As this school year gets off to a start, many (if not all) of the educators I work with feel as though it is their first year of teaching all over again. Whether you have 30 years or 3 years in education, welcome to your FIRST year as an online teacher. Many of us have never been (or wanted to be) an online teacher. Unfortunately we didn’t have a choice, so here we are thrust into the world of online teaching and learning.
As a longtime proponent of educational technologies and digital citizenship, I found myself looking forward to making the best of a bad situation. Now is our chance to really harness the power of technology in education. I know there are many educators and families who hate having to be online. I acknowledge and respect that. This post is not about the pros and cons of online learning. We are here now, so let’s make the most of it.
My school has now completed its 2nd week of distance education. I have visited a number of our teachers in their virtual classrooms and I am very proud of all of them. And I am impressed at how well all of our students are doing in managing Zoom and learning new norms, especially our youngest students. I really shouldn’t be amazed that many of our students are handling distance learning rather well, they are what some would call “digital natives” and they have amazing families that support and guide them.
I find myself enjoying the opportunities this situation is creating where I can support my teachers and help them approach teaching in new ways. Distance education is taking me back to my tech coaching days and the days where I wanted to be an instructional technology teacher on assignment. I want to help as many educators as possible, not only those at my current site, but those I have worked with over my 20+ years as an educator. So with that being said, I will begin to share out some of the things I hope will help. Like my next post about creating a welcome screen for your virtual classroom.
The following post has been prepared for GCU TEC-571 Distance Learning in Education and addresses the following prompt: “Select three instructional design principles (i.e., graphic cues, examples, combinations of instruction) that you feel should be more developed for learners within distance education courses.”
My present academic experience in an online Masters program is my first time being a learner within a distance education course. I can say honestly that the experience is mixed for me. I am excited to be pursuing the Master’s degree I wanted originally, and I am excited to be learning so much more about the rationale behind the many facets of educational technology. My current course focuses on distance education, and all I have as a personal reference is my rather short tenure as a distance learner.
Much of the discussion in my present course from the onset addresses how distance education cannot simply be treated like your traditional “brick and mortar” education, which I completely agree with. I do however think that the structure of a lesson/course can be similar. For example, lessons in an offline classroom are largely based on Madeline Hunter’s lesson plan format: getting ready to learn (review, anticipatory set, objectives), instruction (input and modeling), checking for understanding (guided practice), independent practice, and finally closure (assessment). I have been teaching long enough to see that there have been variations to the formula but Hunter’s foundation remains unchanged. I have taught solely at the elementary level, but I have been a student of all levels and I know that Hunter’s structure is not limited to elementary lesson structure. It works at all levels.
That being said, I reflect on this widely accepted and successful structure and I find it is not present in my present graduate course. It is my perception that I am provided more of a “Must Do” list of items that I am to complete largely on my own as if it were some sort of independent study. I am assigned a lecture to read as well as a text and other links to other resources, but there really is no meaningful contact with the professors or my peers, and I believe that is a major hurdle in my experience as a distance learner. Sure I can email them or leave a message for them on a message board, but that is no where near the same thing as real human interaction, (the sort of interaction you get when you attend a physical class) which I do believe is possible within the world of educational technology. The theory of Multiple Intelligences presents itself here. In our offline classrooms we are expected to consider the various “intelligences” of our learners (how they learn best) as well as their strengths and weaknesses. That should be no different for the online learner. Lessons and courses should be designed with this in mind for both offline and online learners.
The power of interacting with your instructors and your peers, is huge and completely possible online. While my present Master’s program is the first time I have been a distance learner in terms of my “official” education as a working professional, I have realized it really is not my first time being a distance learner.
I became a distance learner once I joined the Discovery Educator Network (DEN). The first time I attended a webinar was the beginning of my experiences as a distance learner. Twitter has also added to my experiences as a distance learner in the exchanges I have had that either further contact and communication with a presenter I may have seen at a conference, or with other educators I have networked with. The groundbreaking event for me as a distance learner was the Multi-User Virtual Environment (MUVE) called Second Life (SL). It was because of the DEN that I joined this community in 2007 and have never left. I have used Skype more as well as a result of my exploration of SL and use of it to broaden my own personal development as an individual as well as an educator. SL and Skype have single handedly changed how I want to learn (and get the most out of my learning) as a distance learner. They have brought the personal connection that in my opinion, makes distance learning (and in turn distance educating) much more enriching and impactful.
