A debate has been raging in my school district over the last seven months: Raised voices have argued that online learning means students are sitting silently at computers, not speaking to each other, “robots” clicking away on keyboards with no social interaction and no hands-on learning opportunities. Exhausted educators have shared the research, have spoken about the success of students in the vast array of e-learning courses available now that would never be options for our students otherwise. And while the storm seems to have subsided a bit in the course of the last several weeks, there are still heavy, threatening clouds in the distance...and I have no idea what they will bring in the weeks and months to come as my district, and so many other small, rural districts in Alaska, move forward with online learning opportunities for students in our high school classrooms. Moore and Kearsley provide a reason for some of the resistance we are seeing in my district: “Since most students have little experience learning at a distance, they are unfamiliar with it and may be anxious about taking distance education courses” (164). The authors are talking about adult learners here, and it is the adults in our district who are expressing the greatest concern about online learning. We fear what we do not know. Case in point.
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When we started with online learning opportunities for students in our small schools on a relatively large scale (for us) a year ago, we were definitely lacking in providing students with appropriate support. We “told” students that online classes would be a lot of work; we were clear (in our minds) in explaining that online learning requires a different set of skills than a traditional f2f classroom.
This year has been different. We carefully selected e-learning lab mentors and provided them with a bit more support. Still not enough, but a bit more in terms of online training with the student information systems, we directed them to some videos and articles to read, and we kept careful tabs on how the mentors were developing learning environments in the labs. It has made all the difference in the world. Students walk into the e-learning lab this year and know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that they are in that environment to learn. There may be 16 students in the room at any given time, and all 16 may be taking different classes simultaneously. The mentors are on their feet all day long, rotating among computer stations, talking with students, answering questions, occasionally going back to their own computers to email instructors, to contact tech support with questions, and to inform parents of students’ progress. They are the students’ biggest cheerleaders...and also their worst nightmares if a student misbehaves and disrupts the learning environment, or if a student falls too far behind.
We have learned firsthand how absolutely critical f2f support is for students learning in a virtual world.
Just today, one of our e-learning lab mentors stopped by my office to provide an update on “her world”...and it was truly amazing to consider how complex her role is, and how important what she does is to students’ success in their online classes. We work with four different online vendors, so the mentors are not only supporting students as they work on dozens of different classes, but the adults
While a couple of the course providers with whom we work offer optional Skype study halls and office hours, actual f2f meetings via an online interface are not required. I believe this is one area that absolutely could improve students’ feelings of connectedness and their ultimate success and satisfaction with a course. Throughout this semester, I have encountered the importance of “connecting” again and again; this week’s reading included ample testimonials from students. One that struck me noted that “[Skype is...] Very good tool for connecting remotely—building a sense of community for distance learners” (p. 155). My own experiences as an adult learner this semester support this belief. I am currently taking three classes. In one class, we have not had a single Skype or Google Hangout session. While I thoroughly enjoy the course and believe I am learning a great deal, I do not feel particularly connected to my classmates. In another course, we have frequent Skype and/or Google Hangout meetings. This f2f, voice-to-voice communication, combined with reading their weekly posts, has created a real sense of community. I know these people. In the third class, we spent the first six weeks of the course in a strictly text-based asynchronous environment with no video/audio communication. Just this week, the instructor organized an informal Google Hangout around lunchtime. Only a few of us were able to join, but it was amazing! What a difference it made to see the faces of my classmates (beyond their tiny thumbnail photos next to their posts), to hear their voices, to watch them laugh. No matter how convenient or commonplace online learning becomes in the years to come, human connections will remain paramount to their success.
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This week’s invitation to explore three additional sources gives me an opportunity to include a few pieces that have really made me think...especially in light of this week’s topic AND the stormy educational environment in which I work right now (when it comes to blended and online learning, anyway). Our world is changing. No, it HAS changed.
GOOD. (2012). Future learning short documentary. Youtube video. Retrieved from http://youtu.be/qC_T9ePzANg
Kansas Policy Institute. (2012). Ollie and the train. Revolutionizing the K-12 experience with student-centric online learning. Youtube video. Retrieved from http://youtu.be/3LO9A_M4iNo
MacArthur Foundation. (2010). Rethinking learning: The 21st century learner. Youtube video. Retrieved from http://youtu.be/c0xa98cy-Rw
Moore, M. and Kearsley, G. (2012). Distance Education: A Systems View of Online Learning. [eBook edition]. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.