Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Teaching Strategies in Virtual Education

I know, I know that I said that the last post would be it until the beginning of 2014 but I could not help myself on this one!
Lately, I have been in a debate of sorts with another colleague who has a similar level of experience in teaching but not as many years of teaching in the virtual education setting as I have who believes that the Socratic method (ie: "the lecture") should be the only method that should be used in virtual education. If you remember from the previous post, I had stated that we have a responsibility to meet students where they are at and to use our imaginations in writing online courses that will inspire students to love learning, to inspire them to dream of what could be possible and help them to develop self confidence in building a future that we all can live with.
His point of view stems from the multitude of politically motivated education initiatives that he claims have very little scientific support as to their value to promote student learning. He contends that the Socratic method is the only method that has a proven track record in student learning.
To be fair to his point of view it is true that there have been many politically motivated education initiatives in many countries that have been failures and educators and their students have suffered the foolishness of Educrats.. He points to the results of international tests in Math and Science in a cross comparison of many countries that show a lack in student achievement when particular education initiatives have been in force.
In my view, I think that he is naive in his point of view because he ignores the world that students live in, both the online and the physical world. Our students are at home in the online world because they are digital natives from birth but also that they have mastered many of the skills needed to manoeuvre in this environment and have seen first hand what technology and the Internet can provide them. As a result, their expectations in online education are higher when it comes to how they should be taught. They expect that the teacher will be well versed in all the skills and technology of the online world and will apply them in making their educational experience an enriching and relevant one. Although it is true that some students respond to the Socratic method, there are many who sought alternatives to the brick and mortar classroom to escape from this single minded form of pedagogy.
We live in an infinite universe that is brimming with infinite diversity. Why should we expect anything less than to reflect this fact in the way we educate students. I do believe that it is the educator's responsibility to critically evaluate every educational initiative that ministeries of education pass by edict to the education institutions and then ask themselves whether or not that this works in an online environment to the benefit of the majority of students.
I would want a student who takes a course from me to experience a feeling of "wow" and be stimulated to think about how what he/she is learning could impact the present and future.
My colleague suggested that I read a book that he just read as it proves his point, so I intend to do that with a critical eye.
More in 2014......

Friday, December 13, 2013

Reflections of a Virtual Educator

As we approach the end of another year, it is worthwhile to take the time to be introspective about not only what has happened this year but also how our goals in online education have changed or need adding to. I don't believe in making New Years resolutions because that have become a tired clichee.

As an online educator, I owe it to my students to review my goals in dealing with them and their education in the coming year. So year are some of my goals for online education:
  1. My students deserve an online experience that is exciting, challenging, relevant to their lives in the world they live in and inspirational. I believe that in this present age in countries in Europe, the Middle East, Asia, North America, South America, & Africa, we are engaged in a battle for the hearts and minds of young people. There are many forces in this world that are trying to shape the future. Some of these forces are beneficial and others if possessing the power lead to slavery. Young people are the focus of these efforts. As an online educator who teaches students in many countries, I need to be always aware of the cultural background and voice that my students bring to their studies. I will not teach them what to think but I will teach them how to think in ways that allows them to strive for the common good for the respective nations that they are citizens of. Sounds like a lofty and high sounding ideal doesn't it? Yet, look around at what is happening in the world today. Do we really want students who have a cynical and self-defeating view of the future that they are going to live in or do we want students who have the courage and confidence to build the future?
  2. I have found that recognizing where students are in their lives, in other words, what is important to them and how they interact with each other, has been a helpful context in reaching out to them. My sense of humour in being able to laugh with my students and not at them has been a good buffer between us and the world. I can relate to my students on a one to one basis if we can laugh together. I want to maintain that as a goal.
  3. In dealing with students I want to maintain an affirmation that what they experience as problems in their lives are real and painful to them. When there is a delay in receiving their work or the quality of their work suddenly deteriorates or drastically improves, I care enough to ask why.
  4. I want to continue to explore the idea of creating embedded virtual worlds in my world history course so that the events of world history become a living entity to them in which they participate. In the personal profile that my students see, I sort of blow away any stereotypes they may have about me as a result of my age. What they learn is that I am an avid gamer and play X-Box live games(I NEVER give out my gamer tag to my students but I constantly remind them that I can beat them anytime I choose;)), I have been involved in teaching students robotics as it relates to NASA projects which I do, to teach students that they can take a relevant and active role in real projects and I always challenge students to defend positions they take in discussions. I do believe that gaming theory does have alot to say about enhancing the virtual education experience. There are some adults who would look at my activities and suggest that I am acting childish but I think that it doesn't hurt for each of us to be able to access the child that is still part of who we are.
  5. I want to promote more discussion and dialogue in this blog. I think that this is the way that we all can grow in our understanding and experience of virtual education. There are times when I am not sure if many people actually read what is written here. However, as an explorer, it is important to take calculated risks.
  6. Lastly, I want to encourage my students to take time and turn off their computers and stop and enjoy the world in all its splendor. I think that students often have their heads so buried in social media that they truly fail to see the beauty that the world has to offer. Many great men and women have gained the inspiration to do magnificent things for the common good from taking the time to do this. This is time well spent!
Enjoy the holidays in which ever way you choose to celebrate them.
More in the new year............

