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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 two decades 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, connectedness, support and positive regard in the learning environment.

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) to facilitate self-introductions

3. If you haven’t already, include short (< 5 minutes) “conversational” videos introducing weekly course topics and offering tips and key learning to personalize each week’s focus

4. Encourage students to find “peer learning buddies” in the class to foster collaboration and collegiality

5. Have early and ongoing online, discussion board conversations about process, meaning “how it feels”; versus course content, meaning “what we’re learning” – especially near the beginning of the course. Reflecting on process fosters a sense of shared place and community. Here are a couple of sample questions I’ve used:

  • What are you looking forward to in this course, and what is one thing you are concerned about?
  • How can we challenge each-other in ways that foster debate and dialogue but still be respectful and affirming?
  • What is it like for you being in this course and connecting together online?
  • How can I (professor) help maximize your learning and value from this course? And how can you help one another?

6. Offer targeted motivational communications at points in the course where motivation may be flagging (e.g., around Week 6, and towards the final couple of weeks of the course) 

7. Use intentional word choices in online communications with students (such as via class emails, discussion board posts, and course announcements). These can be subtle, and a conversational tone helps convey the sense of community and connection that we are trying to build.

Here are a couple of examples:

GoodBetter
“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…”

8. 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 a video example from a few years ago – this was a social work addiction treatment course I taught at the University of Toronto).

9. Students often expect “24/7” availability and communication, and sometimes even more so when the course is online. That’s not realistic! Help manage expectations by being explicit with students about how often you check into the course, and the expected response time for student questions.

10. Be patient with yourself. You didn’t become an awesome classroom teacher overnight, and it will take time to be as awesome online. Let students know we are all learning together.

As students – and faculty – have had to pivot in orienting to rich digital communication and sharing, online teaching aligns with a new, shared, reality for all of us. The skills of fostering community in digital environments map closely to professional (and personal) applications far beyond the classroom. We’ve collectively experienced how digital inclusion, networking and collaboration are as essential as oxygen.

This post was adapted from: https://educateria.com/2014/06/24/10-tips-for-online-teaching/

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The evolution of teaching and learning

Whether implicit or explicit, we all have a theory of teaching and learning. This gets expressed and enacted in how we engage with our students, the tools we use (or don’t use), and even where we stand in the classroom (F2F or virtually). Traditional theoretical frameworks can be broadly grouped into four domains: instructivism, critical theory, constructivist approaches and andragogy (or adult learning). But the rise of many-to-many, decentred and non-linear networking and communication channels have given rise to corresponding advances in frameworks for teaching and learning in the global classroom.

The 1.0 Classroom

education 1_0

Instructivism as a standard approach to teaching emerged from positivist and post-positivist paradigms. Characterized by the traditional “chalk and talk” style, instructivist pedagogy is premised on a transmission model of learning. Learning outcomes and curricula are pre-determined and delivered in a primarily didactic fashion. The same information is provided to all learners regardless of their pre-existing knowledge and skills.

 

 

Teaching 2.0

education 2_0Constructivism marked a shift from teacher-centred to student-centred learning, deemphasizing informing (memorizing facts) in favour of transforming: locating, critiquing and synthesizing knowledge in a culture of collaboration and sharing. Curriculum development is based on student query, which acknowledges that students learn more by asking questions than by answering them. In this model, students critically engage with course material by posing questions that further group reflection and debate. Adult learning (andragogy) and critical approaches extend and complement contructivist learning models.

 

Education 3.0

Over the last decade, two models have emerged to challege our existing paradigms: heutagogy (Blaschke, 2012, Hase and Kenyon, 2000) and paragogy (Corneli and Danoff, 2011). These extend constructivist, critical and adult learning theories offering models of learning that are (1) self-determined, (2) peer-led,
education 3_0 (3) decentred and (4) non-linear. These characteristics map onto social media applications and the democratization of knowledge and information. Heutagogical and paragogical approaches also extend traditional andragogical and adult learning frameworks by emphasizing meta learning, or learning how to learn.

