Teacher Skills Critical for Success in Online Classes

John AdsitBy John Adsit
Editor, Curriculum & Instruction

The subject of this exchange (“Assuming That Teachers Aren’t the Primary Obstacle to Change . . .“) is near to my heart because it is a problem with which I have struggled for years. I have a somewhat different perspective, though. I chose Bonnie’s post for my reply because of its quotation of the Suzie Boss article.

For many years I have struggled to bring learning activities such as are described in that article to online education. I had to do so in many a different CMS, including WebCT, BlackBoard, eCollege, Moodle, Angel, uCompass, and Desire2Learn. My very first attempts, in 1995, were in pure HTML, writing the code in Pico and corresponding with students in Pine. (Anyone remember those?)

There is no question that the structures of CMS greatly interfered with my ability to do this, and I had to invent many “workarounds” to get something like what I wanted. I was also constrained by the concept of the least common denominator–maybe I had the technology to do something truly innovative, but if my students did not have the computing skills, tools, or bandwidth to participate, I could not use it.

I believe I was successful in doing this to a large extent, but that success uncovered a far larger problem.

When I was managing curriculum, both for an online high school and for a company in the private sector, I led the development of guidelines directing how to implement these kinds of thinking activities into curriculum housed in a CMS. The problem was finding course writers who could do it. I found that it was a rare course developer indeed who understood how to frame constructivist learning activities and authentic learning projects in the first place. If they could not do it in the classroom, there is no way they could do it within the structure of the CMS. For the most part, the teachers we hired started with the notion that a higher order thinking skill activity meant that students had to repeat given facts in a paragraph rather than check them off in multiple choice.

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It doesn’t matter whether it is a CMS, Web 2.0, or anything yet to be invented. A teacher who does not know how to create meaningful and innovative learning activities in the classroom will not be able to include them in any online environment either.

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Once we got meaningful activities designed, we encountered the next problem. The teachers who taught the courses we designed had no idea how to facilitate that kind of learning. They expected that they would only have to grade completed assignments, not interact meaningfully and skillfully with the learning process throughout the course. Without such facilitation, the students floundered.

I recently looked at a BlackBoard-based college course in which the students were supposed to work collaboratively on a group project. It was not going well, and the student complained that this online education stuff just didn’t work. When I looked at it, though, I saw that the fault lay with neither online education in general nor BlackBoard in particular. The project was so poorly set up by the professor that it could not possibly succeed, either online or in the classroom. Given 10 minutes, I could have rewritten it into a format that would have worked well.

It doesn’t matter whether it is a CMS, Web 2.0, or anything yet to be invented. A teacher who does not know how to create meaningful and innovative learning activities in the classroom will not be able to include them in any online environment either.

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Bonnie Bracey-SuttonBonnie Bracey Sutton, 22 Oct. 2009, 9:20 am:

Lots of factors are involved. The way in which teachers are trained, and then there are the divides: the infrastructure divide, the digital divide, the depth of content divide, the cultural idea map on what constitutes knowledge and . . . the tools.

As someone else said, there are so many new ways of working, where is the time to meaningfully evaluate and use what works.

Click here for some suggestions for good practice.

But schools have a culture which is shaped by the leader of the school, most often the principal. So what happens in that space is a result of permission and understanding.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan wants a “revolutionary change” in teacher training, in college programs that train teachers for the classroom, programs that are responsible for educating at least 80% of the country’s teachers. In a speech prepared for delivery today, Duncan said that traditional teacher-preparation programs do not give educators enough classroom experience and do not guide them in using data properly. Officials are predicting about 1 million teaching vacancies over the next four years as veteran baby boomer teachers retire, and teacher training must become a priority.

steve_eskow40Steve Eskow, 22 Oct. 2009, 12:36 pm:

This speedy medium allows for the exchange of half-formed thoughts–even half-baked thoughts–which are subject to recall after others push back against them, so here goes with a half-formed half-baked thought stimulated by John Adsit’s fully thought out post.

The thought was stimulated by John’s reference to “constructivist activities.” I fancy myself a half-baked constructivist, yet I found myself bristling at John’s use of the term.

And after thinking through the other half of the thought, this is what I came up with:

When I was a college faculty person, I didn’t resist change, I fancied myself a change agent. I did, however, resist change suggested by others, particularly other change agents who looked at my course materials, sighed, and proceeded to suggest changes.

