ONLINE LEARNING IS AN ENVIRONMENT
By Jake Clapp, GOA Academic Dean
Today’s educational landscape is a rich and varied amalgam of learning modalities: project-based learning; experiential learning; cooperative learning; online learning. The first three modifiers (project-based, experiential, cooperative) imply distinct teaching methods that fundamentally alter how material is taught and learned. They imply distinct pedagogies. In project-based learning, for example, typically standardized content is learned through student-generated projects that often have some sort of real-world relevance, as opposed to characteristically didactic methods of teaching content first, and then having students apply it after.
When we talk of online learning, however, we’re not really talking about a modality that demands its own set of new teaching methods. We’re talking about a new environment where learning occurs, and even today – in 2013 – it’s not all that new. Don’t get me wrong, the extent to which the online environment is distinct from the classroom environment is immense, and thus presents an adaptation challenge for teachers. Traditional classrooms are bound by comparatively strict limits on space and time. Unless your 10th grade English class, for example, is going on a field trip, your students’ learning of English will happen within the same walls and usually at the same time (or at least for the same duration) every day. Creating a robust learning experience outside of those bounds, especially given the technologies teachers must learn to facilitate their online classes, takes a tremendous amount of time that is not always available to them. It is not surprising that when I talk to friends and colleagues that have taken online courses – mostly MOOCs and graduate-level courses – they describe undernourished discussion forums with bland prompts; video lectures followed by automated assessments taken in isolation; email lists with anonymous, faceless contributors. When so many people share the same experience, it’s no wonder why teaching ‘online’ is often mistaken as a novel, and sub-par, teaching method.
Any robust, engaging, and social learning experience that can happen in a classroom can happen online, and vice versa. Yet to replicate the greatness of classroom experiences we must be cognizant of all of the nuanced ways that we teach in a classroom: how we give feedback through subtle gestures; how – in shaping our physical spaces – we foster collaboration often without thinking about it; how the proximity of our students, regardless of the curricula we design, creates a social atmosphere that promotes learning; how the bounds of time and space characteristic of a classroom do some of the work for us. Teaching online is hard.
The inherent challenge of designing high-quality online learning experiences is why teachers at Global Online Academy, all of whom are experienced classroom teachers, are required to complete over 70 hours of training. All teachers participate in a 4-week online course followed by a weeklong residential workshop before they can teach online because the environmental differences are so profound. Exemplifying a well-designed online lesson that intentionally deepens students’ understanding of course topics through social interaction and experiential learning comes from Tristan Chirico, a former History teacher at King’s Academy outside of Amman, Jordan. Tristan taught a Global Online Academy course in the fall of 2012 called Declaring Our Humanity. This course, using the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as a foundational document, aimed to – in Tristan’s words – “provide [students] with an intellectual toolkit for understanding some of the most pressing human rights issues facing the world today”. In one of his first assessments, he had the students collaborate on creating a class charter that would go on to serve as a binding bill of rights for his classroom’s community. He had students draft amendments in such categories as: late work policy; standards of excellence; return time of student work; and frequency of contact. Once an amendment was drafted and posted in a shared discussion space, it had to be unanimously approved by all members of the class for ratification. Even one dissenting vote (which had to be accompanied by an explanation of why the amendment was not yet sufficient) required the drafter to go back and make edits. Here is a visual example of how one of the amendments went through ratification.
Here is Natalie’s amendment after processing all of the suggestions. Notice that in addition to the 1 person who ‘liked’ Natalie’s initial post, there are now 9 more who approve it since the modifications.
This is what I would consider to be a great example of a modern assessment, one that is project-based, experiential, and cooperative all at the same time. The product of the students’ work also serves as a usable document. In the collaborative, and crowd-sourced nature of how amendments are written and ultimately ratified, the students play dual roles as creators and feedback-disseminators; the assessment allows the teacher to hone in on each student’s thought process and take time to give targeted, formative feedback. The feedback is subsequently applied to the student’s revision of their assigned amendment. Unlike much of the feedback I see delivered in schools today, and unlike much of the feedback I used to give my chemistry students in the margins of their end-of-chapter tests (‘Nice work on this problem, but you made a mistake here when you neglected to convert gallons to liters’), this usable feedback is truly formative as it can be almost immediately applied.
Is this method and practice of teaching students, of helping them understand the connection between Constitutions and Human Rights by engaging in a highly collaborative and asynchronous drafting of a class charter, unique to the online realm? I would argue that everything Tristan did in this lesson could be replicated in a brick-and-mortar classroom. It would look and feel different, of course, but those differences would be largely environmental (hands raised instead of ‘likes’ clicked to show approval of an amendment, for example). Teaching and learning in the online environment demands creative approaches to instruction, assessment, community building, and formative feedback. When technology is creatively leveraged, as it was by Tristan in his Class Charter assessment, online classes can be robust environments for great teaching to happen using a multitude of methods and practices.
My experience has been that online environments allow teachers to play creatively with time and space in ways that can alter and enhance their practice. When we talk about online as a pedagogy, however, we risk evoking memories of boring discussion forums and put a limit on the kinds of creative, innovative, and highly connected experiences we should be designing for our students.