The Role of the Online Learner

Prompt: Drawing upon this week’s readings and your own experiences and viewing it from the role of the online instructor, select from the following prompts:

  1. What characteristics are suitable for the online learner to be successful?

  2. How real are the expected characteristics?

  3. What can you do as the instructor to help each learner maximize their learning experience and be successful?

  4. What role does, and should, an online learner have in the online learning environment?

  5. To what extent would you, as the instructor, concede control to the learners?

  6. How would you address what Palloff and Pratt call "the difficult student?"

  7. What have you witnessed in your online teaching/learning experiences that would lend themselves to providing a foundation for your success as an online teacher?

Palloff & Pratt gave me a lot to think about these past few days.  Am excited to explore some of my thoughts here now.

To be successful an online learner needs: (1) to be taught about the technologies that are being used and how they promote and limit communications, (2) an explanation about how to appropriately interact using the technologies chosen, (3) an overview of the differences between face-to-face learning, (4) clear expectations about the nature of the course and its' assignments and boundaries (such as number of posts weekly, behavior/conflict, etc.) expressed and clarified by the instructor very early int he course, (5) to feel connected and that they can reach out to the instructor, (6) to feel like they are part of a community of learners, (6) enough clarity and freedom within assignments and requirements to meet diverse learning needs, and (7) help setting personal boundaries, goals, and timelines for completing course assignments.

(These are just a few, figured I'd stop so that I could get to some other reflections!)

I think that the role the instructor (teacher) plays in the online learner's experience in an online course is absolutely critical.  Much of what I believe a teacher must do can be deduced from my reflections on what a successful online learner needs above.

Here I need to reflect and challenge some things from the Palloff & Pratt text.

  • The overall tone of Chs 7 & 8 is very positive, and I appreciate their sound argument that to be a successful online learner additional attention is needed to what it "takes" to effectively learn online.

  • I am uncomfortable with their reliance on the framework of "introvert" vs. "extrovert" as a primary way of classifying and validating online instruction.  While I do not necessarily disagree that such labels exist, I'm not so sure that this is the best way to frame the discussion about who can be successful as an online learner.  There are many other variables and labels that we could explore (gender, age, cultural background, career, educational philosophy, prior knowledge/experience) that might provide a clearer portrait of online learners.

  • I'm also confused because throughout these two chapters, they seem to oscillate between two dichotomous opinions; (1) online learning is a "flat" text-based medium and (2) because online learning is text-based it allows greater, deeper reflection and interaction between participants.  So which one is it?

  • On p. 113: "Not all students do well online and may simply need more structure and face-to-face contact with an instructor and other students in order to succeed."  This sentence implies that "structure" can only occur in a face-to-face setting.  I would disagree.  A different type of structure is needed for the student, and the structure of the online classroom might not be the best fit.

  • On p. 123, they write: "They [students] do not understand that the online learning process is less structured and requires significantly more input from them to make it successful."  What does "less-structured" mean?  It's not less structured, it's differently structured.

  • Also on p. 113: "One of the hallmarks of the online classroom, and one that differentiates it from face-to-face learning, is the need for students to take responsibility for their learning process."  Um... No. In my middle school, face-to-face classroom, my students took plenty of responsibility for their learning.  Many of my educational methods courses forced me to take responsibility of my learning in my final undergraduate years.  And the vast majority of online courses that I have taken at NC State do not give me the power to control my learning process.  Blanket statement here that I have to disagree with.

  • On p. 117: "This medium has been described as the great equalizer -- essentially eliminating the boundaries that exist between cultures, genders, ages -- and also eliminating power differences between instructors and students. Greg Kearsley, in his 'A Guide to Online Education' (1997), suggests that the discussions that occur in the online classroom are as free of sociocultural bias as is possible."  There are so many things wrong with these sentences... Let's focus on the final.  I have not read Kearsley's website that is cited - but I think he must be living (and participating in online discussions) in a fantasy land!  Just because I sit down at a computer and start typing does not mean that my cultural background, my gender, my sexuality, my background, and prior knowledge are all erased.  Is he for real?  Why would we want these to be gone, anyway?  Is a discussion stripped of personal opinions, preferences, and biases worth having?  What is gained by saying this?  I appreciate his sentiment, but come on.  We're ignoring decades of research in linguistics and communication that clearly or at least point to the notion that how we speak (type) is directly related to who we are within our sociocultural backgrounds.

  • On p. 119: "Just as in the face-to-face classroom, attendance and presence should contribute to the grade in an online class. In a large face-to-face class, a student's absence may go unnoticed. But in the online classroom a student's absence is quite noticeable..."  Beyond the fact that it's humorous to grade someone's "presence", I would disagree.  I think in both face-to-face and online classrooms an individual's presence is noticeable.  It just depends on the pedagogy and methods of the teacher and who is looking/noticing.  I could actually argue the other point as well - that it's easier to go unnoticed in an online course.

  • This is a more general point on the section titled "If Students Have Technical Difficulties..." on p. 119.  The example listed is not a technical problem at all, it is a user problem and a pedagogical one.

  • On p. 121, "Regardless of the 'student centeredness' of the mode of education..." - this is another theme that is talked about throughout this chapter (and book) that is really an opinion and an assumption.  Online learning is not inherent student centered.  The computer was not built and does not "know" it's purpose.  Learning that is student-centered is created by teacher and student, regardless of the medium.  Most of my online courses have not been student-centered, in-fact, they've been predominately instructor/content-centered.

  • On p. 125, "Online, however, where much of the work is collaborative..."  So, is online learning inherently collaborative?  The sentence is written with a powerful word there: IS.  I've been in tons of classes online that are, in fact, not collaborative.

All of my questions and reflections point to this critical nature of the teacher in an online setting.  There are many phrases and ideas that Palloff & Pratt write about that are seemingly set in stone or "the way things are" that I would call into question, oftentimes that assume things about the technology.  Online learning is still learning, is still education.  And, for the greater part of human history, students and teachers have been the sole players in this endeavor.

A difficult student needs a courageous conversation from either the teacher or another student, or both.  This can happen in any way that is appropriate given the situation, time contraints and personalities/preferences.

I prefer to think of all of the positives that I've experienced from my past experiences in online classes (even though it may seem that they've all been lecture-based and teacher-centered). ;)

Whew - if you hung in there with me - thanks for reading!  I've been waiting to get that all out there!

Palloff, R. M. & Pratt, K. (2001). Lessons from the Cyberspace Classroom. San Fransico, CA: Jossey-Bass.


Originally posted on September 23, 2010 per the requirements of EAC 539: Teaching in the Online Environment at NC State University in Raleigh, North Carolina.


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