In the current climate, with a primary focus on getting materials on-line), the risk is that we fail, again, to note the distinction between online elements supplementing (or augmenting) an otherwise traditional class and materials and actions needed to support 100 per cent remote, fully on-line students.

In our current emergency scenario, we have to look beyond basic “conversion” of materials and think about how we can promote sustained presence, engagement and interaction in the on-line environment.

Necessity is getting institutions on-line. Novelty will get students there

How can we maintain their engagement once they are there?

First, let’s acknowledge the many advantages of face-to-face class.

The in-person passion of the instructor, focused time with peers away from the distractions of ‘real’ life, the chance that an instructor will see your frown and will help out. In an ideal world, the vast majority, myself included, would prefer to come, grab a coffee, forget the kids, work, car repair bills and be educated in person.

At least as far back as 1969 (Open University), accelerating in the 1990s as technology matured, individuals have selected remote/then on-line as the best, or for many of them, the only, available option. Many on-line students have multiple jobs and/or kids, others are single parents, embedded military, or have a physical or intellectual disability making class attendance unfeasible.

Somewhere between many and MOST online students study on-line because they don’t live in a perfect world. As of a month or so ago, none of us do.

On-line loses some benefits of face-to-face instruction but, when well set up, brings a number of new benefits. Non-native speakers can take time to re-watch or re-read transcribed content; students can ask each other questions (peer learning), instructors can check comprehension, determine struggles (low stakes auto-quizzes) and confirm that all students are keeping up (back end analytics).

There are two main risks in the transition.

* copying and pasting lectures from face-to-face to on-line with no learning design in-put and no behavioural change on the part of the instructor is doomed to fail. At many campuses (exacerbated if they are non-residential), attendance often plummets for face-to-face lectures if attendance is not mandatory. Digitising these lectures; the, “film me talking for an hour,” strategy; isn’t going to make the experience any stickier.

* the bigger problem, called out in an article by Paul LeBlanc (president of Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU)) last week is that, “courses will be taught by inexperienced faculty, many of whom who have looked down their noses at online learning.”

And so, as with many challenges of the current crisis, the primary friction it engenders is that it involves significant alteration of entrenched human behaviour.

Here’s your question of the week: Which is more difficult – stopping touching your face? or maintaining frequent log-ins in to the Learning Management System?

Does online work?

A few years ago I was invited to an event at the Bill and Melinda-Gates Institute in Seattle. A student panel was asked the simple question; “does online work?” Some replied enthusiastically and positively, others with quite definitive “No”-s. The reasons given for hating online learning included:

* “the online class was terrible because I got no feedback on my work”
* “I didn’t ever really know how I was doing”
* “the instructor was M.I.A.”

In other words, in the instructional design/learning science business, where we have often scripted and designed maximally motivating, interactive, cutting edge materials; our collective efforts are predominantly judged by whether the instructor shows up (logs in) for class…

We wouldn’t tolerate the same criteria for traditional classes – would we?

Q – “How was your face-to-face class today?”
A – “Well the instructor didn’t show so we read books without direction and chatted amongst ourselves, but that’s fine, it was a great class. I love face-to-face classes.”

A class where the instructor does not provide presence, guidance or (timely) feedback is not a class, or a modality of class, that “doesn’t work”. It is a poorly equipped or non-motivated instructor or, depending on your perspective, an institution that has placed that instructor into a situation he/she is neither trained nor incentivised for.

To be clear, my intention is not to critique overstretched instructors who have not self-selected or don’t want to teach on-line. Teaching on-line is different, not suited to all; it can be learned but needs to be embraced (or at least a little bit hugged) with an open mind and with quite a bit of behaviour shift.

There are many types of teacher who can be great at on-line. E-bay-ers, Facebook fans, text-ers, fans of news feeds – anyone with a slightly OCD-ish penchant to check back on (whatever) to see how it’s going more than they know they should.

To put it another way; someone incentivised, by some inner passion, who gets a kick out of nudging things along incrementally. Someone a little compulsive with the idea that they can have influence. Someone who gets a teeny bit jazzed at the thought that they are helping make themselves or the world a more informed place – i.e. exactly like a lot of the teachers I know and have worked with.

It is a transition though; a shift from lecturing for an hour or two to teaching in fifteen-minute, Socratically influenced, increments (logging in at breakfast, with morning tea, over lunch, during afternoon tea, close to end of day, prior to dinner, and just-before bed). Occasionally just a passive review but (as lurking leaves no footprints) a timely/visible – “great job Brian,” / “superb analysis Téah,” / “perhaps everyone have another quick look at Chapter Four” / “hey all – try to watch Four Corners tonight.” Or even just a simple, “great work everybody – appreciate it” – all tend to be well received. Students (especially in on-line) want to know that someone is watching over them. With no eye contact, a quick, timely, human note is all that’s needed.

Kevin Bell Ed. D  is a digital and innovative learning consultant

Next: the benefits of on-line for staff and students


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