Monday, November 1, 2010

Training, Teaching and E-Learning

I have had a lot of questions lately around what constitutes good instruction, especially as I have been learning more about e-learning and online instruction, and visiting classes for my work.  I have also been thinking a lot about the difference and distinction between what a trainer does and what a teacher does.  While I know there is some overlap and see that there might be some tools, techniques and ideas that are more identified with one than the other, they seem to occupy different spheres.  My sense is that the trainer’s work is more concrete, tangible and finite.  Whereas in classroom instruction there may be instructional goals and objectives and an instructional method used to arrive at these, the teacher’s work sometimes seems to be hard to measure beyond the student outcomes (grades or test scores).  For instance, how does student satisfaction factor in course planning?  I would say in the university context, it does not factor much.  Therefore, I could see how training and e-learning design can be a more iterative and creative process because its success depends on trainees developing new skills and knowledge that they must implement right away.  If they are unable to do so then the training was a failure to a certain extent.

I gathered from Brandon’s article and from our discussion last week how e-learning design requires collaboration and team work.  By contrast, in traditional classroom teaching or in the synchronous context, lessons are typically the result of an individual instructor’s effort.  Courses are rarely developed in collaboration.   While in some schools and colleges there are opportunities for teachers and instructors to collaborate, few teachers do.  There are few incentives for teachers to collaborate especially in colleges where a large part of the faculty is on the tenure track.   This is true of where I work which is an Institute that provides industry-specific and academic programs to working adults within a university.  The way our courses are organized is still very much based on the traditional college course format: one instructor and lecture-based.  Students have to write papers in order to receive a grade.  Few instructors encourage students to collaborate.  The underlying assumption is that our students' lives are busy enough and that asking them to work collaboratively might be too much to ask for.   However, I do think that collaboration is useful, encourages creative thinking and problem-solving and can foster innovation.

In the case of instructor collaboration, Bender argues the right balance has to be struck in order for each person to have equal input into the teaching and management of a course.   The same principle would apply to students working on a project together.  Although she admits that collaborative work can be challenging because the personalities of the teachers and the circumstances of the class come into play and influence how well things go in the classroom.  Typically, when there is collaboration between teachers, the partnership or pairing assumes unequal status and experience, e.g., professor and teacher assistant or lead teacher and assistant teacher.  The teacher assistant and assistant teacher have less experience and knowledge, and are learning how to teach and manage a classroom from the professor or lead teacher.  Thus in these kinds of situations it can be hard for true collaboration to arise unless the professor or lead teacher is willing and open to ideas that the assistant teacher offers.  It also requires relinquishing control and the need to be an authority all the time.  It would ultimately require for the culture of the university to change dramatically.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Musings on the Learning Process

Bender raised a lot of interesting questions in her third chapter.  There were times that I did not fully agree with her characterization of the “campus class.” For instance, campus classes emphasize the interaction between the teacher and the student.  In my experience, students tend to interact with their class on many levels, e.g., before, during or after class with other classmates, during office hours with a professor, etc.  In other words, the learning process does not necessarily take place only within the confines of the classroom.  Students often read texts and produce assignments that extend what is covered in class.  The reading of texts and the doing of assignments are very much a part of the experience of learning and construction of meaning around a specific body of knowledge.  In this respect, asynchronous and synchronous learning requires a lot of different kinds of interactions around content and require the same effort on the part of the learner, e.g., attention, focus, motivation, etc.  The quality of these interactions and the effort will inevitably affect the quality of the learning experience.

Given that I have more experience with the campus class than the online class, as someone of my generation would,  I may be more biased toward the campus class.  I work at a university and have a lot of first-hand experience with the campus class.  I review curriculum and syllabi; and hire, observe and evaluate faculty.  This regular exposure to the campus class gives me a different understanding of the teaching and learning process, especially as it relates to the non-traditional student.  As a consequence I have had to shed some of my own assumptions about what makes for an optimal learning environment or experience.  What I’ve gathered from all of this is that the learning process may be much more complex than we realize because it happens inside people’s heads and we are all different (hence, the learning styles).  Furthermore, we can only understand learning as it manifests in people’s behavior because it all happens in their heads.  This is also why I believe the learning process remains a mystery or something that is continually being studied and examined.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Roles in Online Learning

The roles of content, learner and instructor will invariably change depending on whether the context is a class, an online class, or an asynchronous solution such as e-learning.
In a traditional face-to-face classroom, the instructor is understood to be the expert and authority on the content to be presented and taught to his or her students.  He or she is responsible for putting together a lesson plan that fits within a specific curriculum.  He or she controls how, when, and why the content is to be presented to his or her students.  However, thinking and methods about teaching or pedagogy have evolved to such an extent that even in this context, the learner becomes the center of the educational process.  The instructor in a face-to-face classroom is expected to be more of a facilitator.  As Bender (2003) writes the instructor needs to be constantly aware of his or her students’ needs every step of the way by modifying and adjusting the content or structure of the class in order to be a more effective teacher (p. 12).  Yet, students need to be responsible for their own learning and not expect the instructor to tell them everything they need to know.  The teacher’s role is not just to “deposit” instruction to students whose role is just to sit patiently “receiving, memorizing and repeating” (Freire, 2003) what they’ve heard in class.  Paolo Freire (2003) appropriately describes this way of learning as the “banking” model of teaching and learning.  Rather, the instructor provides opportunities for the students to be engaged in their own learning process in his or her class and outside as well, through assignments or projects.  Therefore, I believe being a facilitator encourages students to interact more fully with the course content, with each other, and the instructor and puts on greater onus on them to be "active" in the process.

In an online classroom, an instructor can still play the roles of the expert and authority but to a lesser degree.  For instance, a particular instructor’s expertise or authority on a particular subject might attract or motivate students to take his or her class.  However, the ability to balance these two previous roles (expert and authority) with that of facilitator will help him or her be a more effective online teacher.  Students may not tolerate well an online class that would involve primarily listening to a lecture, few opportunities for discussion or ways to interact with the content of the course or instructor. Due to the geographical or physical distance of the participants in an online classroom, the instructor needs to create a community of learners with his or her students.  As Bender states in quoting Wegerif that “to decrease transactional distance, [it] is the behavior of the instructor, who, after all, sets the tone for the whole class” ( p. 9).  It becomes imperative that students feel that they belong to the group.  As a result, this community’s existence depends on their participation and engagement.  In this way, the quality of the communication and interaction among the members of the online class (instructor to student, student to instructor, and student to student) impacts the overall teaching and learning process. Therefore, the role of facilitator becomes more important in an online classroom.

In an asynchronous solution, the coach, resource and personalizer of instruction are more appropriate roles.  In the context of e-learning or a simulation-based learning environment, the content should optimally be designed to allow the learner to retrieve and interact with content at his or her own pace, level of experience and interest.  The designer of an asynchronous solution has to take into consideration the variety and characteristics of learners to whom the e-learning is targeted, and adapt the content accordingly.  He or she plays a more limited role than that of the instructor of a classroom or online course.  The content in e-learning will serve as a resource because it can be retrieved on an as needed basis.  In the context of training, the instructor can be play many roles: facilitator, expert, authority, resource, coach, and personalizer of instruction.  It all depends on the nature of what is being taught and to what end.

Bender, T. (2003). Discussion-Based Online Teaching to Enhance Student Learning: Theory, Practice and Assessment.  Virginia: Stylus Publishing, LLC.

Freire, P. (1993). The Pedagogy of the Oppressed.  New York: The Continuum Publishing Company.

Wegerif, R. (1998). “The Social Dimension of Asynchronous Learning Networks.” The Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks 2.