It is my belief via my own experiences as a distance learner in a MUVE, that many instructional design principles can be addressed and enhanced to meet the needs of the distance learner. The only real limitation is the age of the targeted learner. For example, I teach 3rd grade presently and the highest grade I have taught is 5th. A MUVE like SL is best geared toward high school and higher education. However I know MUVEs like Minecraft are used with increasing regularity to instruct younger learners.
A distance course could be housed in SL, but not limited to it. Any Learning Management System (LMS) could be used in conjunction with it, like LoudCloud, which is used in my present course. It serves largely as a syllabus and message board. With the course structure outlined in a LMS, the courses themselves could be attended in SL (at varying times to account for different time zones) to bring in that personal aspect that is so very important. As with any new software there is a learning curve, and just learning SL itself…an orientation per se, (much like one gets before they go to college) would be an excellent ice-breaker… something we all do as “real-world” educators with a new class.
I am a founding member of a virtual photography education project called VISIONAIRE, which I actively work on with two very dear friends I met in SL, one of whom is an art therapist who has worked with sufferers of post traumatic stress disorder and lives in Ireland (Wren), the other in Singapore who also happens to have real life experience as an educator as well as a photographer for VOGUE (Nariko).
It was through my experience as a student in this project as well as a manager that I began to see how the use of a MUVE in distance education was very real and very powerful for both the learner and the instructor. Using VISIONAIRE as a case study and Hunter as a lesson foundation, the following principles can be modified to meet the needs of distance learners.
In VISIONAIRE it was clear from the onset that our over arching objective was to improve the virtual photography skills of each student. I remember the opening activity vividly. We were tasked with bringing to class an example of a virtual photographer we aspired to be like and one that was not quite our style and explain why. Each student came with a sample from Flickr as there is quite the thriving community of virtual/SL artists there and in SL voice, local text, or Skype we explained our thoughts behind each sample we brought to share with our instructors as well as our classmates. In this activity alone we reviewed our own virtual photography knowledge, understood the objective, and our mutual sharing served as the anticipatory set.
Instructional Design Principle #2: Instruction (input and modeling)
In terms of the actual instruction, the instructors (Nariko and Wren) lectured and facilitated group discussion via inworld voice, local text and Skype, depending on the needs of the group.They modeled via samples of their own work, or via sharing something they were working on to illustrate a point via screen capture tools like Gyazo. We congregated in a building that looked nothing like a traditional classroom. It was more of a cozy building with seating for our avatars. In truth it could have been held anywhere…in an open field, a park, another planet, etc.
With the second batch of students Wren took them on virtual field trips to different locations to challenge their use of inworld photography tools as well as post processing tools such as PhotoShop or Gimp. She also had them build their own tools in SL for use in their virtual photography.
Instructional Design Principle #3: Checking for Understanding (guided practice)
We met inworld weekly and in each session we were given assignments to prepare spotlighting different aspects of virtual photography, and then share with the class upon our next meeting (using the previously mentioned methods). Nariko and Wren would review and comment as well as our peers. It was a deeply meaningful process.
Instructional Design Principle #4: Independent Practice
As mentioned above, we were given assignments to work on for the week. A collection of the assignments from the first two batches can be viewed on Flickr.
When a cycle of instruction comes to a close it is met with a heavy heart on the part of all participants. We celebrate achievements and all the things we have learned and how we have grown with a graduation exhibit housed inworld and promoted on social media (Facebook, Twitter, Google +, blogs). VISIONAIRE students display their final projects in their very own galleries. Avatars come from all over the world to view the work of our students and celebrate the learning and success of their friends. It is quite the experience and well received by both students and attendees.
While VISIONAIRE is but one example, it is one I was a very active participant in as a learner as well as an educator. It symbolizes for me the very real potential MUVEs like Second Life have in distance education, and that distance education not be relegated to two dimensional learning management systems and message boards. Distance learning can and should be as vibrant as the traditional offline learning experience.
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Wang, C., Calandra, B., Hibbard, S., & McDowell Lefaiver, M. (2012). Learning effects of an experimental EFL program in Second Life. Educational Technology Research & Development, 60(5), 943-961. doi:10.1007/s11423-012-9259-0
Yunfei, D. (2011). A Measurement Model of Students’ Behavioral Intentions to Use Second Life Virtual Environments. Journal Of Education For Library & Information Science, 52(1), 41-53.