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OK, so it’s not as catchy as “Georgia On My Mind” (words from a popular song lyric) but, Georgia is not on my mind. So I’ll stick with Faculty Development On My Mind.

In instructional design, we talk about the student interacting with three things in the online classroom: the instructor, the course materials, and each other. One reason we talk about this is to remind ourselves to look away from the course materials once in a while. It’s easy to design instructional content. It’s much more difficult to design effective student-instructor and peer-to-peer interaction.

For one thing, you have to convince the student that these interactions matter. That the learning experience consists of more than interacting with course materials and performing on assessments. But what about the other thing – convincing the instructor that the teaching experience consists of more than assigning activities for interacting with course materials and grading assessments.

To convince all of the parties involved that they should look up from the books and exams you need to talk about social learning theory. This is the theory which holds that the student must take the new idea being taught and manipulate it to fit within their old ideas. They manipulate it by describing it, discussing it, debating it, sharing it, etc. All of these are social activities because they are describing, discussing, debating, and sharing it with another human. After doing all of this they can write their paper or take their exam. And then, (not so) magically – learning happens.

So, for learning to happen the learning environment must include student-instructor and peer-to-peer interaction with the specific purpose of describing, discussing, debating, and sharing course content. I hear you saying: “Wait a minute, the instructor is only one half of that process.” My answer is: “Yes, but …” But we have to go back to the part about “convincing the parties that they should look away from the materials and exams.” Remember that?

Here’s a scenario: Imagine that I am an online student and I have two assignments this week. One is to write a one-page paper discussing various pasta sauces. The other is to post to the discussion board my preference of pasta with meat sauce vs. pasta with meatless sauce. Let’s add that the paper is worth 5 points and the discussion board post 3 points. Do I skip the discussion board and use all of the time I have set-aside for class to write a really good paper worthy of 5 points?

Consider this variable and see if it changes your guess of the choice I will make. What if this is week 3 of the course and in weeks 1 and 2 the instructor participated in the discussion board in a manner which drew out a wide range of responses from my peers? What if, based on previous discussion boards, I expect the instructor to respond to folks with comments like: “Yeah, but have you ever had fresh prosciutto?” Or, “Do you think the nutritional value of the pine nuts in the pesto sauce outweighs their high calorie count?” These are comments which might spur the discussion in a new, different, interesting, and even fun direction. Hey, as a student in this class, I might even respond to one of my peers with my own probing, let’s-look-at-this-in-a-different-light question.

That, my friends, is the value of an instructor who has been taught why and how to engage students in the learning process. That instructor understands how to make the online classroom a social learning classroom. That is why we need to develop faculty.

Phew, now my mind is free for other things – perhaps even thoughts of Georgia.