Living up to the promise? An online educator reflects @MichaelBHorn

After watching the video of Michael B Horn at TEDx talking about student-centric education and the role which online learning can play, I was inspired to reflect on my own personal practices and experiences as a fully online educator.

Technology- what it can and can’t do (yet)

One of Mr. Horn’s comments was about the inherently modular format of online educational packages.  My own courses are designed into modules and students access more or less dependent on their own needs.  However, I (and my administrators) are not fans of the programming options which would hide certain aspects of the information package unless there appears to be a need for that student.  Here is how the pigeon-hole programming works.

A student does item 1, based on their score, one of the following happens:

  • item 1a (a review of the material the student did not demonstrate mastery of)
  • item 1b (an extension activity)
  • item 2 (a new activity)

This is automated feedback and technology can handle this option.

The inherent difficulty I have here is that the student is pigeon-holed based on their score and not given the exposure to the materials in the options they do not “qualify” for. They literally cannot see the other items.  The links do not appear in their curriculum at all.  So for the student who has met the mastery requirement at this time, but later struggles to recall the material, there is no reference information (1a) to glance back at.  Similarly the student who struggled may never have access to the extension activity (1b) which may be the application which makes all the difference in their understanding.

Technology cannot tell (yet) what will inspire the student.  It cannot tell which activities will resonate and make the student feel relevance.  It cannot assess feelings except as self-reported. To me this is the equivalent of handing someone a copy of Romeo and Juliet, but tearing out the party scene and the wedding scene because the student demonstrated mastery of the concepts of social politics in a pre-test.

Act I
  1. Prologue
  2. Scene I. Verona. A public place.
  3. Scene II. A street.
  4. Scene III. A room in Capulet’s house.
  5. Scene IV. A street.
  6. Scene V. A hall in Capulet’s house.
Act II
  1. Prologue
  2. Scene I. A lane by the wall of Capulet’s orchard.
  3. Scene II. Capulet’s orchard.
  4. Scene III. Friar Laurence’s cell.
  5. Scene IV. A street.
  6. Scene V. Capulet’s orchard.
  7. Scene Vi. Friar Laurence’s cell.
  1. Scene I. A public place.
  2. Scene II. Capulet’s orchard.
  3. Scene III. Friar Laurence’s cell.
  4. Scene IV. A room in Capulet’s house.
  5. Scene V. Capulet’s orchard.
Act IV
  1. Scene I. Friar Laurence’s cell.
  2. Scene II. Hall in Capulet’s house.
  3. Scene III. Juliet’s chamber.
  4. Scene IV. Hall in Capulet’s house.
  5. Scene V. Juliet’s chamber.
Act V
  1. Scene I. Mantua. A street.
  2. Scene II. Friar Laurence’s cell.
  3. Scene III. A churchyard; in it a tomb belonging to the Capulets.

I prefer to be a proponent of individual choice and direction.  In other words, all of the options are available to all students. However, students who score well are advised that they may go on to Item 2, or choose to do items 1a or 1b.  Students who score poorly are given a recommendation to move on to item 1a before moving forward. Students are then given benchmarks which they must meet before moving on entirely (ie a passing score on an assessment).  This can be automated feedback and technology can handle this option.

Basically, the student should be in the driver seat here if this is going to be truly student centric.  Recommendations should not become mandates.  In reviews of a variety of platforms and programming choices which claim to focus on a credit recovery option, I see far too much use of the pigeon-hole approach.

The role of the teacher

What I find, is that it is not the technology, but the teacher who needs to be student-centric.  I refer to this as the “drop everything and teach” approach.  When a student and I speak/text/IM/email I literally drop whatever else I may have been working on and focus on that student and their journey through the material.  I use Socratic questioning to probe what led them to ask the question and look for gaps in understanding.  Then I teach based on that diagnostic they relevant concepts in a succinct manner.  In most cases this is a less than 5-minute episode of teaching.  In some cases, it is several 5-minute segments strung together. Rarely more than a half hour unless there are technology issues (ie student has limited bandwidth so the assignment we are discussing loads slowly).

In addition I hold general sessions via elluminate.  These are class meetings where I have a topic, but students also bring their own.  The primary purpose of these is not actually for me to lecture, but rather to grow student comfort with communicating via web-conference.  If the students do not bring discussion points, then I have a few in my back pocket based on where I have seen them in the curriculum.  Again, it is me being student-centric.

One of the other things I do during these sessions is get to know my students.  I get a feel for what might be inspiring or at least interesting.  By learning how they tick I get a better sense of what to recommend they do within the curriculum.

Living up to the promise?

On the whole, yes.  I believe that the courses I am teaching and my personal teaching style do.  I am not convinced that that is the norm however.  But that is another blog post….


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