 

Andragogy, Heutagogy and Social Media

Andragogy (Self-directed) Heutagogy (Self-determined) Parallels with Social Media
Competency development Capability development Knowledge curators
Linear design of curricula Non-linearity in curricula Hyper-learners
Instructor/learner directed Learner directed Autonomous digital communities
Content focus (what is learned) Process focus (meta learning, learning how to learn) Online collaboration, sharing, crowd-sourcing

 

This shift is radical in challenging the implicit notion that we (educators) know best what students need to learn. As Morris (2013) puts it, the issue of how to modify or reinvent teaching in higher education “can create anxiety, uncertainty, and even resentment toward a shift in the culture of learning that we’ve had little control over, that’s come at us from outside our own domain; for others, this new landscape appears inviting, exciting, and full of possibility”.

Radically self-determined and networked learning approaches (like heutagogy and paragogy) affirm individuals as the experts in their lives and learning trajectories. Nothing less than what has always been.

 

 

Note: Images depicting Education 1.0, 2.0 and 3.0 were adapted from a blog post by Jackie Gerstein: Experiences in Self-Determined Learning: Moving from Education 1.0 Through Education 2.0 Towards Education 3.0

This post was adapted from a previous article.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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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It’s all about creativity, reflexivity and connectivity

Teaching as informing is a short-term solution to a long-term problem. Today, providing information is secondary to engaging peoples’ interest and motivation so much that they will want to seek out more and more, beyond the boundaries of the boardroom, lecture hall or online discussion forum. It’s about meta-teaching…teaching others to become their own teachers.

Daniel Pink, in A Whole New Mind, describes how the information age has undergone a seismic shift to the conceptual age. Meaning that the left brain skills of information management/analysis have been surpassed by the right brain skills of creativity, reflexivity and connectivity.

We’ve progressed from a society of farmers [the agricultural revolution] to a society of factory workers [the industrial age] to a society of knowledge workers [the information age]. And now we’re progressing yet again – to a society of creators and empathizers, pattern recognizers, and meaning makers [the conceptual age].

In the conceptual age, educators and presenters need to go way beyond informing because:

a. The information that the presenter deems essential may not align with the relevance and priorities of the audience; so that means little incentive for long-term retention.

b. People generally don’t remember much of what they hear. Or if they do, the half-life of information is pretty short, so there isn’t much impact to be realized if our focus is on the content of a presentation.

c. Even if the information is relevant and memorable, our knowledge landscape is a moving target – information changes so rapidly that what is current today quickly becomes out of date.

And that is where transformative learning comes in…

Introduced by Jack Mezirow in 1997, transformative learning is about engaging peoples’ underlying assumptions and facilitating change in frames of reference. Think of it as that “aha!” moment, when a whole new concept seems to snap into place and suddenly we see things from a new and broader perspective. Signal moments in learning are accompanied by affect – delight, surprise, disappointment, satisfaction, excitement – extending beyond solely cognitive-based insight or understanding.

A defining condition of being human is that we have to understand the meaning of our experience. For some, any uncritically assimilated explanation by an authority figure will suffice. But in contemporary societies we must learn to make our own interpretations rather than act on the purposes, beliefs, judgments, and feelings of others. Facilitating such understanding is the cardinal goal of adult education. Transformative learning develops autonomous thinking.

How can we as educators make this magic happen in our day-to-day work? Well, transformative learning presupposes transformative teaching (if teaching is the right word in this context) (a.k.a. transformative faculty development?). And in turn, transformative teaching implies…teaching about teaching. Meta teaching.

Both the words and the music. Play that funky music.

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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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Here’s what the ultimate teaching challenge might look like…and in the future it may be the rule rather than the exception

A new book, Motivational Interviewing in Groups (Wagner and Ingersoll) outlines motivational approaches and strategies in group facilitation. While the book’s emphasis is on clinical practice, the principles and applications are also relevant to education settings.

