As the face of education continues to evolve the discussion on online learning is often brought into the conversation. Recently, in a meeting of head administrators in my school district of approximately 3000 students, conversations around the future introduction of online classes has begun. Part of this stems from the need to meet the diverse needs of students where the traditional classroom may not be suitable for learning for all students. While presently traditional classes are seen as a lead teacher providing learning experiences at a set location for a set amount of time, online learning is considered the complete opposite. Online learning includes more than 80% of the classroom material being presented in an online format, typically through a Learning Management System (ex. Canva, Schoology, Blackboard) (Allen, Seaman, 2016). Students can be considered distant learners, spanning all geographic areas of the world, merely finding the time to log-in, engage in the materials, be it readings, videos or discussion threads, and submitting assignments for feedback. Simultaneously, no longer is a teacher intended to be in the same geographic place and time day after day. He/she can teach from anywhere, wearing pajamas, or a business suit. Often online-learning is considered more student-focused with the teacher serving more as a guide, rather than the keeper of all knowledge. There are a number of components that go into effective online teaching but the essence remains that online teaching and learning is the experience of education coming largely from an online source without the geographic or time restrictions. Learning can happen any time, any where. It is flexible.
So what goes into designing effective online education? Author Tina Stavredes in her book, Effective Online Teaching, outlines a number of considerations that must be made prior to planning the curriculum of a course. Stavredes suggests first, one must look at the learner profile of who typically would attend an online course. So for example, in the planning of our school district, we have a number of students who find it challenging to wake up for the early 7:30 am class. These students often struggle with transportation and predominantly fall within a certain socio-economic breakdown. Yet, we also have the opportunity to think about what our population profile might be if we expanded to include international students. What cultural trends would these populations bring to our current student group? Additionally, Stavredes suggests digging deeper into the learning styles of those who might engage in online learning. When planning an effective class, one needs to take into consideration the different styles of learning. Grasha-Riechmann created a scale of these styles as described as: Independent, Dependent, Competitive, Collaborative, Avoidant and Participant (18). As suggested by the name of the style, some students enter a class wishing to work collaboratively on all projects as a means to best learn, while others prefer independent work and some prefer to avoid the work all together. As a designer of a course, it’s important to take these different styles into consideration and plan opportunities to engage as many of these styles as possible. I would argue in addition to these descriptors, consideration for the seven learning styles of visual, auditory, physical, logical, aural, social and solitary should also be woven into the construction of the online class. By planning lessons, activities and instruction that meet the needs of the collaborative, independent and participant learners alongside with incorporating differentiated means of gathering the instruction, (ex. Videos, written, audio etc.) to meet the 7 learning styles, the online course will meet more students and be more effective.
There are traditional methods of design that I have felt lend to a more effective online environment. Some of these include explicit instruction, student examples of projects or work, and building the class culture. Class discussions that are meaningful and relevant to the topic at hand have been useful in creating a sense of class culture while reinforcing the learning. Also, video introductions and/or “community” office hours through the use of online meeting software have been useful in putting a name to the faces in class to promote class culture and connections with classmates. These connections become useful when collaboratively working together and often create a sense of support for some students. Lastly, because of the distant learning component, frequent feedback will promote a sense of community and culture in the class and enable students to feel they understand the material in the way they would through traditional feedback in a classroom setting.
While not directly pertinent to creating effective classrooms, one should also consider the style of learners who may be in the class. These styles play a role in how as a professor, one should support the learners–while allowing an understanding that different students will need different support depending on where they fall on this scale.
According to Grow’s Staged Self-Directed Learning Model (16) one is likely to come across 1 of 4 types of learners (if not all) in the course of a class:
Dependent Learner: one who has little pre-existing knowledge on the topic and requires direct instruction, lots of instructor feedback and clarity in expectations.
Interested learner: One who understands the essence of what’s needed to be successful in class but could benefit from feedback and encouragement from the instructor.
Involved Learner: One who has experience with the topic and needs little direction from the instructor beyond a peripheral guide, is self-motivated. The instructor would provide options, and opportunities for this type of learner to share his/her experience.
Self-directed Learner: Similar to the involved learner, this student has experience in the topic and is motivated while also having good time management skills. He/she would rely on the instructor for guidance when requested and some strategies to evaluate overall performance and work.
I, myself fall more along the lines of an Interested Learner and an Involved Learner. While I am self-motivated and have the ability to manage my time effectively, I also benefit from feedback and a little guidance as to the expectations of my work. Additionally, I have experience with online platforms and Technology Education, due to my job and experience at Boise State and The Academy of Art University, however, I have never designed an online course so am not overly confident in the material. As a student, this just means I seek out feedback when needed and clarification. If I were the professor, I would recognize myself as a learner might send more emails than a self-directed learner. I would expect questions in the discussion threads that as a professor I might need to clarify. Additionally, as a professor, I might plan to have student examples and explicit instructions to support myself as a learner.
In conclusion, there are a number of components that go into online learning. While the report from 2016 indicates a slow rise in the percentage of students engaging in online learning, one hopes those who are designing said classes are tending to the needs of the students through the rich diverse online tools available. Feedback, understanding of the social style, learning styles, and cultural profiles of students taking these classes are important along with designing streamlined curriculum to engage and meet the needs of the diverse learners.
Allen, I Elaine, Jeff Seaman, Russell Poulin, and Terri Taylor Straut. “TRACKING ONLINE EDUCATION IN THE UNITED STATES,” n.d., 62.
Stavredes, Tina. Effective Online Teaching: Foundations and Strategies for Student Success. Jossey-Bass, 2011.
Watanabe-Crockett, Lee. “The 7 Most Common Learning Types [Infographic].” Global Digital Citizen Foundation (blog), January 13, 2018. https://globaldigitalcitizen.org/7-learning-types-infographic.