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?

Blackboard Reinforces the Status Quo

Tom PreskettBy Tom Preskett

According to Lisa M. Lane, in “Insidious Pedagogy: How Course Management Systems Impact Teaching” (First Monday, 5 Oct. 2009):

Course management systems (CMSs), used throughout colleges and universities for presenting online or technology-enhanced classes, are not pedagogically neutral shells for course content. They influence pedagogy by presenting default formats designed to guide the instructor toward creating a course in a certain way. This is particularly true of integrated systems (such as Blackboard/WebCT) . . . . Blackboard “tends to encourage a linear pathway through the content,” and its default is to support easy uploading and text entry to achieve that goal.

I’ve always approached this from the opposite angle and said that VLEs (Virtual Learning Environments) are designed for the current education market rather than to improve or change practice in any way. So it’s file repositories and grading books all the way. Remember, unlike Web 2.0, many of these VLEs are commercial products and, in business, you give the customers what they want, and customers don’t want their pedagogy challenged. You also have to remember that a lot of the collaborative tools have been added on as VLEs react to what is going on out in the real world. But when they are add-ons they don’t really impact the intrinsic design or structure. They could redesign as new versions, but they don’t. Certainly, each “new” version of Blackboard is so simliar to the last that it’s almost indistinguishable. Maybe the consistency is important to them, but it’s a real missed opportunity. By the way, I’m quoting Lisa’s use of CMS, but I use LMS (Learning Management System) and VLE. I steer clear of CMS because it can get mixed up with Content Management System.

A CMS must be designed around a central pedagogy: consistency of interface relies on consistency of approach. It is only important to recognize that the interface of any software reflects its intent.

I’d not thought about it in these terms before. Although I agree with this, I’m not sure that Blackboard is designed with any particular pedagogy in mind. I think it’s more a case of designing around the prevailing perception of what teaching is. Moodle is deliberately different. The collaborative tools are much more prominent, and the grading system is rubbish, probably deliberately so.

Lisa then characterises most educators as “web novices.” She says:

These users were trying to reduce their cognitive load by limiting their use of the software, while Web experts were able to keep their goal in mind easily while searching more deeply.

And:

When faced with a different interface or online environment, novices are inclined to utilize only the aspects they understand from a non-Web context.

It’s a double-whammy. First, you have a majority whose personal ICT (Information and Communication Technology) skills don’t allow them to easily explore and experiment with the full range of what a VLE has to offer. Second, you have a majority who are content, if not happy, with the prevailing pedagogy of current teaching. Thus, there is no desire or compulsion to embrace, explore, or experiment with software that challenges this. I also feel the knowledge of pedagogy within education is pretty limited, but I don’t base this on any hard facts. Anyway, both these issues are massive barriers to the adoption and use of Web 2.0 type tools . If you’ve read my articles in ETC and my blog, then you’ll know how sad that makes me.

More attacks on the Blackboard functionality:

Most professors think in terms of the semester, and how their pedagogical goals can be achieved within the context of time, rather than space . . . . Blackboard’s default organization accepts neither of these approaches in its initial interface.

You can, of course, change this, which is what I often advise my academics to do. But why have it like this? What it does validate and reinforce is the notion that content, course news, and grading is all the VLE is good for. It’s not for teaching or learning, but to retrieve information. It’s a passive rather than active relationship, Web 1.0 not Web 2.0.

She continues:

There is more satisfaction in mastering a few elements than in experimenting. Instructors move very slowly into features of the CMS that support less-instructivist models, and experience with the CMS over time does not necessarily lead to more creative pedagogy, or even to more expanive use of system features.

So we have a situation where educators struggle to get to grips with what a VLE can do AND they don’t really want to anyway. That’s not good.

A Digital Educator in Poland

lynnz80By Lynn Zimmerman
Editor, Teacher Education

During this Spring 2009 semester, I am teaching at a major university in a large city in Poland. My students are 3rd, 4th , and 5th year students , most of whom plan to be English teachers. Technology is playing a role in this experience in some expected and unexpected ways.

First of all, I have easy access to the folks back home. I served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Poland from 1992-1994 and, during that time, the communications infrastructure was rudimentary.  Many people did not have telephones, myself included. The couple of times I called my mother in the U.S. I had to go to the post office and order the call. Then I had to wait until the overseas operator was able to connect to me. When I returned to Poland in 2000 the cell phone boom had occurred, and Internet service was on its heels. Now with Skype and IM and all the other communication devices at our fingertips, it is almost as though I never left home. This easy accessibility is actually a mixed blessing. The chair of my department has been able to give me tasks to do, even though I am several thousands of miles away.

Although I travel quite a bit and try to journal, I am rarely successful keeping up the journaling process. This time, I decided to set up a “private” social network on Ning (www.ning.com) for my friends. I recorded a video about my impending trip. I put up links to my Polish university and other interesting places. I have been posting pictures of my adventures and have written blogs to keep my friends informed. I think that having an audience other than myself is helping me keep up the process.

On the downside has been the lack of technology available to my students here. The building where I teach has one lecture room, reserved only for large lecture classes, that has a computer and projector, but no Internet access. The technology guy here did show me how to download some clips that I was planning to use from YouTube (using mediaconverter.org), so I was able to work polandaround the no Internet access issue. I have one class of about 40 students and that is the only one allowed to use that room. Unfortunately this week when I was planning to show a DVD and a YouTube clip, the system was not functioning. For my other classes, I have had to re-think how I teach them, taking into account that I would not be able to use the videos and PowerPoints that I usually use with my classes.

Another issue that arose is that none of my students have ever done an online discussion. I use online discussions once or twice a semester when I have to go to a conference. The university here does not have a built-in classroom management system like WebCT or Blackboard, so I set up a discussion on Ning. Because I did not have Internet access in the classroom, I had to take “snapshots” of the screens to show the students what to do. (The computer system was functioning that day.) Then I had to deal with the students’ anxiety about doing this activity. Most of the students participated, and I must say that the ones who did participate did a really good job, better than many of my students in the US. However, another professor has referred several times to the week I “missed” class. She obviously has no idea of how time-intensive setting up and conducting an online discussion is for the teacher or the students.

On the other hand, I was recently at a symposium in another part of Poland and technology, including Internet access, was available in many classrooms. This particular university also specializes in providing services for students with vision and hearing disabilities. They have special adaptive equipment in several classrooms to aid these students’ learning.

So far I have experienced the advantages of technology for staying in touch as well as the challenges it poses when there is little or no access in the classroom. I feel a little bit like I have fallen into Dean McLaughlin’s short novel, Hawk Among the Sparrows (http://www.fantasticfiction.co.uk/m/dean-mclaughlin/hawk-among-sparrows.htm), which is about a pilot in a modern fighter jet with nuclear missiles and technological guidance systems who goes through a time warp to World War I. None of his highly sophisticated weaponry will work in this low-tech time period so that, in the end, the only way he can be effective is to use his jet as a projectile and crash into the enemy’s installation. I certainly hope that is not my fate!