Faculty and Students Need Training to Succeed in Online Classes

adsit80By John Adsit
Editor, Curriculum & Instruction

[Note: This article was first posted by John on 23 July 2010 as a reply to a comment by Jim, in the discussion on “We Need an Eco-Smart Model for Online Learning.” Also see John’s earlier comment on that article. -js]

For the student, a major difference is that she can’t sit back and expect to be taught. She has to actively navigate the virtual environment to learn. -Jim S

In my experience, therein lies the problem.

You describe a “guide on the side” ideal of learning, a style I endorse. When I first started an online school, we set up all our courses like this, from the start, and immediately ran into significant problems with student failure. It led me to do a presentation at a national conference I called “The Trap of Best Practice.”

For students, the norm has been passive education. “Feed me the facts and give me a test on those facts.” In this very journal last year we had an article [see Steve Eskow‘s second comment on this article] that held up the lecture halls of Harvard as the very pinnacle of great education. I would wager that the vast majority of professors have that opinion.

Give students constructivist educational processes without proper preparation, and they are immediately lost in such an unfamiliar environment. Our students, we realized, were skimming through class materials looking for simple answers to simple questions, and they were downright angry that they were finding neither. “The course is too confusing – I can’t find the answers!” they shouted.

Online discussions that were carefully designed to lead students to construct meaning were very problematic. The vast majority of students have rarely, if ever, participated in a real discussion in a classroom. In a typical class discussion, only a fraction of the class participates, and many students have learned that there is never a need for them to take part. Most of those discussions are not true discussions for the teacher is usually asking questions for which he or she has a specific answer in mind. Put these students in a position in an online class in which they MUST participate in a meaningful discussion where the QUALITY of their discussion (not the QUANTITY of responses) counts, and they don’t know what to do.

I think back to my own classroom experiences, and I remember how long it took me each year and each class to teach students how to be active learners. A quality online class MUST begin with an expectation that students will not know how to learn in this environment, and it MUST therefore begin by teaching the student how to be an active and engaged learner.

Before that can happen, though, the teachers/course designers MUST know what it means as well.

A close friend of mine is a dean in a major university. When he started teaching at the school years ago, he was a little embarrassed because he had only taken two education theory courses in his life. He then learned that he had taken two more education theory classes than the rest of his department combined. Within a couple of years he was pulled aside and told that it was beginning to look like he was going to be voted teacher of the year. He was warned that he should do all he could to prevent that since it would be taken as a sign that he was not devoting sufficient time to research. He is doing what he can as dean to change that attitude, but he said it is still very much the norm.

I may sound more than a bit pessimistic, but I once had the very challenging, close to impossible job of teaching high school teachers how to do this sort of thing. These teachers all had such training when they got their certifications. They were all required by law to update that training regularly. They were all being evaluated on their ability to make these changes, and it was still the hardest job I have ever had to do. The resistance to these changes was stunning.

I find it hard to believe that professors who have had no real training and who have no such requirements will make such sweeping changes just because they are asked to do so.

11 Responses

  1. “…I can’t find the answers!” they shouted.”

    When I first began to write content for my online materials, that’s the frequent lament that I heard. So, I only ask one or two such questions in a unit. Doing so makes it much easier to write but really bothers me. I’d like to help my students to think.

    I was a professor at a large university. The first large class I taught in freshman chemistry really challenged me in many ways. I spent hours designing the tests so that they would contain questions other than memory repeat back. As a gift, I had one student complain on her test that she had studied for hours and found nothing on the test that she studied. She finished with “F*** you.”

    John is exactly right here. My only question is how — how do you transition students from memorizing to thinking? How do you convince instructors to put in all of the extra time to encourage real thinking?

    I shudder to think of the consequences of continuing on the same path we’re on today.

  2. I could not agree more. I find in all of my classes that I have to deal with students’ expectations of education, whether f-t-f or online. And often their expectations are not expressed or even conscious, so they don’t bother to read my handouts describing our process.

    That said, in my hybrid Women and the Law class last semester (upper level, mostly seniors), students who participated in my evaluation discussion forum said that they had never really had a discussion in which they could (and did) actively participate before this online discussion experience. It took about five of the 16 week semester to get them involved and understanding the process of my prompts, but the result was worth the effort.

  3. I have been involved in education for about 15 years now. One reason I went into the field was that I took a course in educational foundations as a Master’s student. The course looked at and talked about education in a way I had never experienced and I was excited that this is how education is being done nowadays. To my chagrin, I have discovered that, well, not exactly. It ‘s how we in education want education to be, not the reality.

