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An Old Dog Can Learn New Tricks


by Dr. Dawn Wilson, Associate Professor in Educational Technology

After  over 20 years, I have just completed teaching my first few sections of an online course.  I must admit, while initially skeptical of the whole idea, I find myself rather pleased at the outcome.  At the same time, it helped me to shift some of my thinking about teaching and learning not only online but also in face-to-face contexts.

I teach courses that help educators learn how to integrate technology in the classroom.  These teachers believe a lot in the face-to-face classroom.  When I began this process, I was not sure if students could produce the same kinds of learning in an online course verses the face-to-face course.  To be honest, I wasn’t sure I would like teaching online.  I too love the face-to-face interactions I get to have with students as they are learning something new.  You know, that aha moment!  I hated to miss out on those moments.  Additionally, in my face-to-face courses (technology integration mostly), there are often levels of remediation that takes place as students navigate the use of new software and tools. I wasn’t sure how that would translate to an online environment.  

It turns out, students were able to produce the same learning regardless of their environment. I also learned that in the online environment, the best part was to watch the students support each other’s learning. The online discussions and Q&A forums became places where students could be encouraged, challenged and supported by someone other than me in the classroom. This was awesome to read and watch in action. It was truly a powerful learning community focused on the topics of the week.  By the end of each discussion I had heard comments from every class member (when was the last time that ever happened in a face-to-face-class). In addition, I was able to personally give feedback and comments about student products and contributions to the discussion each week to each class member (again, when was the last time that happened in a face-to-face class). I loved the fact that while I designed the instruction and created the learning environment, there were many voices in the instructional environment – not just mine. I learned new things along with my students as they explored topics in ways I had not thought about initially.

It was also fascinating to watch my graduate students begin to embrace the possibility and the benefits of online or blended or flipped instruction.  They found the individualized feedback and time on task very valuable.  In a world where we are all asked to differentiate, they found online learning itself to be differentiated (especially by pace) for the student.  One student may need an hour to accomplish a task, while the next may need to rewatch or reread things several times before clearly understand the content.  If the course is constructed well, students should also have a way to practice the content and demonstrate their learning in a variety of ways.  Assessment should include not only multiple choice tests or quizzes, but also discussions, projects, presentations and exams. 

Don’t get me wrong…I don’t have it completely figured out.  I need to be more intentional about guiding and facilitating the level of the depth in the student postings. I need to make refinements in some of the rubrics to more clearly delineate good from great learning artifacts. I need to find better ways to manage all of this work – individualized feedback, requires extra time, and I haven’t mastered a manageable system.

What I am most encouraged to find that graduate students now have many options available for them as they choose to extend and expand their learning.  These choices will only grow as we advance our vision of online learning.  As I have watched the Khan Academy model grown in acceptance, I find I am even more encouraged about how these models can enhance even our K12 and undergraduate student experiences. 

In Disrupting Class Christensen suggests that computer assisted learning will revolutionize teaching and learning.  Student will sit in front of a computer and between the program and the computer and the student, learning progress will be made.  My recent experiences have me looking for ways to build a learning community for teaching and learning. We are challenged to dig deeper in a learning community, and I found my role as teacher/facilitator in the online class different.  I spent much more time thinking about, planning and preparation for the learning.  Then once the class began, I spent more time individualizing instruction.  Students functioned, not as an island, but within an online learning community constantly challenging each other.  This teaching and learning model is a win-win scenario for our students.  I can’t wait to do it all again!

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