More Research on Online Learning

I recently came across an article that appears in the January 2017 issue of Educational Researcher.  The article shares research that was conducted by June Ahn and Andrew McEachin on the enrollment patterns and achievement in online charter schools in Ohio.  While the research focused entirely on preK-12 environments, I think the findings and commentary transcend academic settings and communicate some important messages to all of us working in education.

In Ahn and McEachin’s study, they examined which students opted into online or face-to-face charter schools across the state.  They disaggregated this data to look at various demographics (race, socioeconomic status, geography, etc.) to identify trends across populations.  They found that while more poor White students choose to enroll in online charter schools, poor minority students typically choose “brick and mortar” charter schools.  While the authors don’t specifically discuss their interpretations of these findings, when I shared the research with an African-American doctoral student recently, she proposed that minority families see schools as a critical center of the community, especially in urban areas.  Without a physical location, she explained, online charter schools didn’t offer that same sense of community to families.  While there’s no data in the study to support this interpretation, the explanation made sense considering the geographical map that the authors share.

Digging a little deeper, I found that my student’s explanation also helped to shed some light on the findings that the authors share regarding the achievement levels of online students.  The authors write:

Our results show that students in (online charter schools) are performing worse on standardized assessments that their peers in traditional charter and traditional public schools.” (p. 44)

This is a horrible testament to online charter schools.  Online students are not demonstrating the same academic growth when compared to students in other educational environments.  The knee jerk reaction would be to dismiss online schooling outright and to create regulations to ban online schooling as an option.  To their credit, Ahn and McEachin discuss this in the concluding remarks:

One potential and simplistic implication is that online schools are unequivocally negative for K12 learners and policy should deter these school forms.  A more nuanced understanding is that online schools – in its current form as a largely independent learning experience- are not effective for K12 students. Instead, learners still need the presence of teachers, mentors, or peers to help them through the learning process.  This interpretation instead suggests different policy implications. In addition, online curriculum might be designed and employed to efficiently deliver content but combined with new ways of distributing human support (e.g. different teaching or mentoring practices) that could serve students more effectively.

While the research provides some damning evidence for the academic impacts on online education, it also provides an important message for those of us who teach online and prepare teachers to work online.  Like my doctoral student said, it’s really about community.  Online classes that are designed so that students interact with content alone are isolating and have damaging impact on students.  Online classes that offer a supportive community including peers, counselors, mentors and teachers provide a different experience for students.  Learning is a social process and we need to design our online classes and online schools to reflect this.  Rather than focus solely on content delivery, we need to create online schools where community is built and design classes where the social and human elements of learning take center stage.

References:

Ahn, J., & McEachin, A. (2017). Student enrollment patterns and achievement in Ohio’s online charter schools. Educational Researcher, 46(1), 44-57

 

Learning from Trolls

I’ve been thinking a lot about an article from this weekend’s New York Times Magazine.  In How the Trolls Stole Washington, Amanda Hess discusses the political, historical and emotional sides to trolling.  While the term may be new to some readers, the activity is probably more common than anyone would care to admit. It often starts with an innocent post on social media, one that catches the eye of somebody who has an axe to grind or maybe some spare time on their hands.  The person posts some outlandishly negative remarks, maybe shares it with some friends, and then hijacks the initial post completely, changing the timbre of the conversation for their own purposes.

In her article, Hess describes trolling as “saying whatever it takes to rile up unsuspecting targets, relishing the chaos in the wake and feasting on attention, good or bad.” The chaos emerges from the emotional response from the commenters.  When we post to social media, we are personally connected to what we share.  We share our grief when we post about our loved ones who have died.  We share our joy when we post pictures of our pets and our children.  We share our pride when we post about an accomplishment from a loved one.  Those emotions can get hijacked by trolls and twisted into something else entirely.  Love can become anger.  Joy can become embarrassment.  Pride can become shame.

But that’s what motivates trolls.  As Hess writes, “trolling was always about the distance between people who care and people who don’t. The people who cared always lost.”  Hess also offers some advice to detach from trolls.  She writes that to detach from trolls we must learn “to withhold their outrage, to not ‘feed the trolls,’ to pretend there was a real distinction between doing horrible things and meaning them.”  It sounds like good advice.  Like most things, however, it’s easier to say than do.

