View from an Online Classroom

Judith McDanielBy Judith McDaniel
Editor, Web-based Course Design

After reading the article and the comments (Philip E. Auerswald’s “First Newspapers, Now Universities: It’s Transformation Time,” Washington Post, 8 June 2010), I was certainly disappointed in the quality of the conversation. Many of the comments are written by those who have never taken or taught an online class, nor have they considered the things that make an online course an exciting intellectual experience. Without the knee jerk reactions, I think it is past time to recognize that online education is with us for the duration. It won’t go away because it is a very exciting and viable alternative to traditional education. Continue reading

Creating the Need to Know

Judith_McDaniel2_80By Judith McDaniel
Editor, Web-based Course Design

What motivates someone to learn?

On another website, I wrote about how online learning can function to break down some serious fear-based barriers to learning. So let me say up front, I believe there are at least two steps to creating motivation to learn. The first is to address these fear barriers; and online learning, if done well, has the ability to help with this. Some of the most common fears and a happy response from an online student:

Fear 1. I’m not quick off the mark when a teacher asks a question.
Online student: No one can watch me try to think!

Fear 2. I don’t always manage to say what I mean.
Online student: I can try my words out in private before I post them.

Fear 3. My ideas are complicated and I’m afraid of being misunderstood.
Online student: I can try out new ideas in a safe place.

Fear 4. When I respond in class I sometimes end up feeling like I needed a dress rehearsal!
Online student: I can practice alone in front of my mirror.

Fear 5. I hate how people seem to expect me to respond in a certain way because of how I look or how they see “people like me.”
Online student: I get to choose how much I let people know about me, so I don’t feel “prejudged.”

The second factor, given that learners have overcome the first hurdle, is whether the learner feels a strong need to know something. Educators have argued for years about student “motivation” and I would broaden that to actually talk about the human motivation to learn. We are all students, all the time. We put young people and adults who want professional skills in the category of students and we send them to something called a school. Whether they are studying the alphabet or electrical wiring or legal procedure, they are in school. Progressive educators would argue that older studentsfreire175 who have chosen to acquire professional skills have an edge over younger students because they are motivated to learn information and they have sought an appropriate environment in which to learn it.

Paolo Freiere, the Brazilian educator, said that there exist two primary forms of education: the banking model and the problem-posing model. The banking model is the traditional school process. Students are “given” information by an instructor, which they then memorize or “bank” in their brains for future use. Maybe. John Dewey’s addition to this model was that students then also needed an “experience” that would allow them to use what they had banked, incorporate it into their experiential worlds. Dewey knew (in the words of a professor of mine during the sixties as he observedjohn_dewey2we-students-who-would-try-anything) “There are some experiences that are not worth having.” Dewey said it differently: in order for an experience to be educational, it had to be carefully planned with that goal in mind.

The problem-posing model relies on the student’s motivation. I must (or I want to) do something and I don’t know how, so I will find resources and learn how to solve this problem. In this model the student is the initiator, the instructor, the learner, and the evaluator. Is there room for a guide or instructor in this model of education? Surely, but it is not the role of a traditional teacher. In this model, students are the creators of knowledge as well as the consumers of knowledge and their satisfaction with what they have learned is the outcome measurement. The teacher can help frame the problem, suggest areas for research, suggest resources, and ask questions.

My suggestion that online learning has an edge in creating problem-posing models of education for learners is not new or original. On the issue of technology as a tool learners can use themselves, there is an impressive literature that has already developed and a number of websites. One blog this week (May 19) asked, “Are your e-learning courses pushed or pulled?” In other words, are the courses you design pushing information out to “learners” or are you offering an interactive design that will encourage learners to pull the content they need out of the resources you have provided. Another e-learning site offers the image of technology as a toolbox, a set of tools with which people can build and manage their own learning.

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But how does this help create motivation? How can technology create a “need to know” in learners?

At the most basic level, we have technologies that engage learners, that draw them into a dialogue, a relationship, a community (or a tribe, as Seth Godin would put it). But those technologies don’t function by themselves. They are part of a package. Course design is the key. What questions will matter to the people who are coming into your course?

One of my students in an online college program was trying to create a literature study for herself. She lives in Texas and has two small children. At some point in our early interaction, she mentioned how fascinated she had been by the story of the Texas woman who had killed her five children. And how appalled she was at her own fascination. That was her question—why would a woman kill her children? Couldn’t she study that issue in a traditional classroom? Sure, and I would assign Euripides’ Medea and Toni Morrison’s Beloved and George Eliot’s Adam Bede, all great literature in which a woman kills at least one of her own children. What does the web offer that the classroom does not?

Look back at my first paragraph in this article. Not sure how to say it? Not sure how it will be received? Maybe a classroom in a small town in Texas would not be the place to explore this topic in front of friends and neighbors?

So there is the protection of a certain amount of anonymity in looking for answers to this difficult kind of question. But there is more. I have not searched this topic, but I am sure there are websites, chat rooms, historical archives, legal briefs from the cases themselves. Do we want to know more about Margaret Garner who was the historical figure Toni Morrison drew on? The Ohio historical society has an entry that will be useful. The Kentucky Archaeological Society has devoted part of a website to the farm in Kentucky that Garner escaped from with her children as a slave seeking freedom. Photographs of her slave hut, interior and exterior, are available. For the student, there is the allure of the search for accurate details, for motivation. The question belongs to my student. I am not her teacher. I am her guide, pointing her in the right direction occasionally, suggesting ways in which she can determine whether a website is credible and sound or biased and not useful.

And then she returns to her study cohort, all of whom have been asking their own questions, and she needs to describe her journey. She does, creating timelines and a history that starts with the Greeks of Euripides’ time and comes forward to a Texas murder trial in the twenty-first century. She has worked with these other students for several months now, and they are important community to her—she is motivated by the relationship that has grown among them.

What I am struck by over and over as I teach students online is the level of possibility. Would Paolo Freire have found the internet a companion or a burden?  I can only wonder. But for many, it has opened worlds beyond the ones they were born into.