Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Online vs. Face-to-Face Instruction: Surprising Similarities (Part One of Two)

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This summer, I enrolled in a few professional development courses for the community college that I adjunct for to qualify to teach online courses. Being able to teach online would allow me to teach multiple night courses during the school year and potentially avoid having to complete the nightly drive to class as often. While these facts alone are appealing, I began this summer skeptical that a Humanities Course (especially a public speaking one) would translate effectively online. With initial trepidation, I found it refreshing to take formal classes again for the first time in two years, and I appreciated that this experience challenged me to deeply consider course design, methodology, and reflect on student engagement. With the finish line of this experience in sight, I realize that these elements of instruction, particularly student engagement, remain surprisingly similar regardless of the format of the course and delivery of instruction. Online teaching, while mostly devoid of the nonverbal aspects of communication and relationship building, can provide rich forums in which to hold conversations about content, explore a multitude of resources, and can foster relationships. Noteworthy differences are felt from a traditional, face-to-face course to an online course, and I am not sold on young people being disciplined enough in their student skills to navigate an online course independent of face-to-face support and relationships, but I must say this platform holds value and the potential opportunities for both instructors and students.

How do we ensure the success of an online course or any course for that matter? The answer lies in the design of both the course and the level of student engagement, which is ultimately fostered by clarity and organization of the instructor, the energy front-loaded into the course, and of course, the relationships that are built through personal and content-specific connections to students' lives.

The question I have asked myself repeatedly (from the lens of an online instructor and also a daily, face-to-face teacher) is how do we accomplish all of these tasks? How do we provide the best learning experience and environment for our students in spite of any challenges, diverse needs, and obstacles that might appear?

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1. Start with organization. Always have a Plan A, Plan B, and maybe even a Plan C.

I am a perpetual organizer. A shelf of un-alphabetized or haphazardly scattered books serves as a source of temptation - calling to be sorted and organized. My friends laugh at my need to sort my Google Drive into numbered and labeled files, by date and completed for future reference as to how I may teach a course again. Color coding brings me joy and perfectly straightened rows, pictures, and papers are an absolute necessity if I do not want my world (or classroom) to feel like chaos. Aside from all those Monica from Friends personality traits, "I'm breezy." Honestly, besides inanimate objects needed to be in their proper places, I love truly chaos and the unexpectedness that people create. This sense of spontaneity is one of the reasons I teach and embrace the youthfulness and zest young people can bring to any experience.

When students enter a room or log in to a classroom, all the best-laid plans often go awry. Each student is a unique individual, with a distinct set of needs, interests, and skills. As such, each student requires an instructor to carefully consider learning outcomes, curriculum, and the best approach for the composite of his or her class during a given semester.

An outline is ESSENTIAL for unit timing purposes and standards aligning, but even classes given the same curriculum map and the set of expectations will inevitably vary. Creating an outline provides a framework for the course, allows the instructor to be more organized and prepared, and gives direction and purpose to the course as a whole. Building in flex time to tweak, change, and adjust to meet the academic and social/emotional needs of our students. With multiple plans and options in place, however, we are prepared and ready to make split second adjustments and recreate the plan even in a moment's notice, even if that plan is not A or B (or that plethoric C that allows me to embrace my inner tranquility and flexibility.

Often in an online course or graduate course in general, the outline is meticulously structured. A prescribed syllabus or curriculum is provided up front, but all learning modules (or weeks of the course) do not need to be presented on day one. In fact, giving students that much access to the course can often hinder learning. The instructor simply must be aware of his/her flexibility in planning assessments or assignments according to department and institutional requirements.

2. Prioritize relationships and tone setting.

Amy Cuddy, a Harvard business professor, has studied first impressions for over a decade. Understanding how to welcome and win the trust of an audience is crucial in establishing the tone for a classroom and according to Forbes, Business Insider, and Time Magazine, a person only has seven fleeting seconds to create that first impression. Shockingly, a Harvard study conducted in 1993 by Nalini Ambady and Robert Rosenthal has shown that students can judge a professor's effectiveness by merely watching a TWO-SECOND video clip and then evaluating them both after those two seconds and the end of a course. Yikes! No pressure is felt here.

No this information does not mean that we exclusively have the first few seconds on the first day of the semester to establish our presence and classroom environment, but it does remind me that we need to work consciously and carefully to provide students with an environment that is both structured, clear, and serves as a conduit for meaningful, life-connecting experiences and skills building that will lead our students to a successful next step (whatever that step may be). This type of tone-setting then becomes crucial and as I recall my #1 for this article - does require detailed planning on behalf of the instructor, at least for the first few days or module!

Students want to see us as people. When they're younger or if it is an online class, they often struggle more with fully comprehending that we do not live solely on a computer screen or in school (although I'm pretty sure many people in my community know my car... and may believe otherwise). We have passions, families, and we have imperfections that make us better teachers and lovers of learning. When we can find a way to jump into the mix of those first few days with our students, sit in their desks, look them in the eyes, share a few personal/goofy stories about ourselves, they begin to care more. Even if this additional sense of care is minuscule in the grander scheme of life and our students are resistant to writing papers, giving speeches, completing labs, etc., making them care about each other and us just slightly will naturally increase engagement, increase the positivity of the environment, and draw students to sign back onto the online platform or open a book outside of the physical confines of the classroom.

Tone setting is VITAL to fostering real and authentic relationships, whose memories and impressions will far outlast the definitions of key terms, the formula, or the plot of a book. Relationship building puts content into context, encourages team building and life skills, and allows for students to embrace the grander picture of their educational experiences because they start to care - for others, for what tasks are placed before them, and ultimately, they care more about themselves as they see themselves as part of a community. When students care about themselves and others, they will bring their best selves to class discussions, activities, and experiences - which ultimately leads to an increase in learning and meaning. My surprising realization regarding tone setting in an online learning environment is that besides physically being in the same space as students, it is not different. Best practices in this aspect of beginning a course are the same in any format.

Midpoint thoughts: 

Once the initial tone of the course is established, the real course design begins. My number three (3. Student Engagement is #1 - Regardless of Format) and four (4. Online learning challenges us as educators to incorporate the most up-to-date research and resources) realizations from this summer involve student engagement, which is the heart of instruction in any format and utilizing the most up-to-date and current research to drive student instruction. Note: I will elaborate on these topics in a subsequent post.

Overall, I have been amazed at the similarities between online learning and traditional face-to-face learning. The same strategies that drive course design and curriculum development in an online format remain the same as a face-to-face course with perhaps a little more intentional design to promote student engagement, discussion, and accountability. It is important to note that in online learning asynchronous interaction and connectivity occur 24-7. This loose time phrase does mean that direct interaction between class participants and the instructor occur less frequently and in entirely different means than a traditional course. Of course, this implies different types of activities, assignments, and expectations do exist What I have come to realize, however, is that in spite of these tangible differences, quality approaches to instruction at their core remain relatively unchanged. Quality teaching skills and instructional methods that many instructors have taken years to develop and refine is still vital and an important part of the learning process. The teaching aspect of education still matters and is what helps lead to students to become lifelong learners. What I love about being a teacher and what many others love, can and still does exist across multiple modalities of learning.

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