Learning to Adapt #2

A follow-up to my recent L-to-A #1 post:

Part II

In a follow-up to my recent post, I want to discuss an often neglected element of online instruction; likely the most critical.

Let’s be honest, in the debate as to whether “online works,” MOOCs confused people. For those new to online, those (faculty) considering for the first time now that someone other than (for-profit/insignificant/not proper school) was doing it, they were the easiest online classes to access, and initially focused almost exclusively on slick content presentation. When people assessed MOOCs and then came back to assess (normal? traditional? retention-emphasized? credit-bearing) online courses they tend to ask for access to the course materials sans instructor or student activity. I’m yet to determine if this is merely an oversight, deference to the beast that is FERPA, or collegial respect for the sanctity of the classroom…

My team at Northeastern has experience gathered over more than 150 years working in and around online courses (there are 14 of us). The range of experience includes time at most of the leading online educators over the last one and a half decades. Even a quick sweep from my mental inventory brings up Drexel, Kaplan, UMass, SNHU, UNH, Capella, Boston University, Harvard / Harvard Extension and RISD. During our time together at NU, we have implemented the work of leading theorists in learning, and cognitive science, assessment, usability, self-efficacy, information architecture, multimedia design, graphics and as I write / you read, are experimenting with gamification and the challenge of intrinsically motivating underserved populations.

The work of people like Dick Clark (USC) and Bror Saxburg (Kaplan) has provided us with depth and detail on the evidence-based learning science behind a lot of our development work. We feel that we have clarity on what works in terms of content formatting (length of chunks, organization of media elements etc.) and of some behavioral elements – the importance of frequent, timely corrective feedback, the level of challenge required to keep students engaged. My team works directly with the full-time faculty trying to build in elements that approximate the type of learning that we have called Online Experiential Learning. Authentic, tangible experiences with opportunities to spiral back, reflect, abstract and re-apply case-based learning in a wider, retained for life context. We focus on, and sweat over, materials, formats, fonts, activities and assessments.

The feedback we receive includes: “I don’t care for the fonts” “or “I took a MOOC last week and their videos were really cool… can’t we do that?”
Colleagues who worked with me at smaller institutions (with even smaller budgets) will snigger at this but my budget is less than a tenth of what many MOOC providers have quoted us for production costs. That in itself may be misleading and counter to my point here (yes, I do have one…)… I have reviewed and developed courses that were superb, and superbly appreciated by demanding students who called them life altering. The reactions or conversely complaints rarely if ever center on the content. At one of my former institutions where we tracked student grievances we registered 4% of student complaints that were content-related; 96% focused on non-content concerns (read on…)

At a recent Bill and Melinda-Gates Institute hosted event I heard students respond to the ever-present question “Does online work?” or “Did it work for you?” Some replied enthusiastically and positively, others with quite definitive “No”s / “It was terrible”-type comments. This begs the key question: “What exactly did they hate?” Can you guess???? – the materials? the fonts? the quality of the videos? No, no and no. The comments fell into three consistent buckets:

“The online class was terrible because I got no feedback on my work”
“I didn’t ever really know how I was doing”
“The instructor was M.I.A.”

In other words, and either depressingly or reassuringly, depending on your perspective the juxtaposition of images and text as advocated by the learning science was not pivotal??? Hmm, OK – so here’s a question that I would pose to would-be online students: You have the choice of a great teacher with crappy materials or an absent / crappy teacher with great materials – which would you choose?

Students who self-select for an online class are in my experience, tolerant of technical glitches and they don’t really care if a video has the instructor in pajamas in front of family pictures in a poorly lit room. A responsive, attentive, responsive, empathetic, responsive, caring but challenging, responsive instructor more than offsets the fact that the video is not green screened so that (s)he appears to be in front of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, nor because Krakatoa’s not erupting right now* Their attention has gone after 6 minutes anyway, they don’t care whether “herds of Wildebeest are sweeping majestically across the plain”….

So, to summarize, we assess our collective sweat and tears in the realms of Instructional Design, Learning Science, Materials development, web usability, information architecture, Cognitive Science, Assessment specialists and Graphic art and are then judged by whether the instructor shows up for class or not? – Really?!

Imagine the same criteria for traditional classes: –

Q – “How was your face to face class today?”
A – “Well the instructor didn’t show so we all kind of read the books without direction and chatted amongst ourselves, but that’s fine, it was a great class. I love face-to-face classes.

