Learning Styles and the Online Student: Moving Beyond Reading

Lynn ZimmermannBy Lynn Zimmerman
Editor, Teacher Education

In his January 30, 2010 article, Reading Ability As a ‘New’ Challenge for Online Students, Jim Shimabukuro focused on the connection between reading skills and the online environment. As a teacher educator, this issue is one of my concerns about online education.  In today’s online environment those who communicate and process well by reading and writing are at a definite advantage, while students who learn and process in other ways may not adapt as easily. As Jim pointed out – reading is more than being able to decode and comprehend words. Therefore, if we want to meet the learning needs of all students, we have to take different ways of learning and processing into account, and use a variety of strategies and techniques to promote learning (see Howard Gardner’s webs site about Multiple Intelligences http://www.howardgardner.com/MI/mi.html or the Illinois Online Network’s page called Learning Styles and the Online Environment at http://www.ion.uillinois.edu/resources/tutorials/id/learningStyles.asp )

Part of the answer is having technology that will handle audio and video, which can be a challenge. For example, this semester I am teaching a class online that I usually teach as a hybrid. There is a video clip that I usually show my students and after determining that I would not be infringing copyright, I enlisted the aid of our AV people to put the clip into a format that my online students could view. It works great if you are using one of the computers in their computer lab. However, for some reason that no one can pinpoint, the link will not work properly everywhere. On the computer in my office on campus, I get audio only. At home, I get nothing. My students are supposed to watch this clip next week and I have no idea how many of them will actually be able to view it, despite the best efforts of our AV people to make it available in a variety of formats.

On a more positive note, I did have success using Adobe Presenter to record audio onto the PowerPoint presentations that the students will view. In this way, those who prefer to listen can do that and those who prefer to read can read the notes that are part of the presentation. I also located some YouTube videos that I assigned instead of readings on a couple of topics.

However, I have not yet come up with a plan for the students’ being able to produce audio or video clips instead of writing. There are options, of course, but again access to technology can be an issue. I considered asking students to upload an audio or video file as one assignment, but rejected that idea because of the possible problems with technology. I want the students to spend time on the content, not on learning new technology. The best scenario, as far as I’m concerned, would be to have one or two synchronous online discussions using Skype, or similar technology so that students could talk to one another. Maybe next, I can develop something along that line.

To be most effective as a learning tool, online technology has to evolve to the point that students can readily use the skills they already have in addition to (perhaps, while learning) these new skills.

While I agree with Jim,  that “the reading tasks online are therefore a significant departure from the traditional, and they require a whole new set of skills,” I think we need to look at the issue from another direction, too. To be most effective as a learning tool, online technology has to evolve to the point that students can readily use the skills they already have in addition to (perhaps, while learning) these new skills. Otherwise, rather than being an educational equalizer, the online environment will be just another way that we sift and sort students. We will lose those who can’t adapt easily, and we will be educating only those who can.