At this point, you may be wondering what we could possibly learn from trolls.  I’m leading a Faculty Learning Community (FLC) on campus centered on Spark of Learning: Energizing the College Classroom with the Science of Emotion by Sarah Rose Cavanagh.  We met for the first time yesterday and the group is really enjoying what we’ve read so far.  I read the book last fall in preparation for the FLC this semester and I even wrote a few blog posts on the text already. (See this and this.) One of the concepts we discussed in our FLC yesterday was the idea of “emotional contagion.” Emotional contagion is “the phenomenon of having one person’s emotions and related behaviors directly trigger similar emotions and behaviors in other people.”  In the book, Cavanagh references a Facebook experiment where users were presented both negative and positives posts from peers. As you would expect, users who were presented with positive posts tended to share more positive things themselves.  Similarly, users who presented negative posts tended to share more negative content on their pages.  That’s the power of emotional contagion!

But how does this connect to learning?  Returning to the Spark of Learning text, Cavanagh also introduces the concept of “augmented cognitive load” and the positive impact the affective supports can have on learning.  It stands to reason that if positive emotions and supports can aid learning than negative emotions can impede it. To resist this impediment, we have to consciously set aside the negative emotions we experience so we can communicate and teach from a positive, supportive place.  This is important to the learning process, even when we’re faced with the urge to emotionally lash out against the “trolls” we face online or in our classrooms.

Cavanagh shares a quote from Ginott (1972) that sheds some additional light on the interplay between emotion and learning.  Ginott writes:

“I have come to a frightening conclusion. I am the decisive element in the classroom. It is my personal approach that creates the climate. It is my daily mood that makes the weather.” (pp. 15-16)

Don’t let the trolls dictate how you feel or interact or teach today.  Your mood makes the weather.  I choose to make mine sunny.

References:

Cavanagh, S. R..The Spark of Learning: Energizing the College Classroom with the Science of Emotion. Morgantown: West Virginia University Press, 2016.

Ginott, Haim G. Between teacher and child. Collier-Macmillan, 1972.

Educators’ Roles: A Wicked Problem

Each year, the New Media Consortium (NMC) publishes its Horizons Reports that predict key trends, significant challenges and important development in educational technology.  These reports attempt to outline some critical considerations for different learning environment including library, museums, K-12 schools and institutions of higher education. I have a habit of collecting these reports and examining their predictions over the years.  For instance, the 2008 Higher Education Edition predicted that “grassroots video” would have a significant impact on education.  Considering the number of online tutorials that faculty make and the growth in flipped and blended instruction, it’s pretty clear that their prediction was on the mark.

I came across the 2017 Higher Education Edition the other day.  While I tend to check out the educational technology predictions closely, in this edition, I was really interested in the “significant challenges” that they outlined.  The NMC groups these challenges into three categories: solvable, difficult and wicked.  Solvable problems are ones that the NMC says the systems “understand and know how to solve.”  By contrast, difficult challenges are ones that we may understand but for which solutions are more “elusive.”  Wicked challenges are those “that are complex to even define, much less address.”  In the 2017 Higher Education Horizons Report, the NMC identified “Rethinking the Roles of Educators” as a wicked problem.  Here’s their argument.

Educators are increasingly expected to employ a variety of technology-based tools, such as digital learning resources and courseware, and engage in online discussions and collaborative authoring. Further, they are tasked with leveraging active learning methodologies like project and problem-based learning. This shift to student-centered learning requires them to act as guides and facilitators.

While the problem seems pretty simply stated, it’s much more complex for a variety of reasons.  There are social, economic, cultural and political ramifications to this dramatic shift in educators’ roles.  As an individual faculty member at a public university, however, I don’t have much impact on these areas. It’s also hard for me to wrap my head around the complexity and interplay of these dimensions.  Working in professional development on campus, however, I need to consider how to successfully build faculty capacity to prepare them to make this transition successfully. Which is a pretty wicked problem on its own.

