The following is a guest blog post by Christina Burken. Christina is the technical support specialist for the Expanding Learning Opportunities Consortium, eLo. In this post, Christina reflects on three aspects related to online learning and shares her experiences with each aspect. You may follow Christina on Twitter at cburken.
As I reflect on my last 18 months with the Expanding Learning Opportunities Consortium, eLo, a few things come to mind right away.
Most everything I want to know is already on the internet, but I have to build some callouses to grapple with the information.
Let’s start with number one. Sorry wait a second, I might need to hesitate here. I’m experiencing some apprehension surrounding writing this blog post, so my instinct (or is it just a habit) is to pick up my phone and check for new emails, texts, Facebook or Twitter posts, but I’ll come back to this subject a little bit later.
In my last job as a member of the information services team at my neighborhood school district, I had it going on! I merely needed to appear in a building with a friendly face, and teachers, administrators, secretaries, librarians and students slathered me with praise for being a tech. Teachers told me I was smart, talented and brave just for walking in the room and looking at their computer. If I fixed the problem, they threw their arms around me and called me a tech goddess! It was the best gig ever until the time came that I couldn’t figure out the problem.
The first few times this happened, I ran to the higher level techs for H-E-L-P! I usually received an eye roll, followed by a grunt. Eager to keep my new status as “tech goddess,” I went to the monthly tech meeting in search of the answers. Surely, the Director would stand in the front of the room and lecture on the way to fix complicated tech problems. He wanted me to be successful didn’t he? To my surprise, there was no lecture. All I got was a team member who reluctantly agreed to point me in the general vicinity of the answer. Like a dog chasing its tail, I tried to follow his vague directions, but gave up easily; I was still secretly waiting for someone to hold my hand and guide me down the path to permanent status as a tech goddess.
Finally, after an episode involving a lab full of ornery high school students and a stressed out teacher, I lost my patience. I went to the team and angrily asked them why they continued to send me out to classrooms without giving me the answer! To my angry interrogation, I received this reply, "JUST GOOGLE IT CHRIS!" Suddenly the lightbulb went on in my brain! What? Could it be? Am I in control of my learning? Can I just GOOGLE it? Have I the permission? It was what I like to call: a moment of awkward empowerment. I felt embarrassed that I didn’t know I could be trusted to find the answer on my own.
So, off to Google I went. Some googling worked really well--the answer was right there on the page. And some googling was terrible. Following poorly written directions and confusing forum posts to a dead end was very frustrating. But then, patterns began to emerge. I found the information that was repeated consistently, websites with good directions, and I found communities of learners that were serious about solving problems.
Very enthusiastic about my new independence, I decided to expand my learning from the confines of the school district tech world to my home life. It wasn’t long before I replaced a circuit board on my garage door opener, installed a new garbage disposal, put in a vinyl plank floor in my basement and fixed my broken cabinet door--I even learned how to cover the flaw in the wood with a q-tip and some stain! Yes, it was courtesy of several different YouTube videos, websites, and blogs (unfortunately you have to kiss some frogs before you find your prince). Not everyone is meant to instruct people. Not everyone on YouTube is an expert. But, if you are willing to kiss a few frogs, you will find your Prince, the person who delivers the instruction the way you prefer!
Since coming to eLo, I’ve used communities of learning to acquire skills in everything from new technology tools to discovering the best practices in Instructional Design. I get my instruction through videos, podcasts, audio books, articles, websites, blog posts, Kindle books and social media. So what’s my point you ask?
I believe that students need to build some callouses by learning online.
They need to take ownership of what they study and grapple with the material before turning to the teacher. If students can strengthen their tolerance to the discomfort of pushing through the new material without the immediate gratification of a teacher in the room, they will end up with a feeling of empowerment when their light bulb goes on. Hopefully, they too realize that they can be trusted to find the answers and create their own meaning.
Many people are “using” technology to distract themselves from the pain of learning.
I turned off my smartphone to start writing this post. I’m only six or seven short paragraphs in, and I have reached for my phone six times to distract myself from that tense feeling I get when I experience the difficulty of creating something new. I'm just going to admit it. I need to stop multitasking! Contrary to what many people tell themselves about it: I think multitasking is incredibly unproductive. At first, I feel excited by the chaos of doing more than one thing, but soon the fatigue sets in. Then I think for the amount of fatigue I'm feeling, I must have accomplished a lot of work. The bad news is that most of the time I did not go deep enough into the work to produce the quantity or quality I wanted.
