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Fostering instructional immediacy in online classrooms

 

How can we create online learning environments that are as dynamic, collaborative and successful as the best face-to-face classrooms? Is it even possible? My own experience in online graduate teaching over the past 12 years suggests an emphatic “yes”. Or, should I say, an emphatic “yes, but…”.

 

Just as there are multiple and diverse classroom-based teaching approaches (some more successful than others in engaging learners and mobilizing knowledge transfer), there are as many ways and means of online instructional approaches. All students, regardless of the learning platform, engage best when they experience high instructional immediacy. That is, a sense of warmth, caring, support and positive regard in the learning environment.

 

A recent book focused on online teaching in the health professions (Melrose, Park & Berry, 2013) offers tips on creating and maintaining instructional immediacy in online settings, and it’s validating to see many of my own approaches and strategies reflected.

 

Here are 10 tips for how online instructors can project warmth and likeability (instructional immediacy):

 

1. Post a positive and supportive welcome message to greet students the first time they log into the course and each week thereafter

 

2. Share online bios (pictures are a bonus) (students and instructor)

 

3. Create smaller sub-groups for online discussion and reflection on course materials and assignments (8-10 students is optimal in my experience)

 

4. Include short (< 5 minutes) videos introducing course topics and offering tips and key learning to personalize each week’s focus

 

5. Assign “learning buddies” among students in the course to structure collaboration and collegiality

 

6. Have early and ongoing online conversations about process (versus course content)

What is it like to be in this course?

What are you looking forward to, and what is one thing you are concerned about?

How can we challenge each-other in ways that foster debate and dialogue but still feels respectful and affirming?

How can I (instructor) help maximize your learning and value from this course?

 

7. Set clear expectations in the Course Syllabus about online participation (my expectation of students is at least one original post per week, and at least two replies to other students’ posts per week)

 

8. Offer targeted encouragement at points in the course where motivation may be flagging (e.g., right after Reading Week, towards the final weeks of the course)

 

9. Use intentional word choices in online communication with students:

 

 Thumbs down  Thumbs up
The focus of this course is… Our course will focus on…
You will be required to… We’ll be working together to accomplish…
Students’ feedback has indicated… The conversation in our group this week has highlighted…

 

10. End the course with an explicit call to action – How does the learning in this course fit into the bigger picture of students’ learning trajectories and career goals? (here’s an example)

 

 

Student course evaluations attest to the possibility of online learning as a fun, rigorous and enriching alternative to face-to-face contact. Here are some representative student comments from the course evaluations for the 2014 online course I taught, both positive and negative (but comments overwhelmingly slanted toward the positive):

The instruction was very clear and very intellectually stimulating. The video clips were very well presented and made the instruction seem not virtual at all.

I enjoyed the online format of the course. I feel the online discussion help my learning and I benefit more from these discussions than in-class ones.

I really didn’t like the fact this course is online. I feel that I could have learned a lot more by having a classroom environment and participating through talking instead of writing
weekly reflections just because I had to.

Excellent, the most involved and interactive online course I have ever taken. I felt very engaged and connected to the instructor, students and material.

 

 

As students increasingly orient themselves to rich digital communication and sharing, this teaching/learning platform is aligned with what our students are already doing in their day-to-day lives. Not every student, but lots of our students.

 

Related:

Much ado about online learning

The three most important tips for teaching online

6 tips for facilitating webinars 

 

 

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Democratizing education may mean creating a strange and hybridized monster

 

In principle, MOOCs embody the democratization of information and education: open access to leading edge scholarship and learning, facilitated by outstanding leaders in their respective fields. Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are being described as a great equalizer in higher education (awarded an overall “B” grade in a recent New York Times Sunday Review article). Maybe MOOCs are shaping up to be the “killer app” of higher education?

 

Except…there are a couple of snags.

In her exploration of the Ethics of MOOCs, Nora Dunne questions whether it’s defensible to use institutional resources to create and support MOOCs if this diverts what’s available to tuition-paying students. Unless the money comes from a school’s marketing budget?

Institutions of higher learning care about students. They care about access. They want to make the world a better place by linking students with research, theory, knowledge, skills and applications. They also care about enrollment, to which their funding is inextricably tied. They care about their brand. They are competitive.

Such drivers are not mutually exclusive and are not a bad thing. Visionary thinking drives innovation, and so does competition. But there is a risk if academic institutions start regarding MOOCs as “loss leaders”.

 

Are MOOCs at risk of becoming brand advertisements to drive enrollment?

From an education research and theory perspective, best practices in online learning emphasize the importance of interactivity, both with peers and with faculty. Conversely, the one-to-many model, whether delivered in a massive open lecture hall or in a massive open online course, focuses more on information delivery than knowledge construction.

The ideal would be a customizable and dynamic MOOC that integrates high-quality learning objects, pre-recorded or streamed video of outstanding instructors, asynchronous and synchronous small group discussion, simulations, and individual tutoring. But taking it back to budgets, how is this sustainable from a cost perspective?

Unfortunately it’s just not. And the problem with the one-to-many approach is its fundamental incompatibility with 2.0 anything. But…what if all of the above learning tools/strategies were crowdsourced? Not just across institutions of higher learning but from students themselves (past, present and future)? (Representing an authentically paragogical/heutagogical approach, a.k.a. “Andragogy 2.0“).

