I have been a lover of online learning for a long time now. I have explored how Twitter and blogging have enhanced both my professional practices and personal understanding of complex ideas. I have engaged inconsistently with the wonderful people at Digital Pedagogy Lab who are intent on making online learning an inclusive practice. So even though I “get” the idea of online learning, I have never fully bought into the practicalities of it.
You see, I work in teacher education, an applied discipline. I have always at the back of my mind assumed that online teacher education will go away because it seems like such a ridiculous concept. The reality is that it won’t. In fact, more and more teacher education courses are being taught online. I get why.
Why should only people who can take time away from their families and work to study in a classroom be the only people who get to be teachers?
Teaching courses online is an inclusive practice, despite the pessimistic view that the university is doing it more for the fees than the social good. But often the inclusivity of the courses finishes there. What I have come to realise over the past few years of teaching and learning online is that simply recording the IRL lecture or workshop is not necessarily including the specific learning needs of online students.
Knowing this is not necessarily the same as understanding it. I knew that the online learning environment denied students experiences that were common practices in classrooms. I have worked very hard to recreate the classroom as best as I can in online spaces by organising short spurts of me talking and then throwing to an activity like Think, Pair and Share. The students share their answers in the chat and on the whiteboard (just like butchers paper activities) because if more than a few use the audio, the whole system seems to crash. This worked quite successfully for a few years and I really quite enjoy the challenge. I could tell if all the students were engaged. More students were contributing than in class because of the freedom online chats can afford.
However, this year things have changed and I have come to better understand the issues.
Teaching a new course this year, my techniques fell flat on their faces. None of the students engaged with me readily, even though I allowed processing time while I went and got a cup of tea (an advantage in online lessons for the teachers). I kept pushing through, but it got me thinking about the assumptions I was making about what students wanted from me in an online space. I put together a poll and asked how they would like to engage with the content online:
Overwhelmingly the students elected to listen to a full lecture and then have some form of discussion or activity afterwards. I am going to formally ask my students why they responded the way they did next lesson (as a blogging activity), but their responses got me thinking about a couple of things:
- What I think is best doesn’t necessarily work best. If we think about why many people elect to learn online (other responsibilities) then why would an interactive classroom play into their needs? As a mother myself, I would probably have chosen the first option as well. If I am stacking the dishwasher while I listen, doesn’t mean I’m not listening. With one activity, I am required to actively engage once and I can handle that.
- Lecturing can be student centred.
- People really like podcasts and audiobooks so why wouldn’t they like online lectures? Why can’t we upload an audio only option for MP3 players, car audio systems and dog walking?
And it’s not just about learning styles or preferences.
It’s also about the assumptions we make about the people we are teaching. Does the loss of faces in online classrooms, whitewashed by the chatroom and the whiteboard, mean we think we are teaching a homogenous group? Do the names we see in the list of online attendees cause us to make assumptions about a person’s identity? What does actually not seeing your class do?
There is more to being inclusive than who we are able to include. Just because more people can be included in online learning experiences and thus allow more access to education, the actual way the online lessons are delivered need scrutiny through the same inclusive lens.