Friday, September 24, 2010

Control? Give Some Away to Keep It

"If everything seems under control, you're just not going fast enough." - Mario Andretti

You, the instructor, have total control of the online classroom - if you want it. You can keep your students quiet by taking away their voices. You can deny them chat privileges. You can even decide not to archive your meeting, thus forcing students to attend "live" in order to hear what you have to say. Everything they see, hear, and sense can be completely controlled by you - if, of course, your students decide to stay in your controlled classroom and ignore the text messages, e-mails, Facebook pokes, Tweets, and myriad other options available to them while you're teaching.

It's a little scary to give up control, but it may be necessary if you want to keep it. Sharing power with students is not an invitation to chaos: it's a recognition that students aren't really stupid, and they'll figure out what they can and can't get away with in most situations. At least one of their objectives in your course is to get a good grade, so they'll be looking for ways to "work your system" to accomplish that with the least effort. While you're lecturing in your controlled, question-free, interruptionless classroom, they'll be multi-tasking (or sleeping) without any way for you to check on their reactions or attention level. So who's really in control?

Most instructors in the Confer classroom have made a conscious decision to add more interaction - and give away some control - to their online sessions. And they've learned, by trial and error, how much control they're comfortable giving to students.

Marc Knobel discovered that there were lots of things going on at once when he taught math using Confer. He was talking, working with a graphics tablet, watching students as they arrived late to his classroom, monitoring the chat area for students' questions, and trying to teach. As he says in this clip, it took him a long time to learn to be comfortable with this type of confusion, and he settled on a few privileges - voice and chat - for his students. Giving away the whiteboard was not a viable option.

Larry Green, who also teaches math using Confer, tried giving whiteboard privileges to his students, and discovered "it was a free-for-all!" He had no whiteboard left once the students started drawing. Now, he reserves the whiteboard for himself while he's demonstrating problem-solving, and then gives the privilege to students one at a time. For example, one student draws a single point on the whiteboard graph, and Larry then gives the whiteboard tool to another student to draw a second point, and so on. This controlled sharing of power engages student participation without leaving the instructor completely powerless.

Robin Rogers Cloud, an art instructor, loves the participation she gets in her online Art Critique classes. She lets students talk, and says, "I can't get them to shut up now." In her face-to-face classes, they're often too shy to participate, but speaking up online seems to produce less inhibitions.

Students learn best when they actively participate in courses and take responsibility for their learning. In the Confer classroom, experimentation with power-sharing will show you what works best for you and your students, but here are some suggestions:
  • Start with small adjustments: give privileges sparingly and see what works
  • Ask questions often at first, and see how students prefer to respond (e.g., by chat, orally, whiteboard, or polling)
  • Use student feedback to guide discussion. If you ask a question, do something with the answers you get.
  • Create an assignment that allows students to tell you what they like best and least about the Confer classroom and their use of it. (And do something about what you learn from their answers.)
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