Friday, October 9, 2009

Learning to Interact Online: It's a Progression

"It is assumed by academic institutions that if online courses and programs are offered, teachers will know how to teach in that environment, and more importantly, students will know how to learn or engage with that material. Our experience is that the opposite is true. Faculty need training and assistance in making the transition to the online environment, but students also need to be taught how to learn online. Learning through the use of technology takes more than mastery of a software program or comfort with the hardware being used. It takes an awareness of the impact that this form of learning has on the learning process itself. As more and more institutions and their instructors enter the cyberspace classroom and encounter both successes and difficulties in the process, they are coming face-to-face with the realities of online teaching and asking more, not fewer, questions about how to make the transition successfully." - Rena Paloff and Keith Pratt, Lessons from the Cyberspace Classroom.

I've had occasion to notice the progressions that instructors make as they master the tools of educational technology and apply them to pedagogical tasks. For example, a teacher who comes to Confer for the first time has an interactive whiteboard, which is the most obvious tool for presenting content to students. This instructor will begin by using the whiteboard only as a visual support, presenting static slides and accompanying them by narration. The whiteboard becomes, in essence, the online equivalent of a projector, and there is little or no effort to use it for conceptual development, interaction with students, or as a discussion stimulus.

After time, some instructors become comfortable enough with the Confer environment to use the whiteboard to solicit student responses. He/she may use the pointing tool to highlight some of the content, or allow students to draw or annotate the online slides. More and more, this instructor will use the whiteboard to challenge students to think by means of visual stimuli and verbal coaching.

Eventually, these instructors develop a new way of thinking about the whiteboard and its usefulness. They see ways to use it as an integral part of any online session with students, and they try to integrate its inherent interactivity into their lesson plans. They have developed an awareness both of the available techniques for annotation, drawing, and manipulating screen content and objects, and have become fluent in using these techniques. Now, they make sure that students - individually or collectively - react to and interact with the whiteboard content. They drag and drop students' annotations to match concepts, hide or reveal certain objects to engage questions, match objects or terms on the screen, or use freehand drawings to illustrate improvements or new approaches. The whiteboard becomes less and less a screen for displaying static content and increasingly a tool for prompting discussion, eliciting responses, developing ideas, and testing hypotheses. These instructors often develop their own content specifically for the whiteboard rather than displaying ready-made PowerPoints.

Gilly Salmon calls this latter kind of teaching "e-moderating" and maintains that it is the key to teaching and learning online. Salmon's five-stage model describes the ways both instructors (e-moderators) and learners progress in the online classroom: 1. Access and Motivation, in which the first challenges are to successfully login and make the visit worth the trouble; 2. Socialization, in which the challenges are to adapt to individual learner needs, provide bridges between old skills and new ones, and allow for individualized expression; 3. Information Exchange, which invites challenges and participation, encourages group tasks and roles, and is characterized by often "messy" communications; 4. Knowledge Construction, with much questioning, discussion, challenging, motivating, and interaction in order to build understanding; and 5. Development, in which the learners become independent critical thinkers, able to inject humor into the process, and able to reflect on what and how they have learned online.

Thankfully, I've been able to watch some of this progression among our Confer users, and to benefit from their experiences and insights. As these e-moderators emerge in our learning community, they'll help all of us to understand the developing online conferencing environment and how it can best enable learning and growth.

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