobile devices and tablet computing. Other game changers that are identified as having an impact on K12 learning over the next 5 years are Game-Based Learning, Personal Learning Environments, Augmented Reality and Natural User Interfaces. Each of these technologies alone have significant chance of changing the playing field for education, and when combined could prove to be a major overhaul of education as we know it, if we stop relying on standardized testing to assess student learning. (Johnson, Adams, & Cummins, 2013)

The next question becomes, how do these technologies impact eLearning. Mobile devices and tablet computing allow students the opportunity to truly interact with their online courses anytime, anywhere. They are no longer tied to their desks or laptops, they can carry their courses around with them in their bags and pockets. On a bus to an away game? Just pull out your iPhone and catch up on your assignments while riding the bus. Game-Based Learning, Augmented Reality and Natural User Interfaces allow teachers to add interactivity to their online courses, increasing student motivation, and presenting course materials in multiple ways. Imagine an online course where the student go on their own field trips, armed with Augmented Reality Apps that are used to feed the Game like activity the teacher has created. The final piece, one that will truly arm our students for the future, are Personal Learning Environments. Student chose how they want to learn the curriculum based on a number of suggestions you give them about where to find information. They create their own learning path utilizing Apps, websites, and communities. They then demonstrate their mastery in their own way, using an ePortfolio. Projects like Scoopi.it and Paper.li curated magazines offer student the opportunity to explore ideas and curate their own content. This is truly personalized learning.

Taken together, these technologies help level the playing field for every student, and offer exciting possibilities for eLearning.

Universality

One of the areas that many do not consider when developing eLearning courses is accessibility. One might think “but everyone has a computer, or they wouldn’t be trying to learn online,” and while this is mostly true, the accessibility issues that cause the most problems are problems caused for those with disabilities. Is your coursework accessible to anyone who wishes to access it? Can a screen reader do the course justice for someone who cannot see? Can fonts be enlarged for those who need large type? Can someone with a hearing disability get the same out of the course that someone hearing enabled can? Is there too much reliance on audio and video without accompanying transcripts? As a regular classroom teacher, these issues are all shared with you early in the year when you receive a students 504 or IEP plan, but what about when this information is not shared with you? Can the graphics in your course be described in such a way that the information they add is not lost if they cannot be viewed. All of these things must be taken into consideration during course design. Universal Design for Instruction is not a passing buzz-word, rather, an awareness that you are meeting the needs of every learner that comes in to your classroom. As Lisa Wahl points out, “we all have special needs.” (Wahl, 2003) We like it quiet, we like it noisy, we like the lighting dim, we like the lighting bright, we like more graphics, we like more text, we like more videos, we like more interactivity, we all have preferences, and for some students, these things can be the difference between learning and tuning out. Providing tools to student to make learning successful for everyone is incredibly important. Of all of the things you must do to successfully build and teach your course, this is probably one of the most daunting and difficult tasks for any educator.

References

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The DOIT Center. (2009, May 29). Equal Access: Universal Design of Instruction.YouTube. Retrieved November 17, 2013, fromhttp://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AY6PhtCLrTg

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Penn State Learning Design Community Hub. (2008, January 28). Introduction to Crafting Questions for On-line Discussions. Retrieved October 12, 2013, from http://ets.tlt.psu.edu/learningdesign/crafting_question

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