In his book Schoolteacher: A Sociological Study, Lortie (1975) introduces the concept of apprenticeship of observation, which may be a huge factor that influences the “wickedness” of this problem.  As they navigate their education as students, Lortie argues, budding instructors are actually being apprenticed into the practice of teaching.  They observe how classrooms are used and how their content is taught.  When these students eventually enter they own classrooms as teachers, this apprenticeship informs how they use technology, how they engage students in the learning process and how they use classroom spaces.  Since many of us don’t have models of “student-centered instruction” in our personal learning histories, we can’t really envision educators’ roles in these types of learning environments.  Few of us have personal experiences with active learning as students.   Factor in the minority of faculty members who have direct experience with online, blended and flipped learning environments as students and the problem becomes even more complex.

Readers may be reaching this part of the post and hoping it will end with some solutions to this problem.  But that’s one of the challenges with these “wicked problems.” As we start to unravel them to identify possible solutions, we just end up seeing how complex and interwoven the problem really is.

References:

Adams Becker, S., Cummins, M., Davis, A., Freeman, A., Hall Giesinger, C., and Ananthanarayanan, V. (2017). NMC Horizon Report: 2017 Higher Education Edition. Austin, Texas: The New Media Consortium.

Lortie, D. (1975). Schoolteacher: A sociological perspective. Chicago: University of Chicago.

 

The Challenges with Teaching Online

Some colleagues and I have been surveying online teachers in K-12 and collegiate environments to determine the areas that they feel are critical to online teaching success and which areas are ones in which they often struggle.  After conducting some focus groups last year, we developed a comprehensive survey that we sent out to a few hundred online teachers earlier this year.  Our goal was to examine the most challenging areas that online teachers encounter with the hopes of informing our work with our online teaching colleagues and preservice teachers who may teach online in the future.  We’re pouring through the data now and trying to make sense of the responses.  While I won’t bore you with the analysis that we’re doing, I thought I’d share a few preliminary findings and discuss their importance.

Building rapport with online students can be challenging.  Looking at the data, this was one of the areas that immediately stood out.  While participating teachers identified this as an important aspect to online teaching success, they also reported that this was one of the more difficult things they had to do as online teachers.  This item saw the greatest standard deviation across all of the questions on the survey, showing that while some teachers feel pretty comfortable doing this in their online classes, others struggled with it. Understanding the importance of “social presence” in online classes, I was pretty surprised to see this aspect of online learning so well represented in the survey results.

Establishing routines and procedures in online classes is important. Across the surveyed online teachers, this area was rated as one of the most critical aspects to online teaching success.  Recalling a US News article I shared a few years ago on this blog, provided clear, structured experiences for students is really important for quality online instruction.  Here’s the surprising part, though.  While responding online teachers found this area important, they also rated their ability to do it as really high.  When assessing their own abilities, online teachers rated “establishing routines and procedures” as the area they felt most comfortable across all of the survey items.  The item also had one of the lowest standard deviations.  From the data, it’s pretty clear that while online teachers feel that establishing routines and procedures is important, they also feel pretty confident that they’re doing it well.

Providing feedback is critical to online students’ success.  As we examined the data, this was another surprising finding.  Online teachers working in both K-12 and collegiate settings reported this as one of the most important aspects to effective online instruction.  Looking back at a blog post from a few years ago, I wrote that online teachers needed to be VOCAL.  Building on an article in the Journal of Interactive Online Learning, the post discussed how the VOCAL acronym identified that online teachers needed to be visible, organized, compassionate, analytical and a leader-by-example.  In my post, I offered a revision where assessment and feedback replaced being analytical.  Looking at the data from the surveyed teachers, it’s clear they also see the importance of these areas.  The great part is that the online teachers rated their ability to provide feedback as being high.

Now, it’s important to remember that these findings are based on self-reported data from surveyed online teachers.  With the number of respondents and the ongoing data analysis, however, we’re hoping to more clearly define the challenging areas for online teachers.  Ultimately, we plan to use these data to inform professional development opportunities on campus and the courses in our online teacher preparation program.