When I think about my time troubleshooting technology, I realize it was a fantastic example of multitasking. I'd analyze a computer issue while listening to the user's complaints and hypotheses about the problem. Don’t get me started on what happens if another tech, or two, show up. Now everyone’s throwing their two cents into the mix! Techs are pointing at the screen, vying for a look, throwing out suggestions and worse yet, questions for me to consider. In the meantime, your email notifications and Google chat are blowing up your phone, because you always have to stay connected. You may even get called on the walkie-talkie! At the time, you completely believe you're productive because you are doing so much work, but eventually, you end up saying to the user, “How about I take this to my office and have a closer look?” And THAT's where the real work gets done.
Recently I realized that I am creating that same situation, even though I am alone at my desk. I’m clouding my brain by checking my social media, emails and texts every time the going gets tough with mastering something. So, I started asking myself why am I looking at this phone right now? Why am I sending this text right now? Why am I answering emails from my phone when my computer is in front of me? Would it be so bad if I only answered my emails every couple of hours? Sometimes building the callouses of learning hurts and when we hurt, we want a distraction! Unfortunately, it only takes one or two distractions to completely sink your efforts.
I am a technology specialist. My job requires constant attention to new information, but I don’t have to juggle my way through it. My inbox is never going to be empty. The technology tools I use are always going to be changing and improving. I'm never going to know it all. When you come to grips with that, you realize you want to set some boundaries with the information pipeline.
People who have been in the information game for a while already know this. They set up routines for responding to emails, texts, and checking their various social media platforms. Most of them even take walks to let their brains relax and work on problems in a different way. When these individuals write me emails, I usually feel heard and understood because there is a calm energy to their responses. It also helps that they don’t reply to the first half of my email and completely forget the second half.
Stop using technology when it hurts!
Build your tolerance to the pain! Students need people to model good behavior with technology. My phone is off right now, my email is closed, and it feels great to be working on just one thing by the way.
Online learning is an excellent way to build callouses, learn to manage the distraction and join a community of learners.
I’ve got to admit: it makes me a little crazy when people say students can’t learn online the way they learn in a face-to-face class. I see the fear and distrust rising out of them like steaming hot tea kettles. So what happens if that statement is true? Students learn differently in an online class. I say GOOD. Let them own it. Let them try their hand at projects and reflections to demonstrate their learning. Give them more than one try on formative assessments. Provide them with the autonomy to explore resources and master the content. Now those are skills they can add to their toolkits!
Granted, there are a lot of differences in the quality and delivery of online learning. I am talking about online learning that has the interaction of a collaborative community, an empowering teacher, and a broad range of materials, which lead to a path to deeper understanding.
What I found out in my online learning experiences is that students and teachers can still form strong relationships. The online technology allows students to collaborate with their peers. Through the use of videos, narrated power points, or even live conferencing software, teachers can easily and efficiently give lectures and demonstrations. My favorite part is that everyone is expected to participate. Everyone gets a chance to share their unique viewpoint, and in doing so, gets an opportunity to be inspired, challenged and even innovate on each other's ideas.
I recently took an online professional development course with an instructor who was incredibly engaging and supportive. He was able to cultivate a class community simply by using the discussion boards. He engaged us in conversations about ourselves, our learning and the application of what we learned. He provided us with videos, websites, blog posts, and peer reviewed articles. I learned so much, and I would love to follow up with him as I progress in my understanding of the subject. The good news is that he is part of a community of learners, which I can join.
My 23-year-old son recently took a job at a large engineering firm. Do you think they are holding face-to-face classes to teach him everything he needs to know about working on his assigned projects? No! It is all delivered online via a learning management system.
Whether we like it or not, it's a new world.
It's the world where people who are passionate about a subject make educational videos that teach others about their passion. It's the world where we can connect with entire communities of learning surrounding something we need to learn or hobbies we want to pursue. It's the world where if I'm unclear about my teacher's lecture, I can jump on the internet and find a different teacher’s recorded lesson on YouTube to get clarity on the subject.
When I got my MSed in Instructional Technology, it seemed like my studies were one long commercial that said: "Lifelong learning brought to you by the internet, and it’s free!." What a beautiful thing it is to access free learning materials every day from the comfort of my home or office. I am thankful though that I developed the callouses to grapple with material on my own before running to my teacher or boss. I am indebted to the people in my life who model good practices in dealing with the information overload (Thanks, Kip). I am grateful that I learned how to connect with communities of learners.
It is my wish that students can acquire these skills facilitated by an excellent teacher in robust online courses. Because if they do, they truly will be set for life!