Where is a new online instructor to start?

English: no original description

Starting line, Indianapolis Speedway (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Or, where to begin when introducing novice instructors to online teaching & learning?

To continue the theme from my previous post, I would suggest that it is key to introduce the notion of iteration, or redesign. The language of “course conversion” has always bugged me, because to me it implies a kind of mechanical, one-time translation process from in-person to online, without really rethinking (iterating) the design of the course for the new environment. In fact, Ko & Rossen say “if you’re converting an existing course into an online version, your basic approach need not change.” (p. 12) I think that could send the wrong message, though if I read that in context, the “basic approach” they refer to is not the approach of teaching the course, it is the approach to designing the course – considering goals, objectives, tasks, assignments, etc. The challenge is to get faculty to reconsider all of those things as they account for the “opportunities afforded by the new online environment.”

Ko & Rossen go on to say some important things about their ideals for what happens as faculty engage in online course design:

You will fashion tasks and exercises that emphasize student collaboration and de-emphasize the traditional role of the instructor (p. 14)

[Teaching online] makes them better teachers — not only online, but also in their face-to-face classes … We find that the instructional design process becomes less implicit and more of a deliberate enterprise. (p. 19)

So I appreciate the reflective intent of the Where the Hell Do I Start exercise and its introduction of a more deliberate approach to course design. But I also wonder if it moves a little too quickly forward without raising some more fundamental questions and prompts for instructors to consider changes in their curriculum and/or their teaching. [Full disclosure: my score on the pedagogy Questionnaire when I force myself to make selections is a 7 – very much at the student-centered/constructivist end of the spectrum.]

So for me, the Getting Started Chart would do well to raise a few more questions, especially to those who score at the higher end of the questionnaire. Should you really just  jump into creating online lectures galore? And not to give a free pass to those at the other end of the spectrum, if you are great at doing groupwork in person, how well will that really translate to the online environment? Do you provide sufficient instructions and structure, or are you just really good at facilitating, explaining, and sorting out issues on the fly in the classroom?

But even more than that, we are getting to instructional methods right off the bat. Shouldn’t we be first doing some thinking about course outcomes, and aligning outcomes with content, activities, and assessment? Things that are a bit bigger picture? I think this is what Ko & Rossen are suggesting as the “basic approach” that doesn’t change when going online. I know the SLOs and Course Outlines of Record are fixed in CA community colleges – it’s not like you’re going to completely reinvent the course. But there could be a lot of attention given to rethinking how those SLOs have historically been taught and assessed, what has worked well, what could be improved, etc. For instructors elsewhere, there may be even more latitude to completely reconsider the fundamental outcomes of your class. And upon rethinking outcomes, and how you plan to assess student learning, you may come up with some very different thoughts about the content, assignments, and other activities that will best help students to get there, than if you begin the course design process by thinking about the instructional methods you prefer.

So for me the initial questions should be questions of inquiry:

  • into my own ideals & practice as an educator
  • into the effectiveness of the current course curriculum & design in helping students succeed
  • into the teaching & learning opportunities afforded with online technologies
  • into the challenges that an online version of the course will present to students
  • into the effective practices for online teaching & learning employed locally as well as solidly grounded “in the literature”

And these questions should be viewed not as being asked one time, but repeatedly.

What questions do you find helpful in prompting your growth as an educator? What questions would you find insulting or patronizing? What are the hard questions that should be asked, but rarely are?

Time for a Learning Styles post

The POD network (an organization of higher education faculty development professionals) listserv occasionally visits the topic of learning styles, and I felt compelled to weigh in this time. Unfortunately, my response came out terribly formatted, so I will redo it here.

The discussion included the usual back-and-forth between skeptics and not-so-skeptics, and then someone shared a brief essay from Neil Fleming, author of the VARK learning style assessment, questioning the arguments against learning styles. The essay begins:

The most damning criticism, about learning styles comes from researchers in the academic world. Not much comes from those who use learning styles as part of their strategies for learning, training and teaching. It is usually stated in these terms: “There is no evidence that knowledge of one’s learning styles is a benefit to learning.”

My response:

I disagree with the assertion that the strongest criticism of “learning styles” is that “There is no evidence that knowledge of one’s learning styles is a benefit to learning.”

The strongest criticism is that there is no evidence that instructors succeed in improving learning by attempting to diagnose student learning styles, and adjusting instruction accordingly for the individual students. This is what Pashler et al (2009) call the “meshing hypothesis” (p. 108), Coffield et al (2004) call the “matching hypothesis” (p. 121), and Riener and Willingham (2010) label the “critical and specific claim of learning-styles proponents.”

If learning-style proponents wish to argue that the critics are knocking at a straw man, they are, IMHO, willfully ignoring what many K-16 educators have decided that they are supposed to believe about learning styles.

On the question of whether self-awareness of learning styles is beneficial to learning, the critics are less clear. In fact, Coffield et al state (p. 132)

A reliable and valid instrument which measures learning styles and approaches could be used as a tool to encourage self- development, not only by diagnosing how people learn, but by showing them how to enhance their learning.

and (p. 120)

Learning styles can provide learners with a much needed ‘lexicon of learning’ – a language with which to discuss, for instance, their own learning preferences and those of others, how people learn and fail to learn, why they try to learn, how different people see learning, how they plan and monitor it, and how teachers can facilitate or hinder these processes. Through dialogue with a tutor knowledgeable about the relevant literature, the students’ repertoire of learning styles can be enhanced in the hope of raising their expectations and aspirations.

However, the concern is that a shallower approach to self-diagnosis of learning styles can be counter-productive.

Pashler et al. (p. 117):

There is growing evidence that people hold beliefs about how they learn that are faulty in various ways, which frequently lead people to manage their own learning and teach others in nonoptimal ways.

I would like to be optimistic in the vein of Coffield et al, but as long as most student knowledge about “learning styles” is derived from experience with teachers who believe in the matching approach, I think even this is problematic.

What beliefs and experiences do you have about “learning styles?”

Bonk / Bb MOOC week 1: Motivation & Encouragement (?)

inside of an Zambian school. The room welcome ...

Blackboard awaits the arrival of learners.  (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A 5-week MOOC on Instructional Ideas & Technology Tools for Online Success appeals to me, especially when taught by Dr. Curt Bonk. And I’m curious to see how Blackboard is used as the environment for this, for better or worse.

So the first week has us reading up on motivation, tone, and encouragement to help online learners persist and succeed.

And while the content is good, I think for many participants the clearest takeaway at this point is a major sense of cognitive dissonance between the message and the medium. Lisa Lane’s blog has a great discussion going on about this, with Curt Bonk himself and at least one Blackboard employee weighing in. There are Bb tool issues to be sure: The Blackboard discussion board sucks, there is no doubt about it, especially when it is being used at this scale. But I think most of the issues are course design: Why would an open online course be set up to encourage people to use closed-system blogs and wikis? You don’t have to do it that way. But even more so, it is the activity design that I think is the biggest problem thus far. MOOCs certainly have a heightened element of self-organization and learner control, but thus far this MOOC does not feel purposeful about encouraging and facilitating this. We shall see what emerges from the chaos.

I will hold off on posting about week 1 content until after Dr. Bonk’s presentation this afternoon. Unfortunately I will have to watch the archive rather than being able to participate live.