 

Literacy and the Collegiate Student

When I confront “problems of practice” in my teaching, I like to turn to my smart friends for advice.  About a year ago, I was really confounded by my students’ trouble with reading for deep understanding.  While I could see that the students were completing assigned readings, they weren’t always able to process the information deeply to analyze the concepts or apply the content to new situations.  Since I don’t have much experience teaching reading, I turned to my colleague, Dr. Jennifer Shettel.  Jen is a literacy professor and has run several tremendously successful close-reading workshops in our area.  I figured she could give some advice. Our conversations prompted some pedagogical experimentation with different literacy-based strategies which Jen and I will be sharing at a local teaching and learning conference next week and at the Teaching Professor Conference this June.

Some readers may be wondering why we even need to examine reading strategies for collegiate students.  After all, our students are adults and they should have already developed advanced reading abilities.  That was one of the first areas that Jen tackled with me.  While we’d like to think that our students are prepared for the challenging content we assign, collegiate students are still developing as readers and we need to help them in this process.  To demonstrate her case, Jen shared Jeanne Chall’s Stages of Reading Development.  In this model, Chall identifies six different stages across a reader’s development and the different characteristics and abilities prominent at each.  Based on their age, we may expect that our students have reached the highest stage, Construction and Reconstruction.  At this stage, students should be able to construct their understanding based on text analysis and synthesis.  The reality, however, is that some of our students may be entering our classes without this ability.  Maybe some are still at Chall’s “Reading for Learning the New” stage or maybe others are just reaching the “Multiple Viewpoints” stage.  Realizing that our students are still developing as readers was pretty eye opening.

In our conversations, I inquired whether any large-scale studies had been done to examine college students’ reading abilities.  After searching around a bit, Jen and I found a 2006 study conducted by the American Institutes for Research titled The Literacy of America’s College StudentsThe study looked comprehensively at college students’ literacy levels from a variety of different perspectives.  If Chall’s work was eye opening, this study was even more so.  In the study, the authors identify four literacy levels (below basic, basic, intermediate and proficient) across three different a literacy types (prose, document and quantitative).  Looking at the average literacy levels for students enrolled in two and four year institutions, the authors report that while college students on average score significantly higher than the general adult population in all three literacy types, the average score would be characterized at the intermediate literacy level.  Expanding the lens to examine the collegiate student population closer, the authors uncover some important findings for those institutions of higher education whose missions include working with first generation college students or with international students.  Students whose parents are college graduates score significantly higher across all literacy types than those students whose parents did not attend any post-secondary education.  Foreign-born students score significantly lower across every literacy type than their US-born peers.

I know some readers may see these findings and think that our schools just need to be more selective.  Maybe other readers dismiss this study entirely because they work at an elite school with a (presumed) higher caliber of student. It’s important to note that the researchers did not find significantly different literacy levels when comparing students at public vs. private institutions or at selective vs. nonselective institutions. While the findings may be a little disheartening, the report shows that ALL institutions of higher education need to be aware of their students’ literacy levels.

And that’s the big takeaway from this post.  Considering our students’ literacy development and ability, we need to assist them with interacting with the readings we assign.  We need to help them access our disciplinary texts and support them in their growth as readers.  And that’s the main goal with the session that Jen and I are developing.  We hope you’ll join us.

References:

Baer, J. D., Cook, A. L., & Baldi, S. (2006). The Literacy of America’s College Students. American Institutes for Research.

Chall, J.S. (1983). Stages of Reading Development. New York, NY:McGraw-Hill. pp.10-24

An Online Pot Luck Dinner?

Online learning environments can be pretty confusing places to new online students and educators. To help reduce this confusion, I like to use metaphors to describe the functions, activities and components of teaching and learning online.  For instance, when I lead professional development sessions, I’m often asked about the planning process for creating and teaching a new online class.  While the process involves the traditional phases that are captured in most instructional design models, I find it’s better to describe my online course development as party planning.  When someone hosts a party, they have to consider how people are going to interact, what types of music they’re going to listen to, what they’re going to eat and so on.  Good hosts do a lot of this planning before a single person arrives.  This allows the host to attend to the needs of their guests and to enjoy the party themselves.

