College Prepared to Go Online When Disaster Strikes

Totally Online, by Jim ShimabukuroThe title of this press release caught my eye: “Ancilla College Ready to Go Completely Online as Part of Emergency Preparedness Plan”[1]. In case of emergency, the college can break the glass and press the red button that says “Campus closed. We’re now completely online.”

Ancilla is in Donaldson, Indiana, about 90 miles southeast of Chicago, and the college has hired The Learning House, Inc., to develop OPEN, which is an acronym for online preparation for emergency needs.

With OPEN in place, the college is now prepared for anything and everything that spells disaster, including flu pandemics, snow storms, floods, hurricanes, and heavy rains. Officials can now shut down the campus without worrying about disruption in learning. Like an emergency generator, all the classes shift into online mode and continue with learning as usual.

What happens if the campus shutdown lasts for months? Not a problem. From the moment OPEN, the emergency backup system, kicks in, it can function until a couple of weeks after the official end of term.

The heart of the OPEN system is Moodle, or modular object-oriented dynamic learning environment. It’s open-source and free, and it serves as a CMS, or course management system — aka as a learning software platform, LMS (learning management system), or VLE (virtual learning environment).

University of Iowa - building on campus flooded

Faculty “pre-load” what are called Moodle “course shells” with all the stuff that’s associated with learning, such as lessons, schedules, readings, lectures, assignments, activities, discussions, resources, etc.

Students, instead of reporting to their classrooms on campus, use their computers and internet connections from home or other locations to log in to the online counterparts of their classes and continue their education.

Interestingly, nowhere in this article does the writer say, directly or indirectly, that the online classes are in any way inferior to F2F (face-to-face) classes. The implication is that nothing in the way of quality is lost, and students continue to receive an effective education.

Don’t get me wrong. No one, including me, wants to see Ancilla shut down by a disaster. However, suppose it does happen in the first week of instruction and extends to a week after the last day of instruction, and suppose learning continues completely online without disruption and student achievement and satisfaction with the online classes are neither more nor less than with F2F classrooms.

Would the college pour millions into reconstructing the F2F campus and continue with business as usual, returning to the classroom-based model of learning and abandoning the online model until the next disaster strikes? Or would it pause to take stock of online learning as a viable alternative?

My guess is that it might take a disaster of this magnitude to change the way colleges view totally online classes. And once they do, they’ll never return to the mindset that classrooms are the only way to teach effectively.

BTW, this article is the first for this column, “Totally Online,” and in coming weeks and months, I’ll be publishing others that touch on the subject of completely online instruction. Other editors and writers are also debuting their columns this week in ETC: Jessica Knott, “ETC, Twitter and Me,” and John Adsit, “Meeting the Needs.”

Computers in the Classroom Can Be Boring

Lynn ZimmermannBy Lynn Zimmerman
Editor, Teacher Education

The headline of an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education this week caught my attention: “‘Teach Naked’ Effort Strips Computers from Classrooms.” The article, posted on July 20, 2009, is written by Jeffrey Young and is actually called “When Computers Leave the Classroom, So Does Boredom.”

Young writes that, according to studies, students think lectures and labs depending on computer technology are less interesting than those relying on discussion and interaction. PowerPoint presentations (one of the main areas of complaint), for example, are often used as a replacement for transparencies shown on an overhead projector and make no substantive difference in lesson delivery. An effective use of video technology should be to spark discussion and not be a replacement for a lecture.

Young says students also complain that these interactive classes require more effort than lectures. He says that students who are used to the lecture model are often resistant to this type of participatory learning. I can attest to this from my own computer lab with 1990's computers round a central tableexperience. I teach my face-to-face classes seminar-style with small group and large group activities and discussion. I will never forget one student telling me, “Instead of all this group stuff, why don’t you just tell us what you want us to know.” (Unfortunately, that student is now a teacher who probably lectures to his students.)