Here’s my money-shot statement:

A class where the instructor does not devote energy and attention providing presence and guidance is not a failed class, it is a failed instructor.
It is not a rationale for concluding that a means of reaching hundreds of thousands of learners for whom face to face is not an option just doesn’t work.

To be clear, my intention in penning this is not at all to diss overstretched instructors who have themselves not self-selected to teach (see earlier comment on self-selected students). Teaching online is extremely different, not suited to all, can be learned but needs to be embraced (or at least a little bit hugged).

Who make the best online instructors?
Here’s a low-tech answer first:
• Jigsaw puzzlers who want to do 5-6 pieces at breakfast, coffee break, lunch, tea break and an hour or so before bed.
• Slightly obsessive gardeners who feel the need to check in on their tomato plants 4 times a day sometimes just to say “hi!”
A higher tech answer for 2014
• Committed e-bay-ers,
• Social media users (even moderate – parents / grandparents accessing Facebook to see progeny pics),
• Anyone who has ever felt the need to Advise TripAdvisor, then gone back to see if others rate their comments.
• Someone incentivized, by some inner passion, who gets a kick out of nudging things along incrementally. Someone who is a little compulsive and doesn’t like to think of a book misaligned on a shelf. Someone who has bought into the idea that they can have influence (on tomatoes or on travelers). Someone who gets a teeny bit jazzed at the thought that they could be just helping make the world a slightly more informed place, affecting or maybe even changing lives – sounds like a heck of a lot of the teachers I know.

It IS a transition though; teaching and changing lives in fifteen-minute increments, rather than through three-hour classroom performances between grading marathons.

Extending my not-great metaphors even further; does anyone garden in a half-assed manner so that they can prove that gardening doesn’t work? Does anyone eBay because they hate the whole system, which is an online manifestation of the capitalist marketplace, and vent when they sell (or buy) things?

I quite miss writing postcards when I travel, I was quite known for them back in the day (OK, I am old), but it is kind of cool now that I can let 20 times as many people know that I’m in a very cool (or hot) spot and also that they know before the week’s out. Change makes things different. If anyone is so wedded to the traditional that they can’t move – that’s fine. I remember hearing of an instructor at another of my former colleges who eschewed the phone as it was too new-fangled and he needed to see whites of eyes.
I get that. I miss things too. Instructors who dislike or distrust (whatever the rationale) “class” too much to show up should not be given online teaching assignments (surely). Those who are a fit and who get it in its slightly compulsive glory (eBayers, Facebookers, TripAdvisors, / Jigsawers, Tomato-growers or book-aligners) should be supported and cherished. Not every personality makes a good face-to-face instructor, not every personality makes a good online instructor. There is the choice; change, adapt, give it a genuine try, or (simply) don’t take the assignment

My job and the job of the Instructional Designers I work with should be supporting great instruction and genuine effort with appropriate spaces and backdrops for learning to happen. My job can’t be developing materials that substitute for instructors who don’t want to be there and don’t show up for class.

I know that academia is a big ship to turnaround but I wish there was a way to convince instructors that the most important thing in an online class IS STILL YOU. If people like me do our jobs well, we can automate some parts – but PLEASE work with us – we might even be able to take away the boring, dull parts that you don’t like doing. For example:
• Answering questions that you have answered 5000 times before (boom! – a FAQ),
• Reminding people that assignments are due (boom ! (again) – Calendar),
• Developing a working understanding of basic, underpinning knowledge (chunked content and Check Your Knowledge self-checks)
• Being there 24/7, answering every question (let us show you scaffolded, supported peer-to-peer interaction).
I now pronounce you FREE to only have to focus on questions that are stimulating, that allow you to demonstrate and indulge your passion for your subject and engage (disproportionately) through interactions that are significant and (could) change lives. I wrote an earlier blog post on this two years ago titled Disrupted Faculty Roles

In summary:
An online class that is poor because the instructor didn’t show up is

    a poor class led by a delinquent instructor.

If an institution does nothing about it, turns away from the data that demonstrates it or deflects blame towards materials that aren’t as cool as the latest MOOC, shame on it/them/us.

Online works for a lot of people when planets align and people work together. The instructor’s responsiveness should be close to the top, rather than near the bottom of the list of requirements.

As I said, work with us, then show up for class… in pajamas, eating tomatoes.


  • Note    * obscure scenic references courtesy of classic John Cleese – Fawlty Towers BBC
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