Reading Ability As a ‘New’ Challenge for Online Students

Totally Online, by Jim Shimabukuro

Mary Alexander, Wayne Clugston, and Elizabeth Tice’s The R-Model for Learning Online and Achieving Lifelong Goals (San Diego: Bridgepoint Education, Inc., 2009) is a self-help guide to assessing readiness for online learning. Ashford News published a review (“Top Tips for Online Learning” 1.25.10) this past week, including a summary of attitudes and abilities required for success in the online classroom.

One of the key suggestions is “restructuring,” or rearranging “your life so that you have time to devote to your studies. Online learning removes the travel, parking and childcare issues related to driving to a brick-and-mortar campus, but there is no getting around the fact that you will have to carve out time to read, write, think and interact with instructors and peers.”

The list also includes a reminder to sharpen writing skills since, “as an online student, writing is your sole means of actively participating, building relationships and demonstrating active learning in an online environment.”

a girl using a laptop outside, in a beautiful hilly landscape, with the words: The R-Model for Learning Online and Achieving Lifelong Goals - Ashford UniversityThe review, however, does not include an item on reading readiness, or the problem of students unprepared for reading online (SUROs). I haven’t had a chance to review the book so I’m not sure if, in fact, this topic is covered. In any case, as an online instructor, I think the lack of effective reading skills is perhaps the biggest obstacle to success.

The crossover from F2F (face to face or real-time) to virtual classrooms is so widespread today that we tend to forget that these are actually very different environments. And one of the key differences is the role that reading plays in web-based classes. In F2F classes, reading is primarily associated with content in textbooks and articles. Procedural instructions are delivered orally and discussed, and printed handouts are used as reminders. In online classes, however, both procedural guidelines and content are accessible only through reading. The reading tasks online are therefore a significant departure from the traditional, and they require a whole new set of skills.

Despite all the advances in web technology, information on a computer screen is still presented one screen at a time.

This isolation of information in a two-dimensional frame creates a critical demand: students must be able to impose a time and space dimension on the information in the otherwise flat screen. Effective readers are able to take individual frames and use them to construct a dynamic, three-dimensional, real-time model. They’re able, in other words, to build a whole from disparate parts — a whole that also incorporates an accurate representation of the entire online learning experience from the first to last day of instruction as well as their own location, at any given time, within the model.

Effective readers are aware that each piece of information is an important part of a larger puzzle that’s continually evolving and that ignoring or forgetting a piece could be disastrous.

The critical difference between F2F and online classes is the sense of now, or knowing where one is in terms of time and space. F2F, students are always in the present, and the future is a linear path that extends from now into tomorrow, next week, etc. They know exactly where they are in the present, e.g., in their classroom, at their desk, on page two of the handout, with the instructor at the chalkboard and classmates seated around them.

Online, however, students don’t have the same sense of now because past, present, and future are equally accessible. They also don’t have the same sense of where they are in terms of classmates and activities since they can’t see others and what they’re doing.

F2F, students who are unwilling or unable to construct an accurate model can still manage to survive and even thrive by simply showing up for class and depending on others in their shared environment for cues. If others are noting a point made by the instructor, then it must be important. The instructor reminds them to turn to page three, now; toward the end of class, he reminds them to submit their drafts in the next session.

Online, these cues are missing from the screen the students are on at the moment.

Red flags for SUROs usually pop up in the first few days of instruction. Perhaps the most common for those who can’t or won’t accept the generative or active function of reading is the following post in discussions or email: “Help. I’ve read everything but don’t have a clue about what to do for this class. Can you (or someone) tell me what I’m supposed to do next?”

The instructor has clearly announced the importance of reviewing the schedule of activities daily, and the assignment that’s due “next” is boldly spelled out in the schedule, but this information is not directly in front of the student at the moment and, thus, doesn’t exist. The student has failed to add this information or, more importantly, the sources of this information to his/her mental construct of the class. In fact, the student’s image of the class is limited to the screen that happens to be in front of him and the other information is lumped into an amorphous mass.

The point is that reality is concrete, abstract, and dynamic, and students who can’t synthesize all three into a working model will have difficulty in an online class.

Another red flag is a student’s insistence on regular F2F or real-time contact with the instructor. These students need to establish and maintain a sense of here and now to get their bearings. They can’t function without the cues that are present in F2F environments. Once the instructor agrees to these real-time interactions, he/she falls into a semester-long trap and literally ends up tutoring the student in a traditional classroom, effectively teaching two classes instead of one, and this places a labor-intensive burden on the instructor.

