Vol. 15 : No. 5
Editors Note: This paper is based on online discussions moderated and summarized by Dr. Brent Muirhead on 15-24 January, 2001 and summarized on 25-26 January 2001. This paper is both excellent and timely and we are pleased to have the opportunity to share this research with our readers.
Strategies for Teaching
by Brent Muirhead
The rapid growth of computer-mediated schools has created a need for more teachers. Often, the new teachers enjoy taking on new challenges and bring a "pioneer" attitude with them. It helps to be a visionary when tackling new educational problems such as creating lectures that have substance and are interesting for students to read. A real problem is that the literature on teaching online is just developing and sometimes people are forced to speculate on particular teaching and learning problems due to the absence of research studies.
Yet, contemporary learners often have legitimate instructional needs and vary greatly in their academic abilities. Hannafin, Land, and Hill (1997) related concerns that most learners lack the substantial self-monitoring skills that distance education requires. They recommended that students need more academic support from their peers and teachers. Learners must be empowered through thoughtful interaction to acquire the necessary skills to effectively work in an open-ended environment. Distance education places fewer restrictions on learners (e.g. often no set time to learn), and learners must take greater responsibility for their educational experiences. Frequently, learners are under major time constraints with work and family obligations and being efficient with their graduate studies is an important issue.
My discussion will begin with a brief overview of several important philosophical principles that offer a foundation for the online teaching and learning process. Then, the discussion will focus on strategies and principles that will help online teachers to be creative and effective teachers.
Distance Education: Some Philosophical Observations on the Teacher's Role
Teachers realize that computer-mediated education requires developing a new contemporary vision of learning. Adult educators such as Sherry (1996) affirm a new teaching and learning model that stresses student-centered instruction. Ultimately, it will demand changing the traditional role of teachers from information transmitters to guides who arrange meaningful learner-centered experiences (Salomon, 1992). The term education describes a teaching and learning concept that transcends just merely sharing factual information. It assumes that a capable teacher will know where he or she is going (goal-oriented). The wise teacher seeks to guide his/her students toward greater maturity, preparing them to effectively adapt to a rapidly changing world (Cantor, 1996).
As educators refine their philosophy of distance learning, they are concerned about sustaining interactivity in their educational process. Today's adult learning theories are built upon the premise that teachers will assist their students to become self-directed and independent. Learners must assume responsibility for their educational experiences, but independent study has natural limitations. If learners do not receive adequate teacher feedback and reinforcement, students will not always know whether they possess an accurate knowledge of their subject matter. A primary goal of adult education is to promote self-directed attitudes and behavior while discouraging excessive dependency upon the instructor (Milheim, 1993).
The facilitator model is based on rigorous academic standards and expectations, requiring educators who are capable of equipping students to be independent learners. Teachers are still considered knowledge experts who have a clear understanding of their subject matter. Yet, their new role involves promoting more self-directed learning activities that cultivate achieving knowledge objectives through personal study. Teachers are challenged to carefully design instructional activities that guide their students into on-line learning situations that promote personal acquisition of knowledge. Teachers strive to encourage positive learning habits that foster both self-directed learning styles and genuine collaboration with other classmates. It requires planning creative on-line instructional assignments that intellectually stretch their students but does not confuse or overwhelm them. For instance, teachers should not consider sharing a lecture transcript unless there were specific questions and class discussion that supported the reading of their lecture material. Mason and Kaye (1990) stated, "that information should be designed for a particular medium to best exploit its unique advantage" (p. 16).
Distance educators view computer-mediated education as an excellent format to encourage a variety of adult learning styles while serving an ethnically diverse student population. Genuine interactivity (communication, participation and feedback) should empower learners to cultivate both self-directed instructional skills and develop enriching dialog with other students. The issue of interactivity is a vital issue for teachers as they seek to create class work that promotes lively academic dialog and cultivates critical thinking skills. My interactivity research (Muirhead 1999) highlighted the fact that the quality of interactivity varies among distance education classes. A major problem involved students not receiving adequate feedback from their teachers. In fact, today's distance educators are developing a new set of terms to describe the learning problems in virtual classes. The word cyberia refers to "a place to which online students feel they have been regulated when they receive no feedback from their instructor (Jargon Monitor, 2000, p. A51)."