Despite its title, the article is not insisting that all technology and all computers should be thrown out of the classroom. It is making the point that the way technology is used in the classroom needs to be reassessed and changed so that it is not just being used to replicate the traditional modes of delivery.

Many of the authors in this journal have advocated just such changes (most recently, Judith Sotir in Two Steps Forward . . . Several Back and Judith McDaniel in What Students Want and How to Design for It: A Reflection on Online Teaching). As McDaniel pointed out, we need to “design for a structure that challenges and rewards.”

I agree that this attention to design is important not only in the online environment McDaniel was referring to but also in the face-to-face classroom with or without technology. As Young says, with stiff competition from online courses, face-to-face courses need to engage students so that they see a reason for being in the classroom.

Technology Must Be Based on Quality Instructional Practice

adsit80By John Adsit
Staff Writer
5 November 2008

Four decades ago the Coleman Report examined student achievement and concluded that the primary factors for student success belonged to the student—ability and socioeconomic status. The school could not control those conditions of success. Recent research has revealed the fatal methodological flaw in the Coleman study and reversed those findings. The primary factor in student success is now believed to be that student’s teacher.

Coleman compared the average results of schools, without comparing the results of individual teachers within those schools. I once participated in an internal study for a school district. Students had taken a pilot writing assessment in grades 4, 8, and 10. The average results for each of the schools was about the same, and they were consistent with what would be expected for the socioeconomic status of the area—something over 50% of the students were proficient or better. Our research team had access to the raw data, though, and the results were startling. Many of the teachers had more than 80% of their students rated as proficient, and some had 100% proficient. Many of the teachers had fewer than 20% proficient, and some had none at all. (These were all heterogeneous classes.) Not a single teacher had results between 20% and 80%.

Because of this huge disparity in results, it was easy to tell which teachers were in each group when we analyzed the anonymous surveys. Most interestingly, 100% of the low-performing teachers believed that academic success depended upon the abilities of the student, and 100% of the high performing teachers believed that the teacher could make any student successful by applying appropriate instructional techniques to meet that student’s needs.

adsit05For much of educational theory, research has shown us what methods are most effective. Convene a meeting of the top theorists in instruction and they will spend their time agreeing with each other. Unfortunately, much of what they will be agreeing on is counterintuitive and non-traditional. School districts must officially adopt them quietly, or the local newspapers will scream that they are destroying education. Even when they are officially adopted, most teachers ignore them and go on as they always have, so nothing actually changes.

At the college level, those theories are rarely even introduced. I was once invited by a prestigious technical college to help them improve their writing program. It did not go well. When I told them my plans, they were aghast and would have none of it. If I were to use those techniques, too many students would be successful, they would earn high grades, and the school would be accused of grade inflation. In higher education, educational excellence is still too often believed to occur in a 400 student lecture hall.

In Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns, Clayton Christensen identifies the primary path to student success, and he predicts that technological changes, particularly in the world of online education, will make it possible. The successful teacher diagnoses the learning needs of individual students and makes appropriate adjustments to that student’s learning plan. The truly skilled individual teacher is able to do that in a face to face classroom, but it is not easy. Technological advances to make that possible would indeed disrupt all of education.

That means, though, that these changes must serve those counterintuitive instructional strategies that actually work.

I was approached by a vendor with the technology that would supposedly solve all my online education instructional needs. They had gone into the lecture halls of various colleges and recorded lectures. On your computer you could watch the fascinating talking heads and view the accompanying PowerPoints. Instead of being mind-numbingly bored to tears in a 400 seat lecture hall, you could be mind-numbingly bored to tears in the comfort of your home.

Much of the educational technology I see is imitating the bad instruction that produces poor student achievement. Technology developers must seek out what really works and focus their attention accordingly. I visited such a program recently, and what I saw gave me great hope for the future. As a developer of online education curriculum, I know what kind of technology we need to be successful, and when it comes, it will certainly transform education.