One of the first things that occurred when I became an online student, and later taught in an online environment, is that I initially began thinking about the online classroom as a ‘sort of’ simulation of the face-to-face classroom. I evaluated my first class as a student from that mindset, and then designed instruction with that mindset. How well did I recreate the experience of a classroom for my students? Did they learn as much as in a classroom? And as a student, did my course ‘feel’ like a classroom? Did I learn as much as other students taking this class on campus?
For many people first entering the online education world, it is a fairly normal way to start your journey with technology mediated learning. We start from what we know, because we all have been conditioned to expect certain things in learning situations. And really, it is a conditioning that started around the time we were five or six years old, and until recently, was a specific kind of experience executed in much the same way it has been since the industrial revolution influenced the delivery of education. Additionally, computing and computers, for most of us, were merely inserted or added into learning situations, but did not mediate or completely construct learning environments, so being in a place where technology was now the door to the classroom, it didn’t immediately occur to many of us to dramatically rethink how learning will happen in a virtual space.
In my case, it took me several online classes before I started to realize that the opportunity of the online classroom was the ability to rethink how things were taught, and that it was exciting to throw out a few of the tedious, boring and pedantic old ways and to look at how technology afforded a teacher a chance to approach teaching and pedagogy in new ways. And that some of the traditional methods were not necessarily effective and that many elements of teaching were more strongly recommended because of tradition and not excellence in results. I realized force of habit had influenced my judgement about the value of traditional elements in education and what I thought was value for the student.
The truth was, after a few online classes, I realized that I was emotionally invested in certain methods of information transmission, some of which were only partially effective. At least that’s what research indicated! Take discussions and peer learning: research has shown that discussion between peers is often a more powerful learning strategy than answering a teacher’s questions in class. With online learning, I realized I was free to dive into research-based practices like peer discussions and peer review of assignments, which I would have been concerned about in the face-to-face classroom. Can a teacher hold a class and act as merely a facilitator, without feeling there is a value-added component that is missing from their class, even if there is quite a bit of evidence to back up the alternative approach?
The truth is students respond well to all sorts of things we don’t regularly employ in teaching, but now can explore in these new, alternative environments. The research shows that peers, even peers who are error prone can be more powerful influences on our thinking than teachers who have the absolute ‘right’ answers to questions. With this in mind, it means that sometimes we are just wrong with our ‘right’ answers– and it also means that we have some new opportunities to explore and learn ourselves in this new technology driven world.