The book’s authors present a table illustrating different types of group format, structure, composition, size, length and admission arranged along a continuum of difficulty (for facilitators) from easier to harder:

Slide1

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This looks different for educational groups, but the essentials still apply. Here is my modification of Wagner and Ingersoll’s framework calibrated for teaching and learning:

Slide1

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In other words:

Elective courses are easier to teach than mandatory courses. Students generally take electives out of interest, as opposed to being forced to take mandatory courses. Teaching students content that someone else thinks they ought to know is tougher than content in which they’re already interested.

Instructor-led courses presuppose a “script” (i.e. lesson plan), versus collaborative or student-led curricula. Paragogical approaches posit peer-to-peer learning and individual autonomy, and demand a proportionately higher level of finesse and facilitation.

Classes where students share more similarities than differences can be easier to work with than heterogeneous class compositions. For example, students who differ widely in age, ability or pre-existing knowledge and skills present more of a challenge in ensuring that all learning needs are met, and establishing an inclusive, cohesive and positive community of learning. Of course diversity, including culture, sex, gender and lived experience, enriches everyone’s learning exponentially – but demands artful facilitation on our part.

Student engagement and interactivity are more straightforward in classes of 25 or less. As class size increases so does the challenge of promoting opportunities for practice and integration of knowledge and skills.

It’s easier to keep peoples’ interest and attention for a single class of 2 or 3 hours than it is for a whole day or for multiple days. The latter demands both a varied menu of instructional strategies as well as formidable stamina (on the part of the instructor and the students).

Strict and highly competitive admission criteria can yield the “cream of the crop” of high-achieving and highly motivated learners. On the other hand, classes where admission is unrestricted means addressing the needs of the best and the brightest alongside those with academic struggles and other challenges.

Like any framework, this conceptualization tends to oversimplify and blur the many complexities and nuances of artful classroom teaching. Real life is always messier than the manual (if there even is a manual). But in general, teaching a mandatory class using a student-led curriculum, among a highly diverse cohort of 100 students or more, over a multi-day course that is freely open to all could well represent the ultimate teaching challenge.

We haven’t added the layer of classroom-based versus online teaching and learning, but does this scenario represent what may well be future of higher education…MOOC 2.0?

 

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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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The good, the bad and the ugly

Over the last few years there’s been an explosion and widespread adoption of webinars as (in many cases) the primary or preferred strategy for delivering continuing education to large groups of geographically disparate people. It makes sense: education can be delivered in a brief, cheap and convenient form that has minimal impact on busy practitioners’ time.

But, just like classroom-based learning, there is huge variation in the quality, interactivity and utility of web-based learning. At their best, webinars are a model of multi-modal learning, with a dynamic and engaging facilitator, lots of interactive sidebar chat, and great use of visuals and reflective activities. At their worst, webinars are the workplace equivalent of a really boring TV show.

Here are a few tips culled from my own experience as facilitator and participant:

  1. It might not be a webinar: Sometimes network connections fail, either at your end or for participants. Send out a complete slide deck ahead of time and have a teleconference line just in case.
  2. I like text chat better than voice: In webinars, text chat is really seamless, especially with large groups (e.g., 100 or more). Encourage people to chat with each-other as well as the facilitator throughout the webinar. This brings me to two more points:
  3. Prime participants to participate: Most people regard online, text-based communication as more an act of publishing than as an act of speech. This cognition tends to constrain spontaneous conversation, so I ask participants to write down at least one question ahead of time. That way people are “primed” to participate, and once the ice is broken the group can really take off.
  4. You can’t do it all: With lots of sidebar chat it’s pretty much impossible to present AND read comments/questions at the same time. Having a moderator to help cue the presenter with key questions or pauses is essential.
  5. Ready for your close-up: Built-in computer webcams tend not to give the most flattering angle. Use a separate webcam for better camera postioning, add extra light, and talk to the camera. Participants want to feel connected to the facilitator.
  6. Less text more pictures: If text-heavy presentations are boring in person, they are even more deadly by webinar. (Plus, disengaged participants will toggle back and forth between a boring webinar and another, more interesting, website). Keep people engaged with well-designed content and activities.

I love the convenience of webinars, and done well they can really add value to an organization’s staff training and development strategy. The key phrase is “done well” – watching bad TV in the middle of the day is best kept for when you’re home in bed with a cold.

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