Monday, December 9, 2013

Challenges in Virtual Education: Teachers


One of the linchpins to the success of a virtual education enterprise are the educators that become stakeholders in it. This would seem to be an obvious statement and yet in our societies there are many people who believe that the quality of educational life of a teacher has no connection with the quality of the educational experience for students. Peter Senge in his book, "The Fifth Discipline"(1990), posed a very intriguing question which asked:"How can we create powerful learning experiences and environments for students if they do not first exist for educators?" Although this source is dated the question is still relevant today. Any virtual education system must consider what it provides as a learning environment for its staff first before it does so for its students. Learning environments for educators should break away from the traditional mold of institutional professional development and be willing to make full use of what the Internet has to offer. We can build engaging, inspiring and challenging environments if we are willing to accept the premise that there is a logical connection between the learning conditions of teachers and students.

With regards to challenges faced by educators in creating a learning environment for their students, I have previously introduced a phrase that describes an expectation that should be important to the online education experience. The phrase is "thoughtful engagement". In evaluation for learning and of learning, is there evidence of thoughtful engagement of the student with his/her subject matter? Why is this important in an online environment? Some students across a wide range of curriculum areas have associated the cutting and pasting of source information from the Internet as a fulfillment of the requirements of a given assignment. Since these students are in fact digital natives, performing such actions have become second nature to them and in reality does not require any thoughtful engagement in the subject matter at all. Part of the problem has been the belief by educators that it is expedient to just transpose assignment matter that worked in the brick and mortar classroom into an online environment. Mark this up to expediency or professional laziness but the truth of the matter, it lacks the imagination required to work in the online education environment. A more thoughtful approach to designing learning tasks in the online environment is needed with the focus on engaging the heart first and then the mind of the student. Engaging the heart means that as a course designer you have taken into account where the student is in life, how he/she interacts with his/her environment and that you have taken the time to sample the hopes and dreams that students have for their future. It means that you have equipped yourself with the necessary tools that become extensions of your imagination. Sadly the case is too often that students' dreams and hopes wither in the high school environment because of a systemic cynicism about the future that seems to be pervasive in brick and mortar schools. They are flooded with media reports from all over the globe that impress on them that it is hopeless to consider a positive and fulfilling future given the tragedy of humanity as it unfolds before their eyes instantly thanks to the media's obsessional greed in defining what news should be proclaimed. This needs to change and although online education will not solve this, it can contribute to helping to  counteract its effects on the hearts and minds of young people. It starts with courageous educators willing to challenge this cancerous mindset.

More later....

Saturday, December 7, 2013

The Challenges for Virtual Education: Administrators

In an earlier post I gave one example of a virtual education system that has learned from experience how to enable an enriching educational experience for students. I would like to emphasize that this is just one example of a number of developing virtual education systems around the globe. One thing that should be pointed out is that a number of established brick and mortar school systems are experimenting with virtual education but their focus is on keeping students in the physical school and allowing some courses to be taken online. This is the blended model and these systems have met with varying degrees of success. There is also quite a difference between privately owned education systems and those that are funded by taxpayers in a variety of countries.