    I am afraid that while teacher educators are trying to show our students the importance of critical thinking and how to become constructivist teachers, they enter a classroom and are told, teach what the students need in order to pass the test. I was told by a teacher in one of my graduate classes, that her principal said, I know this is not good education, but it’s what the state wants. I’m not going to put my job on the line. The children from that school (and others like it) may or may not pass that test. Unfortunately, they probably won’t learn anything that helps them become critical thinkers, and if and when they reach our college classrooms, it will be up to us to either continue teaching them the way they have been taught, or teach them how to learn. Harry is right – that’s lot for us to have to do and it takes time which I resent having to spend. However, I hope some them will “get it” and become teachers like another one I spoke to who said, Once I close the door of my room, my students’ learning becomes my priority. We have fun, they learn how to think, and they score well on the tests.

    I googled for a quick link to an article and found this one that I think will shed some light on the discussion http://www.lohud.com/article/20100630/OPINION/6300307/High-stakes-testing-prevents-students-from-developing-needed-skills

  4. The high stakes testing problem is a complex one.

    When Colorado (and other states I know) first ventured into this arena, they were led by very savvy educators who saw this as a real opportunity to make things better. Inspired by Grant Wiggins’ statement that assessment was the Trojan Horse of school reform, they sought to make tests that would force educators to improve the quality of their teaching. They sought to create tests that would require thinking skills rather than mere rote retention of fact. Unfortunately, all those excellent intentions were derailed, both in that state and in other states, and I remember well the plaintive farewell one of those people gave when she surrendered and left the Department of Education.

    One problem was the interference of state legislatures and other governing bodies requiring very specific assessments and draconian results for failure. As a former English teacher, I cannot imagine there are very many English teachers in Georgia who know all that every Georgia high school graduate is expected to know about that subject. I cannot imagine any student in California learning all the facts required by the state standards, even if they throw out all time spent doing (hopefully) meaningful lab work (which is required in addition to all that fact retention). Contrast that with Arizona, whose science standards dictate little fact retention and instead focuses on learning systems and thinking skills.

    In Social Studies, standards were destroyed by special interest groups who wanted to make sure that students memorized facts related to their particular special interest. Students did not have to understand how the complex constitutional issues that led to the Civil War still affect our way of life today, but, by golly, they had to know the name Robert E. Lee.

    Another problem is money. As Maryland learned, those really good assessments that inspire thinking skill development cost much more money than simple, fact-based multiple choice tests. Without enough money to do assessments of that kind, and with a requirement that assessments of some sort exist, states have no choice but to go the cheap, rote-learning route.

    Another problem goes back to what I pointed out in my article–a lack of understanding on the part of the teachers and administrators. As Colorado prepared to give its first 10th grade math assessment years ago, teachers prepared their students by drilling, drilling drilling on computation problems. Unfortunately, the test was very much thinking based, with only two naked computation problems on the entire test. Students failed miserably, and it was quite a scandal. Then people noticed that the students who had failed the state exam so badly were doing OK on the ACT exam, so they concluded there must be something wrong with the test. And so….

    A high quality assessment has the potential to greatly improve education, but, unfortunately, the opposite is also true.

  5. Lynn, the really scary part about teaching for the test is that it could work in the hands of a true believer such as Michelle Rhee, who marches toward the goal of higher test scores with singular zeal. It’s her way or the highway, and for teachers/administrators who don’t buy in 100%, it’s bye-bye.

    Still, it’s a complex issue.

    Is the problem better performance on standardized achievement tests or better pedagogy for student-centered learning? Are these mutually exclusive? If not, then do we need to change the nature of testing or improve experiential pedagogy?

    Perhaps the greatest danger of this quandary is that it leaves a gaping wound in education that attracts both quacks and genuine healers, and most administrators and boards of education are more than willing to unload the burden of finding the answers to either, fake or genuine, not having a clue as to which is which.

    Thus, millions in scarce funds is thrown at solutions that, more often than not, fail. And in the end, no one stands up to take responsibility for the failure. Instead, fingers are pointed at the teachers and students — followed by another round of throwing millions at the latest flavor of snake oil.

    When will this madness end?

    Perhaps this is one case in which thinking inside the box is better than outside. Perhaps the answer is to stop throwing scarce funds away and simply allowing teachers to do their job.

    Give teachers the power to make decisions about what students need to learn and how. Give teachers time, collectively, to make a difference. That is, don’t lock them into one-year cycles. Allow them to decide when and how to assess their effectiveness.

    Give K-12 teachers the opportunity to work with community colleges, 4-year colleges, and universities to devise a seamless path that’s not gated by test scores but by other, more meaningful measures.

    Don’t lock K-16 into one-size-fits-all steps formed in concrete. Instead, let the ascension be tempered by individual needs and interests.

    Finally, instead of testing yearly or at key transition points in K-12, perhaps the most meaningful test is post-K-16 achievement. What is the student doing after s/he completes college?

