Reflecting Allowed

Maha Bali’s blog about education

Online Learning Experiences that Shape Us

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Supporting other people to prepare them to teach well online is… Complicated. They know how to teach (I hope), but moving this online is not something they are used to, have possibly never tried as teachers or even learners. It’s lucky if they use relevant tech for personal/social use.

Inspired by Michael Berman, I wanted to reflect on and respond to this part of his recent post:

Success in a new endeavor depends on a belief that you can succeed. The first step in becoming a successful online instructor is to be able to imagine yourself in that role. When you never had the experience of being a successful online student, with an online instructor who motivated you and cared about you and believed in you, you are going to have a really tough time believing you can be that kind of teacher yourself in an online environment.

He also makes a really important point. That even if all the tech was available and stable and everyone had perfect access and tech support, what it takes for an online course to really be good is more than just those elements falling into place.

So I wanted to reflect on my own experiences online. And I think the things I come up with will be slightly less orthodox than what might be expected. I don’t know.

A. Desperation/Hunger
Yes. Desperation. On the part of students. Sometimes what makes a course succeed isn’t how good the instructor is but how desperate the student is for the course. With online it’s much more obvious especially for women in my part of the world. Yes, many young women of a certain socioeconomic class are able to travel to get a degree, but it’s still preferable socially not to. Yes, many married women get to travel with their husbands, but for the most part, women who live here won’t be able to take their husbands with them to get a degree. Women who have kids would find it difficult to even take courses locally in the evenings.

So yeah. Hunger for learning and desperation. You want to learn and you’re not finding a way to do it except online. That’s the intrinsic motivator to continue with an online course and finish it.

When I did my masters online, many people dropped out. It was a fully online degree way back in 2003. I was new to the field of education and starting a new job. While I could have worked on my parents and convinced them that I go to England for a year to do it there, I actually had just landed a local education job and I wanted to make an impact on education in Egypt. I wanted thar job (and am glad I kept it) AND the degree. And I was sooo hungry to learn when there was no Graduate School of Education at AUC (where I was working and could have received free education – we have one now) and I couldn’t wait.

The masters was fully asynchronous text-based on WebCT. Small groups of maybe 7-10 people to a discussion group. Many dropped out. Maybe some would have stayed if the course was designed differently. I don’t know. I was too desperate and hungry to let anything stop me.

B. Best/Right Fit
This is again something you can’t really predict ahead of time when designing a course, but maybe you put in enough flexibility to allow different combinations of “good fit”. For example, different tutors in the masters had different approaches to ELearning and pretty strong ones coz it was an MEd in eLearning. For 3 or 4 of 5 modules I had a particular tutor, Nick, who is still a good friend. For one module I had someone I didn’t get along with at all and whose views on eLearning annoyed the heck out of me. Other students complained of othet tutors being toooo chatty and hands-on, and some that their tutors were toooo absent and hands-off. But for me, Nick was just right and it worked out well. You can’t design or plan for chemistry like that, or give it a formula.

C. Comfort
How do you achieve comfort in an online course? For me, comfort came in those informal, third spaces and in tangential conversations. And yet I was also comfortable with information overload and not keeping up. I am not sure why, maybe it’s just that as an undergraduate senior I figured I didn’t need to put in more than x% effort to get an A, so I worked just enough to get an A and no more? And it stuck. Recovering perfectionist who knows i am not doing it 100% but has learned to live with it.

How do you prepare someone to teach an online course that will be to their comfort and their students’, given those may be different things?

D. Different ways
When I first got into online learning I tried 3 different courses. Short, long; for credit, free, etc, so I had a broad view of what ELearning could be. I kept doing that until I don’t think there’s a new way of doing ELearning that i haven’t tried or plan to try. It’s really hard to give faculty that kind of experience when introducing them to ELearning.

What’s the point of this post?

Michael mentioned how important it is for teachers to experience a good online course as learners in order to be good online teachers. In my meeting with his department, they highlighted how learning in a fully online course made faculty more successful later in teaching blended – and it made me realize how blending a workshop about blending makes faculty rely too much on f2f and less on online – so maybe we need to really meet them less often. Maybe just once or twice or not at all. I don’t know. But I also don’t know offhand if designing well with a good caring instructor will be enough if learners aren’t hungry. If they aren’t comfortable. If the fit just doesn’t work. I can think of ways of allowing different pathways and helping them set their own direction, etc. But the hunger part? I don’t think you can work on that in the way chefs work on smell and visuals to intice people to taste. Or can you?

One Comment

  1. You’ve certainly touched on some important factors linked to why I enjoyed and became an advocate for online learning, integrated tech in teaching and learning, and connecting people to purpose. Being ‘hungry’ for the opportunities that teaching with technology can bring is one way to ensure success. But not everyone knows what the ‘meal’ may be or even know what’s on the menu. Then it’s comfort, fit and variety that will keep teachers and learners coming back for more.

    I agree that teaching online is very different than teaching F2F, and teaching with tech in F2F classrooms is also very different. Experiencing, seeing, playing, trying and making mistakes may not be optimal in higher ed teaching but it would work if there’s a guide or model. Those who have effective online courses should be visible, share their thinking, even when mistakes get made.

    Your final question digs into my thinking about wayfinding – smells and aroma may lead people to the meal, image and presentation of the meal may entice them to try it, and the flavours will keep them at the table. All these are part of the wayfinding experience in digital learning spaces. Those who design digital learning/teaching places need to keep the full range of senses activated and engaged. Those who come to the table need to be open to the possibilities.

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