The Wrong Way

I forgot that there are two kinds of online courses.

I’ve always been interested in the potential of online environments to mediate discussions that are deeper and wider than those possible in a classroom. When you can put more than 30 people in a discussion, extend it beyond 45 minutes, and give everyone an equal opportunity to contribute, there’s a tremendous potential for valuable interaction.

That’s what attracted me to the Internet all those… weeks… ago. In the days before the web, the Internet was about online discussions through tools like Usenet and IRC and text-based virtual worlds. When I started my teaching career, I had students playing around with bulletin boards and Freenet before our school had Internet access. When completing my master’s degree, I conducted research into the use of online discussions with middle school students, and investigated the role of anonymity in such projects. In the years since, I have taken a few online courses. They’ve all involved some reading, some reflecting, and interaction in an online discussion forum with the other participants in the class.

This summer, I signed up for two online workshops. One was on school leadership, and the other was on what works in schools, following the research of Marzano. I’ve been a little too deep into technology the last few years, and I thought it would be helpful to bolster my understanding of some of the current trends in education and educational leadership.

Each course was two weeks long. Fine. Each expected about 20 contact hours. Fine. That’s a little high for a one hour course, but I generally put in more time than required anyway. Each was offered through a local university, with content coming from a national “educational leadership organization dedicated to advancing best practices and policies for the success of each learner.” Fine. I was looking forward to the experience.

The content of the courses consisted of slides with bullet points. Each lesson had a video that was 1-2 minutes long. Following the video, I was asked to reflect on some of the actions and opinions of people in the videos. My reflections were submitted online, and I never saw them again. I seriously doubt that anyone ever read them. My assumptions were not challenged. I was not asked to weigh in on others’ differing perspectives. I didn’t get to hear any of the great ideas from other people who were taking the same class. I don’t even know if other people were taking the same class.

On the third day of the first ten-day class, I finally received a syllabus. Apparently, I was to work through all of the lessons and complete two written assignments. Each assignment had to be 1-2 pages, double-spaced. It took me a long time to figure out how to double-space. I hadn’t done it in about 15 years.

I worked through both courses alone. I was never asked to connect this new content to things I already knew. I was never asked to consider alternative sources, or to look online at research, best practices, or anything that anyone besides the course designers had to say. I wasn’t even really supposed to make connections between the two courses I was taking, which contradicted one another on several important points.

Now, a full two weeks after the courses have ended, I still haven’t received a single word of feedback on anything I did. Silence. I kind of feel like Charlie at the end of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, right before he gives the Everlasting Gobstopper back. Whole day wasted.

Here’s the thing: learning is about making connections. They might be connections between ideas. They might be connections between content areas. They might be connections between something I already know and something new I’m hearing for the first time. They may be connections between people. They’re usually connections between people. Interaction is necessary.

We can use technology to put everyone in a box. We can use it to isolate our students, put blinders on them, and ensure that they only see the content we want them to remember. But if we want to teach them, we have to let them make connections. Technology has a tremendous potential to help with that. But we have to stop doing it wrong.

Photo credit: Valleygirl_tka on Flickr.

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Author: John Schinker

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3 thoughts on “The Wrong Way”

  1. You are so right. This even extends beyond online courses. I can have students complete limited readings and assignments in silence in a F2F class too, never considering other sources, each others’ thoughts, or working together to achieve something more than they could alone. (Granted, at least in a class, the students are aware of each other and could connect at break time if they chose.) Connections are vital to learning in any environment. thanks for the reminder.

  2. Don’t lump all online learning into the kind of “thing” you experienced. There are great online courses out there. Ask around.

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