Home Alone?

One of the challenges I had working from home was a feeling of isolation. And… one of the reasons I went back to work in group of peoplea district was a need for collaboration, conversation, idea sharing. I work best in that kind of environment. What I found was radically different from what I hoped. I still work in isolation just surrounded by people. The isolation is due to the fact that I am the only one who does what I do, online and blended learning. The piece that is missing is having someone to brainstorm with who understands the context of online teaching and learning. The good and the bad. Understand, I do work to have conversations with my colleagues, until their eyes glaze over!

These ideas came to me because the school year is ending and I find myself reflecting on my professional goals and what I have or have not accomplished. Which led me, strange as it may seem, to think about online students working in isolation and what we as educators can do to minimize that isolation. My belief is that learning is social, collaborative. How can we utilize what we know about face-to-face learning and incorporate the best parts in an online environment?

A recent article, “5 Elements to Better Connection and Communication with Online Students” by Francesca Catalano, gives 5 simple, practical ways an instructor can improve communication with students:

  1. Use visual elements
  2. Incorporate audio communications
  3. Remember specific details about your students
  4. Be available when students need help
  5. Use methods of communication that students are fluent In or prefer to use

These thoughts sent me back to old but solid research.  Way back in 1987, Arthur W. Chickering and Zelda F. Gamson published the “Seven Principles of Good Practice in Undergraduate Education.” Those principles are still applicable in 2015. Sometimes good teaching is just that… good teaching.  I completely buy-in to the idea that learning is social or relational; learning is more about people than content. This idea is emphasized in the Seven Principles. Later, Chickering and Gamson’s work was updated with a focus on the online environment, “Seven Principles of Effective Teaching: a Practical Lens for Evaluating Online Courses.”  Here are the principles and their application to online:

Principle 1: Good Practice Encourages Student-Faculty Contact
Lesson for online instruction:
Instructors should provide clear guidelines for interaction with students. Communication is a two-way street and expectations for how and when that communication will take place are important for both student and instructor. This principle sets up the context that “I care that you succeed in my course.”

Principle 2: Good Practice Encourages Cooperation Among Students
Lesson for online instruction:
Well-designed discussion assignments facilitate meaningful cooperation among students. Participation alone in a discussion is not enough. Students need to understand what makes up meaningful participation. It is the instructors’ job to convey expectations and craft the assignment toward quality discussion. Otherwise it is just an exercise.

Principle 3: Good Practice Encourages Active Learning
Lesson for online instruction:
Students should present course projects. Students benefit from seeing their peers work and sharing their own. Through this sharing, students learn from each other and develop evaluation skills that can be applied to future project development.

Principle 4: Good Practice Gives Prompt Feedback
Lesson for online instruction:
Instructors need to provide two types of feedback: information feedback and acknowledgement feedback. These two types of feedback are distinct. Information feedback is when an instructor is answering questions, relaying grade information or comments on an assignment. It is concrete and specific. Acknowledgment feedback is simply noting that something has happened. The instructor has received the assignment or question. Both types of feedback are needed and should be timely. Imagine a students’ perspective of an assignment that has been submitted with no acknowledgement of receipt. Did the instructor get it? Do I need to resubmit? Especially in an online setting, acknowledgement feedback alleviates anxiety (and isolation) on the students’ part.

Principle 5: Good Practice Emphasizes Time on Task
Lesson for online instruction:
Online courses need deadlines. Being completely open ended on when assignments are due lessens the importance of getting the work done. You can be flexible but deadlines provide structure for both students and instructors. That structure leads to better communication and good decisions about time management.

Principle 6: Good Practice Communicates High Expectations
Lesson for online instruction:
Challenging tasks, sample cases, and praise for quality work communicate high expectations. High expectations can be communicated in a number of ways including examples of exemplary work or even “what not to do.” Students learn from these examples and have a better idea of what is expected of them.

Principle 7: Good Practice Respects Diverse Talents and Ways of Learning
Lesson for online instruction:
Allowing students to choose project topics incorporates diverse views into online courses. Students are more interested and engaged when provided with choice. Student choice in projects, with guidelines, expands the conversation to include topics and views that may not have occurred to the instructor or other students.

The Seven Principles again point to a strong need for communication: student to teacher, as well as, student to student. Learning does not take place in isolation but is collaborative and social, whether online or face-to-face. How do you ensure your online students are learning and communicating?

“Coming together is a beginning, staying together is progress, and working together is success.” – Henry Ford

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