Get Your Head Out Of The Cl-ASS-room — eLearning Is Different

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I spend lots of time developing learning that lives online.  e-learning, web content, videos, podcasts, support information, application forms for tractor assembly jobs — so I fancy myself as a bit of an expert in how this type of content is consumed.

(Many other people in my discipline would use less flattering terms to describe me — including references to rodents, orifices and familial relationships.  But even if true — I design a bunch of online learning.)

As part of that, I joust regularly with people who teach and train in something called “The Real World”.  I have a hazy memory of this place — it involves chalk boards, rows of desks, and children in freshly-pressed jumpers smiling up at me as I whack their knuckles with a wooden ruler.  I rarely teach there anymore — nobody wants to pay my embarrassingly high prices, and I keep trying to click on individual students and block them.

baggageAs they move into the world of online teaching, most “real world” practitioners attempt to bring all their baggage with them.  And as the airlines have found, the more baggage you allow the more difficult it is to get the damn thing off the ground.  So I’m here today to show you a few of the cherished icons of classroom instruction you’re going to have to leave at the gate if you want to succeed in the online world.

Everyone Does Not Stay Together
In your classroom, you can exert a good deal of control that all students advance at a controlled pace — by assigning readings, presentations, and in-class activities.  You’ll find that online students will lag behind and race ahead.  Some will have questions about section 14 on the third day of class.  Oopsie.

So you’d best be prepared on Day 1 to teach the whole thing, or you’ll take the wind out of the sails of the students who are really engaged.  And you’ll have to be willing to support someone who’s going back to the beginning for a refresher during the last week.

Everyone Expects Personalized Support
Blame it on Tony Hsieh of Zappos — a large number of your students will now expect to interact with you via email, chat, FaceBook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Google+, Snoozle, Schmaltz, Fizzle, Abdalo, Whackadoodle — ok, I was just making up those last few.  But you get the picture.  If you’re not careful about designing how you set up your assignments, your workload will go up exponentially.

Be sure that you set your assignments up so that students interact with each other, rather than always depending on you.  Be sure that you become an Online Facilitator, and let go of the idea that all learning comes from you.  Be sure that you spend some time learning new skills for this new role that you’ve taken on.

Everyone Will Not View Every Screen
Do you have a DVR?  If so, I bet you don’t watch commercials.  Or the boring parts.  And your e-learning students are going to do that, as well.  In your classroom, they sat their in their seats and pretended to listen during the boring parts.  Online, they’re just going to skip past the things they don’t want to pay attention to.  (I always find it amusing when teachers complain about learners ignoring boring online content.  I ask them what they, personally, do during the sermon in church.)

So you’d better make sure the e-learning you’re using is interesting, engaging, and makes your learners want to pay attention.  Or find a way to introduce it so they will.

Quit Measuring Stuff You Don’t Track
There’s no reason to add in all those little “Check Your Understanding” and “Quick Quiz” screens throughout the e-learning, unless you’re going to collect the data and use if for something.  Only three possible outcomes:

  1. Student actually knows the answer. Wow.
  2. Student doesn’t know the answer.  Unless you force them back through the content, you just make them feel dumb.  Wow.
  3. Student skips past the test — which the majority will do.  Wow.

If you feel you must do this, just have a question and the correct answer on the next screen, like a flashcard.  That way you’re reinforcing a positive.  There’s good data to support that.  And you can re-use that content for test prep at the end of the course.

Let The Inmates Build The Prison
As I’ve mentioned above, you need to start thinking more like a “facilitator” than a “teacher”.  You’re guiding this group of learners through the curriculum, and no longer the main source of knowledge.  Let them learn from each other, from resources you provide (and that they find and vet through you), bring in live humans via Skype or Webcasts, have them do original research and share — be creative in how each new class discovers information.

Each course will look different, and that’s ok.  Each group of learners will approach the problems in a different manner, and the shared knowledge that they create will be unique.  That’s one of the amazing parts of online learning — those “Poindexters” that sit in the front row will fade into the background, and you’ll meet a whole new group of people you never heard from before.

 

You Can’t Stuff A Classroom Down A CAT5 Cable

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old-classroomLast week I was having a nice conversation with a new online friend about helping her move her “in-person” teaching into the land of the Interwebs.  (This is a conversation that I’ve now had 21,586 times — since I do this sort of thing for a living — so I’m getting better and better at it.)  As usual, she was bemoaning the fact that there were parts of the in-person teaching experience that you “just couldn’t translate” into the online world.

With great sensitivity and thoughtfulness, I told her that those of us with a great deal of experience in developing online learning had a technical term for that concern.  We called it “dumb”. As you might expect, a short silence followed.

(I need to interject here that my new friend understands that I’m an obnoxious, opinionated old bear and doesn’t object to that at all.  Had I been dealing with someone who was more sensitive I might have described this as a “possible disconnect in her evaluation of the potential learning modality available within the online form factor as it relates to the more traditional instructor-led design model” or something like that.)

When she asked me to give her more detail, I said that thinking of the digital world as a place to just move her in-person class model didn’t make sense, because she already had a great place to teach in person.  It was called real life. What she needed to do was learn about the wonderful things that you can do in the online world that you can’t do in person, the experiences that learners can have in the online world that can’t be replicated in the meat world, and the ways that a digital teacher can create amazing experiences that would never be possible if they were in a traditional classroom.

How About An Example, Then?

Thank you for asking. One of my favorites involves what I call the “Poindexters” that all of us have in our real-world classrooms.  They’re the ones who sit in the front, have a pocket protector and a fresh notebook, and wave their hands high in the air every time we ask a question.  They want to be called on, they crave attention, and hope that the whole class hears them answer every question. (I have a great sympathy for them, because I is one.)

In the back of the room, we have the Wallflowers.  Heads down, never engaging, terrified that you’ll call on them and make them look stupid if they answer wrong.  Many of these people have the correct answer — and often some of the most interesting ideas — but you never get to hear them.  Because over the years in education we’ve taught them that the focus is on getting the right answer at all costs. So they just won’t participate.

In the online world, I can ask every student to log in as their favorite candy bar for the day.  (This means nobody in class knows who they are.)  Then, when I ask a question, the Poindexters and the Wallflowers are on a level playing field.  You should see the sparks fly!  You should see the creativity, the passion, and the engagement!

There are many more examples.  Online offers learners more time to create their thoughts and craft them carefully.  Those learners who are glib and can speak quickly and easily (I’m also guilty of that) are no longer at an advantage.  Collaboration looks very different online.  Research looks very different online. And peer-to-peer learning works wonderfully online, meaning the poor teacher doesn’t have to be the source of every bit of information.

So Online Learning Is All You Need, Then?

Oh, Pish-Tosh!  It’s just one more tool in the bag.  Just because we got pens, we didn’t give up on pencils.  There are good parts and bad parts to any way of delivering knowledge to young skulls full of mush.  And so far, we’re only scratching the surface on how to do digital learning right.

Want to glimpse the future?  Take a look at Building Intelligent Interactive Tutors: Student-Centered Strategies For Revolutionizing e-Learning” by Beverly Park Woolf.  In a nutshell, it’s AI that watches how the student is doing and offers meaningful help just when it is needed.  (Think “Clippy” on steroids.)

We’ll always have classrooms, and I’ll always love to teach in them.

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