I sit in front of the computer, staring at the screen. I have a general syllabus with little more than standards and goals. The university is giving me a crazy amount of freedom to design this online course. I shake my head, unsure of what I will create.
Initially, I think about my own experiences in taking online classes. Read some information. Answer questions in a discussion board. Write some papers. I rarely felt that I knew my classmates or my professors — even if they interacted with me often. In some cases, the class felt more like an online book club than a place where we were learning together. There were some exceptions. I remember the project-based learning we had in one of my NAU classes and the multimedia creation we did in another.
I step away from the computer and go for a walk. Without thinking about it, I open Voxer and ask a few friends what they would do. I check a message in our Write About thread and check for an update on Trello
As I slip my phone into my pocket, I am struck by the stark contrast between the connected world of building a startup and the fairly closed-off world of an online course on Moodle. As I continue to walk, I think about my favorite classes I took online. They were the ones that felt more like my professional learning community and my mastermind group and the collaboration that I am doing in co-founding startups.
Fixing Online Classes
It has me thinking about what it would mean to improve online classes. A few ideas come to mind:
- Use multiple platforms. I’m not against using an LMS as a central hub. However, I think it’s valuable to experiment with the types of productivity tools you will actually use outside of a classroom. Use Google Docs to share ideas, create surveys, and ask questions. Use Google Hangouts to meet as a group.
- Go project-based. I haven’t figured this out entirely with my first class but my hope is that we can go fully project-based in the same way that my face-to-face class is. In fact, the asynchronous nature of online classes actually means there is a better potential of creating a project-based culture that mirrors the way people actually work on projects.
- Make something together. I use a collaboration grid with co-creating and communicating on separate spectrums (x-axis) and multimedia and text on another spectrum (y-axis). This has been an effective way to think through collaborative tools that allow students to co-create.
- Embrace a synchronous/asynchronous blend: I love using Voxer because students can speak back and forth in the moment. However, if they miss it, they can listen to it later. The same is true of using a Google Hangouts On Air.
- Make it more connective. We tend to treat online instruction as if it is a linear process and we don’t do enough to link things back and forth and connect ideas, resources, discussions and content creation in a seamless, back-and-forth nature.
- Incorporate multimedia. It’s a simple idea, but I create a short video at the beginning of each week and I encourage students to create video and audio as well. This has a way of making things more concrete. There’s something deeply human about hearing an actual human voice. I know, crazy, right?
- Go mobile. I don’t simply mean use a smart phone. I mean assign some things that allow students to get out in the world and create videos, snap pictures, or simply experience something without technology that they reflect on later.
- Find connections outside of class. If you are on Twitter or you are blogging and you have a network of people you can reach out to, then do it. Ask them to join a discussion or leave a comment or join a hangout. I love the connected community and I want to expose my students to some awesome people I’ve met online.
- Get input from veteran faculty. I know this sounds counterintuitive in a culture that celebrates youth and perpetuates the myth that younger means more tech-savvy. However, I have a list of things that I am trying out because of a professor who has been at my school for awhile. She has been thinking deeply about this subject for a few years and she’s sharp.
- Figure out where technology works better. The other day, I was talking to a professor about an online class on classroom management. It’s tough to do that in an online format. However, video recording one’s approachable and authoritative voice can be a great tool for reflection. Use Sketch-Up to design classroom space. There are certain areas where the tech version works just as well or better than the off-line version.
- Embrace technology criticism. Look, there are things that suck about our digital world. There are real problems with staring at a screen and missing the world. So, find ways to incorporate media criticism into the online classes you create.
I don’t pretend to know all the answers to online learning. For what it’s worth, I am a huge fan of using a blended approach. However, my experience in interacting with the connected community has taught me that we are far more human online than we’d like to believe. I value the relationships I have with teachers I’ve met on Twitter and through blogging.
If someone had told me as a child that I would be co-creating two technology platforms with people who lived on the other coast (you know, the coast that gets up way too early) I would have said that they were crazy. If someone had said that people who lived many states away would save my teaching career in the darkest moments of teaching, I would have called it a science fiction utopia.
But it’s here. We are connected. And for all that is wrong with our digital presence, there are great things happening every day. I want my students to experience a glimpse of that in their online courses.
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