Online Instruction and Learning: Designing the Grand Illusion
Most exemplary classrooms exhibit an ironic physical characteristic: the instructor is difficult to locate. Not in the front of the room, not lecturing, not at a podium; instead, most exemplary instruction takes place in the interaction of instructor and students/students and students in hands-on learning. That being the case, how can online courses hope to replicate the physical classroom? They can, if the designer applies the “magic” of an exemplary teacher.
The most basic “trick” convinces the student that he or she enjoys learning. Good instruction engages and challenges students by presenting content as a series of problems to be solved. Good instructors ask questions rather than deliver answers. Online learning replicates this by simply “flipping” the manner in which content is presented: pose a question, solicit student responses, then assign reading to clarify and amplify understanding. This approach even fits asynchronous online instruction, as students can “check their theories” as they proceed through content.
A second “trick” encourages student responsibility for learning through authentic assessment. Good instructors require students to reshape what they know and apply it to new situations. This type of assessment goes beyond mere assessment of facts. In both physical and online courses, why not ask students to develop their own assessments? Why not require students to “prove” mastery of the content by designing and presenting their own projects? Even in an asynchronous online course, the student can create and self-critique a project.
These “magic tricks” define quality instruction and learning, regardless of environment. What special type of instructional sorcery can distinguish the online classroom? Online instruction has the potential to make aspects of the exemplary classroom visually “real” for the student. For instance, online technology can give students a “briefcase” icon to represent resources personally collected during a course. The discussion and give-and-take between instructor and students in the physical classroom continues in the online classroom by chat, messaging, and email. Technologies such as WebEx provide an actual physical connection sophisticated enough to replicate a conference, with multiple virtual “rooms” and a variety of interactivity and assessment options.
The Towson University Cisco Academy Instructor Training Center is applying all of these features to synchronous online instructor courses. These courses have two goals: help instructors to develop the base of technical knowledge and skills needed to teach IT courses, and generate resources for instructional best practices. WebEx provides the environment for twice-weekly class “meetings” where instructors share responses from their reading, resolve challenges, and focus on how to teach. Packet Tracer, a high-level simulation software, and NetLab, where instructors complete technical work online using physical equipment located in a remote lab, provide opportunities for practice and application of technical skills. Facilitators of these courses try to stay “difficult to locate” and encourage participants to take charge of their own learning. This type of quality online instruction and learning replicates the characteristics of an exemplary physical classroom while leveraging the features of online technology to empower instructors to create their own brand of instructional “magic.”
In the cloud or in the classroom, engaging and challenging students are the keys to success. Designing course expectations and delivery to support those keys is the ultimate “trick” in providing quality online instruction and learning.