    This real-world measure might tell us that the methods to attain higher standardized test scores in K-12 have little or nothing to do with success in the real world. -Jim S

  6. When I first read the title of this article, I had planned to write something completely differrent in response. I did not intend to go off on the K-12 high-stakes testing tangent, but that seemed the most urgent.

    What I really wanted to comment on is that – yes, teachers need to be taugt how to do these things. A few years ago at my university, a Distance Learning Institute was started to teach faculty how to devleop and run effective online courses. One has to apply for the program (and a one class course-release) which consists of one semester of workshops and online interaction with peers who have successfully taught online. Each participant also works with a mentor to develop their course. Each year the program changes based on feedback from previous years, and I think that some of my colleagues who have partiicpated as mentors are writing an article about this program. I am pleased that my university was forward-thinking enough to realize the necessity of such a program. As John pointed out, many university professors really are not trained teachers and this prorgam provided them with genenral pedgagogy as well as strategies specific for the onine environment.

  7. Lynn, the DL institute seems like a terrific idea. The question is, how successful is it in growing the online program? The point in my article, “We Need an Eco-Smart Model for Online Learning,” is that the ones proposed by the two California systems aren’t cost-effective. As an alternative, I presented an example of what I considered “the simplest, most elegant design” that’s almost totally self-sustaining in the ecosystem of the web.

    That e-smol model could accommodate a DLI program similar to the one you’ve described. All those teaching and planning to teach completely online classes would be expected to participate in a faculty forum where the more experienced would share their experiences and suggestions. This would be an ongoing professional development activity that wouldn’t cost anything.

    John Seely Brown, in a 2002 article (“Growing Up Digital: How the Web Changes Work, Education, and the Ways People Learn“), describes a study of Xerox’s repairmen and how they go about their business. When they hit a snag out in the field, their first recourse was to call a colleague. Through their shared narratives, they were able to quickly solve problems. This sort of informal talk among colleagues was deemed much more effective than costly workshops and manuals.

    I can imagine cellphones with audio and etexting to increase the range of support online teachers could give one another. Also, they could easily share access to one another’s class blogs and forums for observation and assistance, in either direction. Thus, instead of one mentor, a newcomer would have the entire online faculty.

    If I had my way, I’d divert a portion of the tremendous savings of e-smols into released time for online faculty. Every semester/quarter, each participant would receive the equivalent of a class in released time. The understanding would be that this time would be devoted to ongoing course development and active participation in collegial forums.

    John, re active and engaged learning — these are strengths of the online learning environment. By its very nature, the web forces the student to be interactive. In fact, that’s the web’s strength. The user must make decisions by clicking on links or scroll bars, and s/he must understand the mapping structure of all websites and webpages. That’s what navigating is all about. And most students have used the web enough to know how to navigate sites for the info they need. If they can’t find it, then the fault usually lies with the web design. With feedback from students, instructors could quickly make adjustments.

    Re engagement — web-based discussion forums are ideal. You’re right. Requiring posting doesn’t automatically result in meaningful posts. This is where methods such as Judith McDaniel’s in “Recreating an Online Class for Greater Student Participation and Retention” would be very effective. She actively participates in discussions to encourage cross pollination of ideas between and among students.

    I do the same by requiring students to provide meaningful feedback on classmates’ drafts. I actually review and grade these peer evaluations. I also require them to participate in often controversial discussions on topics related to the current paper they’re working on, and the incentive is to be quoted by classmates. I require the inclusion of quotes from classmates in their papers, and I know that they’re pleased when they are quoted.

    These ideas don’t require formal classes or workshops. They can be shared in forums — just as we’re doing right now.

    The problem, in my opinion, is that we have a few very expensive tools and apply it to all problems when a simple, free, or inexpensive gadget might do the job better or just as effectively.

    I believe this e-smol, bootstrap approach to expanding online programs will work because it’s sustainable and built on solid principles with staff and resources that are already in place. -Jim S

  8. Yes, these resources are certainly available for free or at little cost. I was a staff developer teaching innovative instructional methods. I am well into my second decade of teaching people how to do online education. Yet I myself have never taken a formal course teaching any of this–I sought and found this information on my own. I experimented and learned from those experiments.

    The first experience I had that eventually totally transformed my teaching came when I attended a free workshop to which I and 9 other teachers from my school had been sent to find out what it was all about. I was intrigued and learned more as I attended the other workshops in the series. The other 9 colleagues decided after the first session that it was all B.S. and never went to another one.

    A number of years ago I participated in a research study for our school district. We looked at 10 schools whose student achievement far exceeded what would have been predicted by the socio-economic status of its students. We saw schools unlike any we had ever experienced ourselves. We researchers agreed that we would love the opportunity to teach in such a school. We also found that those 10 schools were very consistent in what made them great, and we no trouble identifying those traits.