Having said that there are challenges in developing an online school that need to be met. One important challenge is to make sure that those who are stakeholders in an online education venture, public or private, have a clear understanding of the vision, mission and guiding principles that such a system will have. This is an important challenge for those who will function as administrators of such a system. As I have stated before not every administrator who is successful in the brick and mortar system will necessarily be successful in the virtual education realm. It is of prime importance that administrators with very specific qualities be in place in order for the system to start off on the right foot. Such qualities as being a risk taker, eclectic, creative, critical thinking, technology savvy, collaboration leader, decisive...etc. are not necessarily primary qualities we usually associate with the typical administrator. However, in the fast moving environment of the Internet and technology, these are qualities that will bear fruit at crucial junctures.
With respect to building the system, a decision needs to be made as to what LMS the system will utilize. One that I have already mentioned is D2L which provides essentially a turn-key solution to this requirement. A less expensive route that could be used is Moodle. Moodle continues to develop and add tools to enhance the LMS. The primary requirements for the LMS choice that is made is that it should be:
  1. User friendly for staff, students and administration.
  2. Should present an immersive, interactive experience. With respect to students, the desktop that they would see should have more than one method of communication (ie:e-mail, chat) and access links to Facebook, Twitter IM...etc. The reason for this is that this is the world that students feel most comfortable operating in. This means a lower learning curve technologically speaking.
  3. Should have an established Help Desk that staff and students would have access to. The purpose is that we understand that technology is not perfect and neither are the technology skills that staff and students bring to the virtual environment. Teachers should NOT be responsible for solving technology issues!
  4. Should have an area that would serve as a repository for technology tutorials for both staff and students. As technology advances, there should be a area that students can go to upgrade their skills. For example, if a students wants to use Prezi as an alternative presentation tool to PowerPoint, there should be an area where the student can go to take a self-guiding tutorial. This builds a sense of confidence in the system and also allows for the development of a sense of community.
  5. There should be an area similar to the locker in the brick and mortar school where students can download and store everything from You Tube videos to slide presentations for future reference.
  6. Ability to be personalized by staff and students. In order for students and staff to take ownership in this enterprise, the system should be flexible enough for students and staff to personalize their work area. For example being able to add widgets such as To-Do-List, Contacts, Calendar, Time, RSS feeds that they want to track...etc changes the desktop from a sterile mass produced entity to something that is unique to the individual. It becomes something that they call their own.
  7. The system must have a high level of security to protect the privacy of those who are stakeholders in it. As I mentioned in an earlier post, we are moving from master password systems to more biometric security as it becomes more and more sophisticated.
More later.......

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

A Virtual Education Example: D2L and the Virtual High School of Ontario(Canada)

In discussing the ideas surrounding virtual education, it is always wise to show such ideas in action. Having been associated with D2L(Desire2Learn) from its inception, I have seen this company grow and evolve into being one of the largest and most effective online education providers in North America. Rather than me go on about its merits, I am providing a couple of YouTube videos:
  1. The first one is an interview with Mr. John Baker who is CEO of D2L.
  2. The second one is an example of an online high school that has its roots in D2L and makes use of the LMS that D2L provides.
The first video was conducted with ABC News Australia(to state the obvious;))

The above video gives you an idea of the vision of D2L in regards to online learning.
The next video is an interview with Mr. Stephen Baker, Principal of Virtual High School of Ontario(Canada).

So what is it that makes this virtual education system successful? There are a number of factors:
  1. The application of the D2L LMS is completely online. All courses are completely optimized for the virtual environment. There are no books that students have to buy in order to work in this environment 
  2. The unique problems that arise in the online virtual environment have been thought through and addressed effectively. For example, how does one deal with the problem of plagiarism by students and even staff in an online environment? A three level plagiarism policy was adopted to meet this challenge head on. How does one administer a final exam and be assured of the integrity of the results in an online environment? How can unit tests be conducted effectively? All these questions have been addressed in a thoughtful way.
  3. Staff are completely comfortable working in such an environment and constantly upgrade their skills as new virtual education tools are introduced.
  4. Teachers are explorers, innovators and are willing to step out of their comfort zone.
  5. Students have constant and timely communication or feedback on their efforts. Teachers act not only as instructors but also as mentors with the goal of encouraging life-long learning.
I am not saying that D2L is the only Virtual Education LMS in the online education system. What I am saying is that what they do they do well and their results speak for themselves.
If you have suggestions of other online education providers, please feel free to comment.......

Next, the challenges of the virtual education environment....