That is, teachers may not be resisting change. They may be resisting change agents.

Looking at my old self honestly, I concluded that I would have resented Lisa Lane and John Adsit and Tom and Jim and Bonnie setting up shop as experts who were qualified to look at my courses, find them wanting, and proceed to describe how they should be changed.

(All this before I left the classroom and set myself up as a full-time change agent.)

Was I one of a kind, or one of a very large type?


Bonnie Bracey Sutton, 24 Oct. 2009, 12:03 pm:

I remember most of what you are talking about. My growth and ease in education began with a funded project called Cilt.org. Click here for the link. This will take a little time to look at but it was teachers, professors, research people, companies and even more. We were funded. I participated in several teams. The research findings are there. Time for new funding? Cloud Computing? Participatory Culture? What else?

Adventures in Hybrid Teaching: The First Day Is the Hardest

heeter_upside80By Carrie Heeter
Guest Author

Monday was the first day of the semester, and Monday night, 6:30 to 7:20, is the live component of hybrid TC841, my graduate design research class. Hybrid means a third of class time happens in person, and two-thirds online at the students’ convenience.

This is the first year my department (Department of Telecommunication, Information Studies, and Media at Michigan State University) actually scheduled a class meeting time (yay!), meaning I did not have to begin by finding a time when every enrolled student was available to come to class. In prior years after I found a day and time every student could attend, we would squeeze into the GEL (Games for Entertainment and Learning) Lab conference room.

In spring 2009, we had an actual scheduled time AND place. Room 161 Comm Arts. The room has a projector. What luxury.

My department very generously lets me telecommute, but they do not consider it their responsibility to support my lack of physical presence in Michigan. So, as of Monday morning, I did not yet know how I was going to get to class from my office in San Francisco.

I saw that two students enrolled in TC841 had been my students in a class I taught in fall. Both had been gone over break so I waited to contact them until they returned. At 12:32 Sunday night, I emailed them to ask, “Do either of you have a laptop you would be willing to bring to class tomorrow night, to Skype me in?”

heeter01There was no answer when I got to the office at 8am California time. By 9am, I received a “sure!” email from YoungKim. I proposed we start trying to connect at 6, before the 6:30 class.

At 6:08pm Michigan time, I received an incoming Skype call. (Yay!) With some fumbling, my audio worked. He figured out how to connect to the classroom projector, and logged in to and opened Breeze, the TC841 blog, and ANGEL in separate browser windows. I got video of the class via YoungKim’s Skype.

My tablet PC was running Breeze for video (not audio). My desktop PC was running Skype for audio but no video (using a handheld mic) and a second Breeze connection as well as the blog and ANGEL.

Five minutes before class started, Breeze failed on the tablet PC, meaning they lost my video. Reconnecting never worked. My only connected camera was the laptop. But the Skype connection was to my desktop. Video of me was not going to happen.

I had forgotten that the last time I used Skype was showing it to Sheldon on his new laptop, and that while playing around I had turned my image upside down. So most of the class only saw me as a small upside down still image in the Skype window. I’m afraid to go check what I might have been wearing.

Students were still arriving, so some never saw me on video at all. I joked that I hadn’t had time to brush my hair but would be ready for video next week. It is unusual to be able to see the class when they can’t see me. Much better than not seeing them, that’s for sure. When one student walked into the classroom 10 minutes late, he entered a room with 13 students sitting at tables, looking at a projection screen. A disembodied voice (me) said, “Welcome to TC841! The students here are pretending there is a professor.”

Half an hour into class, one of my cats pried the office door open (which I had closed to keep them out). After meowing disruptively for a bit, she jumped onto my keyboard, switching the Breeze window to a mode I’ve never seen before, one where I could not control Breeze or change to any other windows on my computer. (Why would there be a “switch to larger than full screen and freeze all controls” special keystroke command? Just to give cats disruptive power, I think.) At that same moment a student who had logged in to Breeze (as I had proposed they do) took over Breeze and was playing around, resizing his video window, eliminating the class’ and my view of the PowerPoint.

After fumbling for a minute, I quit Breeze (command Q), went to the blog, and opened the PDF handout I had posted of the PowerPoint so I could know what else to talk about. Class moved into a lively discussion about “sampling” methods used in research about media design, and ended on time.

A good time was had by all.