Create a Detailed Class Syllabus
Distance educators can promote student interaction by developing a detailed syllabus for their classes. It will provide clear instructions for their online students while offering them a time management device to integrate schoolwork into their busy daily lives. In addition, the syllabus plays a vital role in helping students understand the teacher's expectations and establishes a foundation for positive learning experiences. Fullmer-Umari (2000) a faculty member at the University of Phoenix recommends that teachers should consider using seven key elements in their syllabus:
The syllabus does help bring structure and sets the tone to the online educational setting. Adult learners appreciate having a detailed syllabus because it gives them a sense of security and enables them to direct their studies. Livengood (1987) has stressed that online classes should give the learner the opportunity to have enough control to influence the educational process. Obviously, the degree of personal control varies in every learning situation. Teachers give students instructional influence based on factors such as their knowledge of the subject matter and the type of learning assignment. Computer-mediated education is self-paced and learners are given various opportunities to create relevant and interesting work. The distance education format challenges teachers to develop a learning environment that places more responsibility on the student to accomplish academic tasks with minimal teacher assistance. Students are treated as adults who are capable of effectively learning new ideas and academic disciplines (Kasworm & Bing, 1992). It requires having teachers who design relevant lesson plans and are willing to experiment with innovative educational methods (i.e. on-line quizzes). It is an open-ended learning model that will bring some anxious moments to the best online teachers.
Moderating Online Discussions
Educators who are used to having a tightly controlled classroom might feel somewhat uncomfortable monitoring online discussion forums. The discussion format has an unpredictable dimension that makes student-centered learning dynamic but less easy to control. Teachers appreciate the lively debates that characterize most online classes. Frequently, learners offer thought-provoking dialogue because they have time to reflect on the posted comments before sharing their thoughts (Lewis, Treves, & Shaindlin, 1997).
Instructor-guided interaction during the course provides tutors with useful student information that can help instructors get a clear picture of learner needs. The first week of the on-line course is a good time for learners to share with their classmates and teacher their personal and professional backgrounds. Teachers can use the data to refine their learning objectives, assignments, and discussion forums questions to better meet adult learning needs (Rowntree, 1995).
Educators need to be creative in moderating online discussions because every class contains a unique set of individuals who respond differently to the operating in the online environment. For instance, how do you handle lurkers? Sometimes, writers have been somewhat critical of lurkers because of their apparent lack of involvement. In reality, lurkers are learning from the online classes just by reading online postings and communicating privately with other students. Still, it can be frustrating for distance educators to have several people who are not taking full advantage of their learning opportunities. Salmon (2000) offers superb insights from her action research studies on Computer Mediated Conferencing (CMC) at the Open University (United Kingdom). Her findings were based on a combination of content analysis of online communication of students and teachers, focused group work and testing and evaluation of a new teaching and learning model. Solmon provides seven relevant suggestions for helping teachers working with lurkers:
Authentic evaluation requires serious reflection that views the teaching and learning process as being dynamic and somewhat fluid. If educators are serious about promoting self-directed learning, then their assessment philosophy should reinforce the importance of giving students opportunities to influence evaluation. A comprehensive picture of evaluation must include student perceptions because they can provide insights into individual testing instruments, term papers, and online class discussions. Learner observations are valuable for gaining a good perspective on the total educational experience. Educators can use a variety of evaluation formats (formative and summative) that offer opportunities to improve the teaching and learning process. Instructors can use telephone calls and e-mail messages to individual learners as excellent ways to cultivate informal feedback that can be used to make immediate course changes. Interactivity is enhanced when teachers ask students open-ended questions that enable learners to share their perspectives about the quality of their educational experiences (Wellspring, 1999). For instance, students might have concerns about the length of discussion posting and what constitutes mastery of the subject matter (Nunn, 1998).
The student-centered model of learning encourages teachers to view their students as academic partners who work together to produce relevant and meaningful learning experiences. It requires professors who are willing to change their standard teaching methods. Boud (1995) related "they will need to become researchers of student perceptions, designers of multifaceted assessment strategies, managers of assessment processes and consultants assisting students in the interpretation of rich information about their learning" (p. 42).
A holistic emphasis on evaluation challenges teachers to become more flexible in their instructional plans and to consider alternative evaluation methods. Educators need to take a fresh look at instructional procedures that help them "approach non-traditional problems in nontraditional ways" (Willis, 1998, p. 58). Unfortunately, some educators are complacent about their professional growth or resist making instructional changes. Yet, teachers do have a professional responsibility to implement innovative assessment techniques into their teaching practices (Dalin, Rolff, & Kleekamp, 1993).
