Everything I know about online teaching and learning is wrong

As I think about the MOOC, and how best to harness it for an academic setting and for perpetuating and sharing knowledge across the web, I realize that everything I know about instructional design is wrong. The world has turned upside down in a short year, and my discipline has evolved beyond me. I’m working through a few cognitive and emotional dilemmas:

First dilemma: Class size

As few as three years ago, I argued against large class sizes in online environments, citing the need for the instructor to maintain a presence and provide feedback. At the same time, I wrote about the need to reduce the need for managing discussions through proximity and therefore increase authentic student interaction and decrease dependence on the instructor. So I guess this dilemma isn’t new to me.

Second dilemma: Chaos

Only in the last year have I become somewhat comfortable with moving learning outside of the CMS. Like others, my motivation for moving outside included a frustration with Blackboard and its limitations, and an acknowledgement of the sterility of the discussion board or the blog in view of the burst of authentic networking, collaboration, perspectives and information sharing that occurs on Twitter and Google Plus.

Now I ask myself – how can we move from the “sterile” (and SAFE) CMS environment into an environment so abundant with information and the bigger problem – how do we maintain academic integrity by insuring that students take advantage of the interactions that may occur?

Third dilemma: The Behaviorist Quandary

I have come to accept that even though I am a constructionist, I do use behaviorist strategies for reinforcing the habits I believe contribute to an effective online course (and specifically to effective online discussion). How do I assist students who are required to take a technology course and who are not necessarily inclined toward social media in getting into the habit of monitoring Twitter and interacting in open social media spaces? How do I make my current feedback system (which works very well) scalable?

Fourth dilemma: Scaffolding

In a small course, I can determine the scaffolding needed. If the peer group doesn’t offer support, I can supplement the discussion with additional just-in-time resources. How will I know which resources are needed – how will I insure that the scaffolding is provided – in short, in a very large class how can I design the environment so that students are purposefully placed in a learning space which provides the best likelihood for gaining that just-in-time knowledge?

Working through the questions:

I am beginning to believe that having students self-report their learning paths over the week can provide some insight to the way they are interacting. I am considering requiring students to interact a number of days per week in their preferred venues, and then to self-report that manner in which that interaction assisted them. Now granted, I will have to read these reflections but fortunately I am teaching the MOOC with several colleagues. Another option might be to have students self-report these connections within a group, and having peers make recommendations on challenges that the students encountered.

In addition, using tools such as Paper.li or Scoop.it will assist us in tracking Blog postings. While this will be somewhat random, for those students who engage, it could provide some modeling and scaffolding. If, for instance, we designate a Twitter channel for secondary education, elementary education, and then special education, it is likely that students will at least gain insights from a daily paper relevant to them. We are considering having students post their blogs as well as relevant resources to these channels. (Are we still isolating students by doing this???)

While I have many questions right now about the way that this learning experience will work, I am confident that we can create a design that – at least at this point in our understanding – supports students. I’m very curious about the role of the instructor in this connectivist experience. How much time will this take – how can we design in a smart way so that we have the RIGHT information, not necessarily ALL information about student outcomes and the way students progress through this experience.

What an adventure. I am so glad to be participating in this evolution of the online environment – and regardless of the challenges, I am very glad we are moving beyond the “canned” online course, which had become quite unsatisfying and which for many years has seemed artificial in our robust networking age.

Any and all ideas and comments from any and all stakeholder would be welcome!

Lee Graham is the Coordinator of the STEM Department at the University of Alaska Southeast, and serves as a tutor for the University of Liverpool EdD Program. She is currently working to wrap her head around a MOOC for teachers which will be offered starting January 14, 2012. She may be reached at drlee.graham1@gmail.com

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