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Brief history of online education

  1. World Wide Web is born
  2. Someone decides to teach something to someone else via computer
  3. The learning materials are scanned and sent along with instructions for doing activities; materials are read and activities are completed and sent back; activities are graded

End of story, right?

Not so fast

For some reason folks kept dropping-out of online classes.

Luckily, folks like Dr. Rena Palloff, Dr. Keith Pratt, Dr. Rita-Marie Conrad, and Dr. J. Ana Donaldson have been studying what it is about online courses that makes them unique – and makes them not as successful as traditional teaching methods.

It turns out that you need more than a set of materials and someone who wants to learn.

What the researchers have learned is that the online environment does not naturally have what Experiential Learning proponent John Dewey called “active learning”.  And, besides having an active learner, you need a few other things such as:

  • meaningful instructional goals for engaged-learning through “constructivism” as described by Piaget,
  • and it all has to be relevant to the learner’s life outside of the school-setting (as championed by Knowles).

One way to create an environment that promotes active learning, engages learners, and ensures that lessons are relevant is through learning communities.

Problem solved!

When we sign folks up for class we will tell them that they will be expected to build a feeling of community with other students (none of whom they are likely to meet face-to-face).

What?  That might not work?  OK, let’s talk about

Building Learning Communities

What they are: (this part is easy) they are the folks involved in the learning; the students and the faculty

What do they do: hmm, well, they type to each other.  They type about what they are learning, how they are learning it and how they feel about what and how they are learning.  Clear?  Let’s just say you will know it when you see it.  This is what it looks like:

  • Different forms of communication: discussion boards, blogs, student lounge, etc.
  • Regular and regulated communication: frequent interactions (at least weekly), discussions that stay on the defined topic, respectful dialogue
  • Minimal (but important) input from faculty who are seen as scaffolding, not leading, the learning

In this environment the learning community becomes a place where students have room to become “knowledge-generators”.  Social constructivist Weigel said “Content is the clay of knowledge construction; learning takes place when it is fashioned into something meaningful.”  In online instruction, it is in the learning community that the clay is passed from hand to hand, molded, shaped and formed into something new.  A thing which is uniquely meaningful to each community member.

Online learning reaches middle-age (sort of)

Review of what we know:

  • People want to share knowledge
  • The internet is a great place for sharing
  • Moving face-to-face courses online without modifications does not work (students drop-out, remember?)
  • Online instruction can be a more personable environment for sharing, molding, and creating knowledge when you establish learning communities

Question: how can we establish an environment in which the learners move from being “fed” knowledge to one in which they “create” knowledge?

Let’s face it, we spend 75% of instructional time telling folks to sit still and pay attention (while we are trying to sit still and pay attention ourselves); then, upon leaving school folks are expected to Think For Ourselves.  Which class covers that important topic?

Right now, in the middle-age of online learning some very bright and caring folks are figuring out how to help learners

  • Learn to collaborate (I hear that in the dark ages they made students compete for grades, that can’t be true, right?)
  • Trust the community enough to share some personal information (I love dogs)
  • Understand that you preserve community health by responding to others in a bridge-building manner (I love dogs too) rather than a bridge-destroying manner (dogs are stupid, let’s talk about course assignment)
  • See the faculty as facilitators of knowledge, not givers of knowledge

It’s all up from here

In an environment of mutual respect, collaboration and sharing of knowledge the internet can be a great place to learn.  Let’s keep reaching out to each other, gently and with kind consideration – who knows, we just might learn something.

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