The student-centered learning model challenges teachers to carefully use descriptive language in their written and verbal comments (phone conversations) to students. Teachers must develop dialogues with their students that foster personal and professional growth. Unfortunately, some professors, through attitude and verbal and written comments, treat their students as subordinates (Hawley, 1993). Obviously, the language of assessment must be caring and honest while providing constructive feedback that helps the learner have a clear picture of their academic work.
Teachers are challenged by the task of evaluating on-line learner responses that are personally relevant and affirm course learning objectives. Interactivity should promote effective instructional feedback that helps learners be informed about the quality of their work (Wagner, 1994). Educators recommend that tutors offer a diversity of feedback comments that are both informational (e.g. quality of performance) and motivational for students. Educators must integrate social interaction during their class actives that affirms active participation and self-directed learning (Milheim, 1995; Wagner, 1997).
Distance education literature reveals that instructors are just beginning to develop new assessment procedures. The absence of formal evaluation guidelines places greater responsibility on each teacher to create their own authentic assessment instruments. Students expect personal and informative feedback on their online discussion comments and term papers (Hodges & Hodges, 1998; Kearsley, 1998).
In my online teaching, students have related that they appreciate having my grading rubric before doing their group projects and individual papers. The following is an example of a basic rubric:
A major challenge to distance educators is to create assignments and online discussions that foster critical thinking skills. Contemporary educators are sometimes concerned that distance education is a poor substitute for the traditional classroom. Obviously, online degree programs should uphold high academic standards and one way to do this is to promote critical thinking skills.
Lipman (1995) relates that "... critical thinking is skillful, responsible thinking that facilitates good judgment because it (1) relies upon criteria, (2) is self-correcting, and (3) is sensitive to context" (p. 146). It is one of the best definitions on critical thinking because Lipman integrates the concepts of standards (criteria to measure achievement), skills (especially cognitive) and personal judgment (making wise choices) into a comprehensive educational package. Lipman argues for a holistic instructional approach that acknowledges the importance of both teachers and learners fulfilling their respective roles in the educational process. Teachers must consistently affirm the independence and autonomy of their learners by enabling them to freely pursue authentic learning objectives. Yet, the idea of independence does not mean being totally separate or isolated from other learners and teachers. Rather, a balanced perspective would highlight giving learners the power to assume greater responsibility for their educational experiences while actively working with the teacher and other students (Sammons, 1990). Therefore, the context of learning critical thinking skills is interactive and built upon taking individual responsibility for academic achievements. Genuine reflective thinking requires being dedicated to improving individual academic performance by continuously enhancing cognitive skills.
Unfortunately, the concept of critical thinking has been confused with being something quite abstract from daily living. In reality, adults utilize critical thinking skills in a host of situations: individuals raising questions about their behavior in an relationship, employees who explore the rationale behind their work assignments, managers experimenting with new forms of group work, citizens posing difficult questions to their political leaders, and families discussing the merits of various television shows (Brookfield, 1987).
Brookfield (1987) outlines five characteristics of critical thinking:
The five characteristics highlight the dynamic nature of critical thinking and help people realize that life is filled with an enormous variety of opportunities to engage in thoughtful analysis and action. Ultimately, it involves a careful investigation of our personal assumptions about ourselves, our world and our relationships to one another. Critical thinkers tend to look beyond the surface of situations by exploring alternative perspectives. Yet, it is not a purely rational process because people are emotional creatures and any description of their thinking must include feelings.
Peirce (2000) shares eight strategies for teaching thinking in the online setting:
Today's distance educators face unique challenges that require a willingness to experiment with different teaching strategies. Our discussion on teaching strategies will involve an assortment of issues:
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About the Author:
Dr. Brent Muirhead has an extensive and impressive background in both research and practice across a multitude of disciplines. He teaches computer-mediated graduate research classes in information and technology for the University of Phoenix and history classes at a high school near Atlanta, Georgia. He also serves as Executive Peer Reviewer for "Educational Technology and Society," an Electronic Journal. Dr. Muirhead's letters are frequently published in USA Today, The New York Times and The Altanta Journal-Constitution. He may be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.