While I understand this is a simplistic metaphor, I find it best captures my role as an instructional designer and as an online teacher. I’ll spend weeks developing a class, selecting content and planning interactions and assessments so that I can focus on the day-to-day business of meeting students’ needs and fostering engagement once the class starts.  I plan my “online party” before the class begins so I can be a better host once the party starts.

I’m teaching two online classes this semester and they are starkly different.  I’ve taught both classes several times and the classes are usually quite interactive, especially in the discussion forums.  It’s my stated goal in both classes that I’m attempting to foster a larger learning community where ideas and resources are exchanged and critiqued.  In one class, the students are sharing links to websites, uploading articles they’ve found online, embedding videos from different sources and really taking the discussions in new directions.  The other class, however, isn’t as active or as collaborative.  Students contribute posts and respond to each other but there doesn’t seem to be any real online learning community being formed.

As I’ve been thinking about the differences, I wondered whether the students had a clear understanding of what online discussion should look like.  We’ve all participated in face-to-face classroom discussions but a discussion forum is something entirely different.  In a face-to-face class, we’d never expect everyone to answer a prompt and then to respond the posts from two peers.  Yet, those expectations permeate online discussion forums.  Although they are used in many online classes, these expectations alone will reduce discussions to “bean counting” and won’t necessarily promote the type of engagement and exchange of ideas that I’m trying to foster.

Maybe a better metaphor is needed for online discussions.  To carry on with the party theme, I offer the “pot luck dinner” as a means of describing the rich and thoughtful discussions that I’m trying to build.  The “pot luck dinner” is a communal experience where everyone brings a dish to share.  The host usually offers a main course and asks the attendees to bring complementary items.  One person may bring a salad.  Another might bring a dessert.  Someone else may bring beverages.  With everyone contributing to the party, the overall meal becomes more complex and appetizing.  And people always leave satiated.

That’s what I’m trying to promote when I “host” a discussion forum.  I’m not interested in my students just submitting a requisite numbers of posts.  I want them to feed the group.  I want them to bring in complementary content and make the discussions more complex and appetizing for all of us.  While I’m contributing the “main course,” I’m hoping that the class will bring in resources and ideas to extend the meal.  Through this “potluck” experience, we’re all satiated.

Risk, vulnerability and change

Last week, as I stood on the perilous edge of a metaphorical cliff, I wondered whether I should take the jump.  Should I hit “Publish” and expose my poor teaching evaluations to the world?  Sure, I had written an in-depth reflection and reaction to my fall evaluations and outlined my plan for improvement. But, was I really ready to have the world know that my teaching didn’t cut it?  Moments before publishing that post, I can remember consciously worrying about people’s reactions and decided that I needed to put my thoughts out there. I wanted to hold myself accountable for my evaluations and to make sure that I’d live up to a plan of action for improvement. As I clicked to publish the post, I figured that I’d deal with the criticisms later.

Here’s the surprising part.  I didn’t receive a single criticism. Not one.  Instead, I received emails from former students, texts from colleagues and a phone call from a former professor. While many were reaching out to make sure I was okay, most were contacting me to thank me for putting it out there. They admired me for taking the risk, showing my vulnerability and tackling my emotions so openly.  It was not the reaction I expected.

I also wasn’t expecting the post to be viewed by hundreds of readers or be retweeted on Twitter as much as it was.  In my moment of vulnerability, I took a risk and it resonated with loads of other teacher.  One new faculty member even emailed me to ask if she could meet with me to discuss her Fall teaching evaluations so we could come up with a plan for improvement for her classes.  The reactions were honestly pretty inspiring.

As I’ve been reflecting on last week’s post, I decided to reread a post I wrote on August 2013.  Titled “the birthplace of innovation?” the post examines Dr. Brene Brown’s TED Talk on vulnerability and shame.  In her presentation, Dr. Brown says:

“Vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity and change.”

While I definitely felt vulnerable as I wrote and shared my post, I also saw it as a route for improving my teaching and fostering personal change.  While I worried about criticism, I should have kept in mind President Theodore Roosevelt and his moving words from Citizen in a Republic.

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

Strive valiantly, my friends.  Be willing to enthusiastically put yourself out there and to fail while daring greatly.  I’m sure you’ll be as inspired by the reactions as I was.

Thanks to all.