The Long and Winding Road

When I was a halfway through being a sophomore in college I decided to switch my major on a whim because the courses I was taking weren’t personally fulfilling. I had come to school with a lot of core done, and I felt something lacking in the joy of learning and didn’t know what it was. I always knew I wanted to teach, but didn’t particularly care what I was teaching. I’m good enough in most subjects to teach them. I took a variety of classes that semester, including two upper level English courses, and that was the semester I decided to go with that. I credit that to one particular professor; I won’t name him, he’s no longer here, but every English major at UAF has heard me gush about him for years. I took quite a few classes from him, and while I never asked if he had a background in education it was clear that he understood, at some level, how students learn. Years later I took a 400 level class with him where an unusual amount of responsibility was given to the students and I’d like to talk about that. This isn’t an online learning experience, but I think it’s conceptually similar to some of what you see in online courses.

I now know that a lot of graduate courses do this, but as an undergraduate, I’d never seen a professor block off entire days of a class where students were expected to lead the class. That can be a frightening experience when you’re just switching into a degree and you’re surrounded by seniors (novice-expert again) who’ve been in that degree path for  far longer. This was fairly well thought out. I asked him later about the details through which he approached this. It’s fairly uncommon to have students lead 3 hour long courses as undergraduates. He only did this in small classes, usually with <10-15 students, and in the more specific 300 and 400 level classes. You met with him far in advance to discuss exactly what you were going to do. It’s quite the interesting experience – you’re expected to be an expert on the readings. There’s a lot of pressure to perform when you’re in a class where you know everybody very well, the class is long, the topics are difficult and obscure, and you have to lead for a long period of time. You do a lot of research, maybe even write a few of your papers in that class on that topic earlier in the semester, read extra articles, watch documentaries, make class materials, etc. This wasn’t an education class but I probably learned more about teaching from having to do this than I have in many of my ed classes!

Specifically, the course I’m thinking of was about the history of print media, book history, censorship, publication history, printing laws, etc. I led the class on a day where we were talking about how, now that we’ve got the ability to easily reproduce art, some would say that the intrinsic value of art has lessened. To this day I know the theory and history surrounding the value of art and writing, art reproductions, scribes, the value of early writing, physical printing, the cost of books before and after the printing press, and the dawn of mass media in far more detail than I’ll ever need to. This learning experience was effective and long-lasting because it was so in-depth and so personalized. We had a list of articles to choose from and almost no directions so the process was very much determined by us. We had a lot of freedom to make this something we wanted it to be. I focused largely on the upcoming 3D printing singularity and in exactly what ways production and the value of consumer goods and artistic products will change in the future, and related that to the media explosion that came about with the dawn of easy printing. The original article that the professor had on the syllabus didn’t have a whole lot to do with that. I got to add readings that were required for the class that day. You have to do a surprising amount of work to prepare for a 3 hour class, but it’s pretty fun when you have so much control over what you’re studying.

Now, obviously, (Vader voice) the constructivism is strong with this one. The learning on my end (not the other students) was very active and highly personalized, and I had to spend a lot of time constructing my own knowledge by doing additional research and working closely with the professor over the course of a couple of weeks. It’s very initiative-focused, because I suppose it would be easy to simply do the required reading and come in and say “What did you guys think?’ and leave it at that. It isn’t particularly collaborative though – at no point in the process did I seek out the i. nput of other students, at least not until the day of my leading. I alone controlled the learning process for my day, but it was a class-wide experience in that we were all working together to help each other learn. We had to reflect on our own experiences, and on the leadership days of others, so the next time I had to do something like this I had a lot of feedback to draw on and I could look at my fellow students’ experiences.

As far as the other learning theories we covered go, it isn’t exactly very aligned with the cognitivists. It certainly involved the long-term retention of material, as I had to start weeks in advance and recall large amounts of information later. It’s definitely NOT behavioral – there are no explicit outcomes, there’s no goal, there’s no test really, there’s no behavior to be repeated, there’s no sequence (you dive in to your topic almost from nothing). It’s the sort of thing that works well in online learning. Because online learning is often (supposed to be) so focused on a student’s journey, this sort of approach works well in synchronous meetings. You know the drill – we all go away for a couple of weeks and work on our own things and come back to discuss them. This is a blown up version of that and you can see it transferring to an online class fairly naturally. Where this really would have to change is in the student-instructor interaction.