    The Assistant Superintendent who had commissioned the study presented it to the Board of Education, and she made the following interesting observation: “The good news is that these 10 schools clearly show traits that are 100% consistent with the Effective Schools research of Lezotte and others. The bad news is that these 10 schools clearly show traits that are 100% consistent with the Effective Schools research of Lezotte and others.”

    In other words, these 10 effective schools made use of well-known information that was freely available to them, with resulting high student achievement. If they could do it, why were the other 145 schools in the district not doing it?

    I am not sure what the lesson is here. I am thinking about an old adage about horses and drinking.

  9. “I myself have never taken a formal course teaching any of this [online instruction] – I sought and found this information on my own. I experimented and learned from those experiments.” -John Adsit

    John, why am I not surprised? LOL!

    I’m in the same boat, too. I’ve never taken a formal course in computers, applications, and online instruction. For me, computers and the internet were love at first sight. I’ve been modifying and building my own computers since the early 1980s when I purchased a Kaypro 2. I was in heaven when I found MBasic in the package of software, and began writing my own programs to do the stats for my dissertation. When I moved to an IBM PC-XT, I discovered QBasic and began writing programs for CAI.

    I kept pace, hands-on, with the latest improvements in computer hardware and software through the years. I also learned how to set up my own webpages using basic HTML. When a colleague turned me on to blogs, I was hooked. I immediately saw it as much, much more than a medium for personal journals. It’s really a second generation platform for web publishing. ETCJ is a product of that view.

    I’ve been designing my own completely online courses from day one and enjoying the process. In the early days, I realized that webpages were awkward and preferred doing most of my day-to-day instruction on the college’s web-based discussion board that was seeing very little use. When CMSs came along, I rejected them because I found the procedures awkward and the results boring. I was forced to use the current CMS when the college decided to stop supporting the open BBS. The combo of blogs and discussion forums, which I’m using now, is powerful.

    I think your adage about horses and water hits the mark. But it scares me.

    If educators aren’t, themselves, active and engaged in their own learning, how can we expect them to apply these concepts to their students? There’s a disconnect here, and the implications, if true, are terrible.

    In the right sidebar of ETCJ, there’s a quote from Paul Kim: “Why does education need to be so structured? What are we so afraid of? The more you expect from a kid, the smarter they’re going to get.” Paul’s the chief technology officer of Stanford University’s School of Education.

    Perhaps our expectations are low. Instead of assuming that our colleagues can’t or won’t, maybe we ought to simply expect that they can and will. And make sure that the instructional environment supports this self-learning with pull rather than push incentives.

    Within all of us, there are two forces, learning and applying what we’ve learned. Learning, alone, isn’t enough. It provides the talk without the walk. A passage in J. D. Salinger’s Seymour: An Introduction captures this yin yang. Seymour says, in a letter to his younger brother, Buddy: “If only you’d remember before you ever sit down to write that you’ve been a reader long before you were ever a writer. You simply fix that fact in your mind, then sit very still and ask yourself, as a reader, what piece of writing in all the world Buddy Glass would want to read if he had his heart’s choice. The next step is terrible, but so simple I can hardly believe it as I write it. You just sit down and shamelessly write the thing yourself.”

    -Jim S

  10. If we go back far enough in this exchange of ideas, we find that a key factor–perhaps THE key factor–is leadership. In the study of effective schools I mentioned, leadership was one of the traits we noted at the schools. The school leaders were instructional leaders who facilitated a school climate that fostered success.

    In one school in particular, we interviewed the principal, and he described in detail his goals for the school. He described his leadership style, which he called “leading from the middle.” He tried to get everyone to come to consensus so that they were all working on what they believed in because they believed in it, not because they were being ordered to do so.

    We later interviewed groups of faculty members. They described their own goals for the school, which were the same as the ones the principal had outlined for us earlier. They said they were lucky because “the principal was willing to go along with them.”

    Think about this one: all 10 schools had mission statements that called for the school staff to bring all students to a high level of achievement. In all 10 schools, every faculty member we asked knew the mission statement word-for-word and believed in it.

    When have you encountered anything like that in your experiences?

    • John, what say if we tweak this comment a bit and begin a “discussion of articles” on the idea of “What Is THE Key Factor for Educational Change?” We could begin with an article, by you, on leadership as the key.

      I believe we’ve had previous discussions on this, but they weren’t as focused.

      Obviously, writers will tend to say that there’s no one key factor. Instead, there are a number of different factors. Still, let’s see if we can’t keep on topic by focusing on this idea of THE one key factor. -Jim S

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