Friday, January 20, 2012

Improvise or Stick to the Script? How to Plan Your Online Interactions

"Creative teaching is improvisational, and participatory classroom discussions gain their effectiveness from their improvisational, collaborative nature... Once we recognize that creative teaching is improvisational, it opens up a new range of opportunities for training teachers, because teacher-training programs can take advantage of the training that aspiring improvisational actors receive. Aspiring improv actors begin by taking improvisational acting classes, and these classes teach a set of basic principles that encourage collaborative and emergent performances." - R. Keith Sawyer, "Creative Teaching: Collaborative Discussion as Disciplined Improvisation."

The Confer classroom provides ample opportunities for communication and interaction, including audio conversation, shared content, text chat, and polling. Many researchers - Wang and Hsu, Saw et. al. Ciekanski and Chanier, and Hampel to name a few - have demonstrated that students appreciate and value these features. The instructor in this environment can lecture, answer questions, lead a brainstorming session, organize group activities, role-play, conduct debates, and critique student work - and this doesn't come close to the possible options available.

For some instructors - especially those new to synchronous online instruction - all these options - with the attendant tools needed to facilitate them - can be daunting. To effectively switch from lecturing on whiteboard material to chatting with students, you have to pay attention to the whole screen. To set up an impromptu poll and share the results with the class, you have to be comfortable with the polling tool. Switching between breakout rooms requires some dexterity, as does effective desktop sharing. This "split attention" can overload the teacher, and it can also be hard on students, who may become confused by the mix of media. Many Confer instructors find a "comfort zone" that involves the use of one or two tools only, and they stay in that zone for all of their classes.

A new study by Karen Kear and her colleagues at The Open University suggests that careful planning and design are helpful for successful synchronous online instruction, but that "the real-time aspect means that learning and teaching in these environments is never predictable." Instead, say Kear et. al., "effective teaching in web conferencing environments ... requires a skilled balance of planning and moment-by-moment adaptation." R. Keith Sawyer calls this "disciplined improvisation." The Open University researchers were interested in how experienced tutors would adapt to tutoring in the online environment and how they learned to improvise in a disciplined manner.

One thing these tutors discovered is that improvisation requires "a repertoire of things to choose from." Because slides have to be pre-loaded, it's necessary to have these ready to go in case you need them. They also placed great value on preparing students to use the various Web conferencing tools so that they were comfortable in the online classroom (although the students overwhelmingly reported that they enjoyed the environment). Practice, practical training, and prepared materials for use in the virtual classroom were viewed by the OU tutors as most necessary for success. Here are some of the most revelatory comments:

  • "The thing that really impressed me is how enthusiastic my students were to be able to hear each other, and how much more personal Elluminate felt to them than the forum."
  • "For me one of the real benefits of Elluminate is that the preparation time is completely focused on the topics for the tutorial rather than logistics of how to get there etc."
  • Of course by writing on the board they got my attention more easily, but it also became a bit more collaborative – typically one student would start an equation, the next would finish it and a third would add the units. Then I would suggest another way of solving the problem or someone would ask a question ..."
I haven't thought of myself as an improv actor, but the shoe fits. I've definitely become a better Confer user by interacting with other Confer users, improvising as the situation and audience demands. I've used scripts with some online lectures, but I'm able to leave them when there's a reason to interact. The key is to feel planned, to be ready for interruptions, but to allow the moment to be something that's never been before.

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