One of the biggest “implications for online learning’ regarding constructivism is the way that student-teacher interactions have to be structured. Learning should be an active process, yeah, but everybody needs direction. Learning something from scratch is hard. Very hard. It can be incredibly hard if you don’t have research skills that you’ve cultivated. Ally talks about how the role of instructor in a constructivist approach is to give information to students via more direct channels (such as the articles that we read) instead of by second-hand instruction (assumably lectures). One of the things that I think you have to think about with online classes is how you point students towards resources. Legally, you can’t just pull all the best articles related to a topic and link them as PDFs on your own site. You also don’t have the freedom to talk to students face to face and guide them towards resources that might interest them. The Ally reading for this week has an excellent list of references and were recommended to look at it for resources. An online resource list can be difficult to cultivate – articles disappear from areas, permissions change randomly, sites go offline, etc. For constructivists, student-led learning is important, and while it’s certainly not hard to plug a title into the library search engine, for somebody without university research skills it can be hard. If you don’t know how to get where you want to go, and you’re knew enough to a topic to not know where the most respectable information can be found, learning something outside of your required readings can be quite the journey.

To tie this in with my article review, and my example from this post, I think one of the most difficult things about learning online is in what Ally calls learner support. Be it student-student, student-teacher, or student-other expert, communication online (though it has come a looong way) is still slow, clunky, and not as effective as talking. Humans have evolved to function socially in person – conversations have a natural ebb and flow to them, they can change directions randomly, you can suddenly remember something, you can physically hand someone a book, and the exchange of resources is instantaneous. Student-led learning still needs direction; you need leads to follow up on. You need interaction with people who can point you in those directions. Email is okay, but slow. Twitter is limited in character count. Hangouts and Skype are hard to arrange. Little things like this can pile up easily.

Online learning, compared to traditional learning, is still in its infancy. Maybe, more accurately, it’s still zygotic in comparison. Constructivism focuses on students constructing (educators and social scientists are great with titles) meaning from their own educational paths. That’s very easy to do on the internet…to an extent. You know the old problem with source validity has only gotten worse as the internet has gotten older.. More and more places on the internet where you can “learn things’ that don’t cite their sources, aren’t published by respectable institutions, and don’t necessarily qualify as a good resource from which to, you know, construct your learning. I don’t know how many times I’ve learned something from WikiHow and just crossed my fingers and hoped that it was true. The biggest issue that I imagine constructivists  will face in creating online courses is making sure that the knowledge that their students are constructing is valid. The responsibility in online learning falls very heavily on the instructor to offer strong resources up front – even, I think, for unessential reading. It’d be nice if online classes had a Starship Troopers style “Would you like to know more?’ page where you could, I don’t know, have Neil Patrick Harris point you towards resources about the efficacy of mandatory discussions in online courses. That’d be nice.

One thought on “The Long and Winding Road

  1. Your account of the instructor who put you in the role of the professional is great, and inspiring. This is a technique I often suggest to faculty. Interesting that you were at a place where you could take that direction and go with it. That you had the pre-loaded capacity to know how to gather materials and content and organize and prepare for sharing with your peers. That’s a leap of faith for everyone involved, but the further into a field you get, the shorter the leap, perhaps. How far back in your education would you have to go to where the leap was too far?

    Your statement, “Online learning, compared to traditional learning, is still in its infancy,” caught my attention. I’m not sure I agree. Through the lens of fancy modern tools, perhaps. But in terms of fundamental learning processes – I’m not so sure. Darwin wrote over 10,000 letters to colleagues and peers in his lifetime. If you think distance learning is slow and cumbersome now? 🙂 Yet this was common for scholars in his era, and the scientific advances of the mid-nineteenth century are staggering. The Open University was founded in London in the 1850’s and served degrees via distance all over the world – and still does (including to Allied soldiers imprisoned in Nazi POW camps). And on and on. What does it mean to be a scholar and participate in a community of like-interested others? How old is that and how different are things now?

    Nice Starship Troopers reference. A friend of mine considers the “Holodeck” to be the pinnacle of our learning experience design potential. I tend to look more backwards than forwards. I like the Greeks. A few knowledgable friends, a jug of wine, some olives… OK, maybe a smart phone or two for reference…

    Very nice post. Lots to think about but I’ll be quiet and leave more for your peers.


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