 

The Digital Frontier

If we venture into the frontier of digital open-access territory, we need to understand that MOOCs, by their nature, are free, open and out there. Positive institutional branding becomes a by-product of bleeding-edge, innovative curricula co-created by outstanding faculty and students.

And might this mean the creation of a strange and hybridized monster – a WikiMOOC?

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Disruptive innovations aren’t easy for established institutions

Online learning has been around for over two decades now. Yet institutions – secondary and post-secondary – continue to struggle with its integration and applications. I am still hearing lots of questioning and debate about the suitability and effectiveness of online delivery. What does the research say?

Learning outcomes have been shown to be modestly better for online versus classroom-based courses (Means et al. 2010)

Learning activities can be equally effective across online and face-to-face conditions (Neuhauser, 2002)

Online courses across a variety of theoretical and practical topic areas have been offered successfully (Tallent-Runnels et al. 2006).

Course development (whether face-to-face, mixed mode or online) is resource-intensive. Here is a radical rethink of higher education from a systems perspective, from a provocative 2003 article by Carol Twigg (decribed as a Rock Star in higher education technology and innovation) for Educause:

American higher education remains what Bill Massy and Bob Zemsky have called a “handicraft” industry in which the vast majority of courses are developed and delivered as “one-offs” by individual professors… Currently in higher education, both on campus and online, we individualize faculty practice (that is, we allow individual faculty members great latitude in course development and delivery) and standardize the student learning experience (that is, we treat all students in a course as if their learning needs, interests, and abilities were the same). Instead, we need to do just the opposite.

Full disclosure: I have taught a graduate clinical course focused on addiction treatment for over 10 years. Don’t get me wrong, I love classroom teaching. But feedback I get from students has consistently reinforced three things:

1. There are as many ways of teaching online as there are face-to-face. Just like there can be good and bad classroom courses (and instructors), same goes for online.

2. Online courses can be experienced as equally or more rigorous than their in-class counterparts, in that online students report having to critique, reflect and formulate their ideas more deeply in order to contribute to class discussion and dialogue.

3. Online learning is accessible to students in a way that classroom teaching can’t accomplish.

In any case, the debate may well be moot: Instructional videos on YouTube – for everything from how to change a tire or rig a sailboat, to advanced chemistry – constitute what might well be the world’s biggest and most vibrant online apprenticeship training. Khan Academy (“our mission: to provide a world-class education for anyone, anywhere”) materials are used by teachers worldwide in their classrooms. (Because the online version teaches it better?) Students today have grown up in a world where the Internet has always existed. Digital communication, networking and collaboration are like talking (or breathing).

So why, twenty years on, aren’t there more online offerings in colleges and universities (especially among those in the top tier)? I think the hesitation comes from a deep place in our collective psyche as educators. We want to believe that our physical presence at the front of the class is a key contributor to meaning-making and learning for our students. From an instructivist theoretical frame, this makes sense. Thing is, the education field has widely adopted constructivist models of teaching and learning, at odds with a “sage on the stage” approach.

Online learning in higher education represents a paradigm shift and a disruptive innovation. Big time.

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The brave (not-so-)new world of online learning

I have an online graduate course starting next week – this is my 11th year teaching in the “virtual classroom”, and the new term has put me in mind of some of the most valuable learning I have gained through experience, course evaluations and student feedback. Here are my Top 3:

1. Put out the welcome mat

Universities and organizations generally have a standardized, branded Learning Management System (LMS). The LMS is the platform in which the online course is delivered, so your customization options tend to be fairly limited. In other words, it is your words – versus the overall site design – that are key to a positive first impression.

For example, is the first announcement or discussion posting focused on technical instructions and course requirements? Or on how you will support students’ success in the course, and how enjoyable and inspiring the collective learning journey will be? Time spent crafting a warm and positive welcome helps set the stage for group safety and engagement.

2. Generate controversy

If fostering meaningful critical discourse is challenging in traditional classrooms, it can be even more so online. Students often feel more inhibited when posting messages as opposed to speaking up in face-to-face groups. And online conversation can quickly take on the flavour of a series of rather stilted “mini-essays” unless you model and shape conversational threads.

One effective way I’ve found to stimulate authentic and lively conversation is to post about a controversial topic related to the course content – preferably something that links to a website, video or social media site, or all three. In my addictions course, this might be the way that addiction is portrayed in popular media, and how that connects to broader theories of addiction. Now the class is critiquing theory in a context that highlights real-life applications and relevance.

3. Over-communicate but under-state

Over-communicate because people don’t read. That is to say, they read, but tend to skim or miss points that are buried in the “fine print”. It’s better to make the same points in different ways across the learning platform or course tools in order to ensure that no one gets lost or left behind. This refers to issues that are process-related (like assignment deadlines, accessing technical support or how students will be graded), as well as content-specific (for example key definitions, essential points or important references). In my courses I try to reinforce communication using discussion forums, weekly overviews, course announcements and email to make sure that everyone is on board and on track.

Under-state because there is a phenomenon associated with text-based communication known as “emotional magnification”. Without visual cues, the same content delivered in person with no ill effects can be experienced with greater emotional intensity and negative valence when delivered online. We’ve all experienced this in email and other digital communication modes, and the consequences can adversely impact the positive learning community you’ve worked so hard to foster. Special care in providing corrective feedback is warranted, and this is especially critical in group discussion forums.

There is lots more to online teaching than captured here, but these are my “Top 3” and will be front of mind for me next week as the new term starts.

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