Saturday, September 21, 2013

Four Mistakes to Avoid When Teaching Virtually

I'll be blunt:  I think the worst of classroom teaching is normally what's dragged online and presented as e-learning.

In the following paragraphs, I've described several mistakes in designing e-Learning that you should avoid if you can.  Please.  Otherwise people look at the mistakes and think that they define e-Learning, and it gives the rest of us a bad name.

1) Pretending Google doesn't exist.

If your goal is to have the student "learn facts," please don't bother.  Captain Kirk doesn't need facts--that's why he has "computer" and his friend Spock.  Ignorance used to be remedied with learning, but now that's as temporary as a Google search.

Building a test that students can answer by having a second tab open . . . that's akin to educational malpractice.  Multiple choice questions are almost always Google-able, though with practice you can write questions that get up to Analyze or Evaluate in the taxonomy, and those are Google-proof.  It really does bring down the whole "testing" house of cards, now that our students have unlimited access to the collective knowledge of the world by touching their communicator and saying "Computer, how long will it take to reach Alpha Centauri at present warp-speed?"

2) Climbing Free-Solo

Learning online without any peer support isn't as dangerous as climbing free-solo, but it's not very fun, either.  If at all possible, set up your classes so that kids keep pace with each other throughout the term of the class.  This is beneficial to the students because they are social beings--we were all created to be in relationship.  This is beneficial to the course designer because it allows for productive forums, discussions, and peer-reviews, all of which are off-limits if students are to go through the courses entirely at their own pace without a cohort to go with.
Obviously one of the attractions of e-learning, from an administrative standpoint, is the ability to start kids at any time and have them finish at any time.  And all of us that ever had to endure sitting in a classroom for an entire term where the work required could have been done in two days . . . we all empathize and so we embrace the concept of work-at-your-own-pace.  But e-Learning already allows for that self-pacing!  When I assign projects (in my virtual classroom) that are calibrated to take students five hours in a week, the fast student that gets it done in three hours isn't sitting in my classroom being bored--he's either onto other projects or spending his time as he feels is valuable.  However, it's not in his best interest or in mine to have him blaze through a semester of 5-hour weeks in just three weeks, even though it's possible to do so.  Spending three weeks "finishing" the Studies in Shakespeare class is NOT the same as being released to go forward into the next projects, week by week, for 18 weeks.  Duration matters.  And we're not holding kids "back" by not allowing them to finish Shakespeare in three weeks, because virtual learning doesn't share that boredom-engendering speed-of-completion paradigm with F2F classrooms.

This may be beyond your control, if you're developing e-Learning in a system that embraces start-whenever scheduling, but it's worth thinking long and hard about.

3) Crowning Yourself "King Curator"

Do you remember the old days of the internet?  Back when people still capitalized the "i"?
In the nineties, Yahoo was developing a fabulous service of categorizing the knowledge of the Internet.  If you wanted to find the homepage of the Raiders, you had to either know the URL or try searches that would pull up all kinds of irrelevant results, OR you could navigate your way into | sports | football | NFL and look under the R's.  I thought that's how the future would be, that the best categorizing service for websites would win.  So did Yahoo.

When I was taking my first online courses to earn my Masters in Educational Technology in 6 A.G. (for those of you who still use the A.D. or C.E. methods for reckoning years, that's 2004), I noticed that the course designers thought their job was to curate the best links and resources into the classroom so I'd read them and learn.  I bet those course designers really cemented their understanding of the content as they curated links!  As with any teaching/learning, the person who does the most discovery makes the biggest advances in learning, and usually it's the teacher, not the student.  Okay, the problem?  The problem was that the links were already outdated and broken by the time I got to them!  Not all, but many--enough that I got really handy at using Google to search for the parts of the URLs that seemed most likely to get me to the article the teacher wanted me to see.  The articles were still online, but the URLs were too brittle and easily broken, in that shifting environment of the early-internet.

So should we curate no links for our kids?  Maybe.  To reference my Studies in Shakespeare class again, there is one assignment where I basically say "So, there's this guy named Shakespeare who wrote plays.  Please go educate yourself about him and create this timeline using such-and-such online timeline creation tool and give me the link.  Here's a Project Checklist you need to use as you work, so you know your project meets my requirements."  That's an example where I really gave them no leg up at all, because I know that it's hard to go very wrong with a search like "guy named Shakespeare."  Then there's another assignment about iambic pentameter, and for that one I give them four good links and ask them to find three more that are similar and better.  I tell them that I'll use their better links in the next round of Studies in Shakespeare, but really I want each student to see some pretty okay links and spend the time to find the better ones for himself.
It is good to curate resources for your kids in order for them to have a starting place, but to allow them to curate is better.

4) Now it's Your Turn

I've listed several of the mistakes I've seen committed in e-learning.  What have you seen that wasn't done as well as it should have been?  What paradigms accidentally got brought into online learning from the classroom, that really should have stayed in the classroom?  Make this your soap box--what will you add to our "Mistakes to Avoid List"?

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