Students who must have continuous F2F or real-time contact with the instructor simply aren’t ready for online learning.

A third red flag is the consistent failure to follow directions or guidelines. Reminders to do so are usually met with hostility, with the student insisting that he has read the guidelines many times over. For these students, out of sight is out of mind, literally. They’ve read the requirements, but once they’ve moved on to the next screen, the guidelines cease to exist in a form that could inform the current activity.

There are other red flags, I’m sure, but these should suffice for the argument that the reading challenge for online learning is considerable. I’m not sure exactly how to prepare or assist SUROs. I am certain, though, that providing real-time safety nets for them compounds rather than resolves the problem. I’m also certain that, in this day and age, the ability to learn — to reconstruct bits and pieces of virtual information into a real-time working model — online is essential.

4 Responses

  1. Thanks for this post, Jim. It reminded me of a discussion I had with Anne-Madeleine Rigolini after a teachers’ training course of hers about mind maps. I’d told her I was ill at ease with mind maps, because “I thought linearly”. She retorted: “Are you sure you do, or isn’t it rather that you tell linearly what you think?”
    She had a point. So I introduced my students to mind maps: even if minewere unconvincing, theirs worked for them.

    Granted, mind maps are already a 2-D representation of 3- or more-D polymorphous thinking, but maybe they could be a useful intermediate stage between that and linear telling. Maybe a mind map is all the more effective if it is not too neat, because neatness gives the impression of something definitive. So perhaps it is better to first do them with paper, pencil and eraser, and only use mind-mapping software once you start getting an idea of what paths you want to mark among the various elements or key points.

  2. Hi, Claude. Yes, mind mapping sounds like an effective way to teach students how to connect information that’s spread out over time and space.

    For the kind of reading that’s required for making sense of information online that’s accessed nonlinearly, I think a simple preparatory solution may be the reading of long novels with multiple characters, especially novels that use omniscient observers and, to some extent, stream of consciousness.

    (An interesting topic for study might be the relationship between recreational novel reading and success in online classes.)

    The problem isn’t lack of decoding skills but lack of ability to reconstruct what they’ve read (or seen/heard online) into new structures that include logically related information designed to guide learning.

    In real-time (synchronous) class activities, this ability isn’t critical, but in the virtual classroom, where information is randomly accessible, this reconstructive ability is essential. Students must be able to accurately relate what’s directly in front of them to other information that they’ve encountered in different times and places.

  3. Is this ability really less necessary in real-time class activities, though? Task-based active learning is way older than the Web, and works much better in a classroom too, in my experience. And this means acquiring the same reconstructive ability towards making sense of the material gathered for a given task.

    The skills involved may vary a little in concrete form, but basically, they are the same: efficient note taking and adequate referencing of stuff as you gather it. And once you have mapped this stuff, tracing a narrative path in the map towards conveying what you want to tell about the material you’ve gathered, or about one of its aspects, according to the task.

    Of course, as you say, a familiarity with complex novels is of great help towards tracing such narrative paths in any field. But wouldn’t a familiarity with video story-telling serve the same purpose? After all, as Roberto Ellero says in the video below, made for the webmasters of the Italian public administration, efficient videos start from text (story board) and accessible videos return to text (captioning, script for audio description),

    (for English subtitles, launch the video, then press on the red triangle bottom right, then on the arrow left of the subtitle symbol – CC or 2 horizonal lines, according to the language you’re reading YouTube in – then choose English subtitles).

  4. Hi, Claude. The answer to your question (“Is this [reconstructive] ability really less necessary in real-time class activities, though?”) is yes for the simple reason that students who are unable or unwilling to reconstruct a working model of learning activities and resources have real-time cues in F2F classrooms that are absent in the online environment. These cues — provided by classmates, the instructor, the physical classroom — free them from the task of developing a model of their own.

    Re your question “Wouldn’t a familiarity with video story-telling serve the same purpose [as a complex novel]?” Yes, it might, but like a F2F classroom, videos provide visual cues that may reduce or obviate the task of reconstruction.

    For both questions, McLuhan’s differentiation between hot and cool media may be useful. The latter forces learners to reconstruct while the former allows them to follow along passively. For active learning, cool may be better.

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