Published on 2012/10/23

Accelerating from 0-60 Online: Insights from the Road (Part 2)

While the synchronous lecture format allows educators to get a better sense of their students’ progress, asynchronous methods provide students more freedom with their education. If an educator chooses to develop asynchronous classes, though, they must go to great lengths to ensure the material is highly effective.

This is the second part of Elizabeth Meyer’s four-part interview with Dr. Carla Mathison. In yesterday’s installment, they discussed Dr. Mathison’s introduction to the online teaching format and some of the challenges she faced. In today’s installment, they discuss the experience she gained after her first round of teaching online.

MEYER: Were you ever tempted to give up during this early phase, trying to deal with both online and face-to-face students?

MATHISON: No. As hard as it was, as frustrating as it was, as sometimes unfulfilling as it was, I knew I wasn’t doing it the way I wanted to do it but I realized I was a learner and it made me very humble. Also there was just enough of a spark in some of the things I was learning to make me realize that I could get good at this.

MEYER: The second time you taught online, did you have more satisfaction?

MATHISON: Well, as I said, the second time I taught I used Google Hangout. That was really good for me and it was great for my students. Because in my teaching evaluations the first time I taught online, they were not happy at all with the fact that they really didn’t get to know one another. The online group didn’t get to know the face‑to‑face group and visa versa. Using the Google Hangout technology, they loved being able to get to know one another in these small groups and they loved the fact that I could come in and join them and talk with them, and that they could talk with one another. That was really important.

Something that was said at the graduation really emphasized this point for me. Some of the online students came to graduation along with many of the face‑to‑face students and we had a little pre‑graduation party. We were sitting around talking, one of the students said “Well, I don’t know whether we had that discussion in Google Hangout or whether we had it face‑to‑face. I can’t remember.” Then all the other students chimed in to say the same thing. For me, it was a crystallizing, “ah-ha” moment. Being virtually face‑to‑face in Hangout and being actually face‑to‑face were the same for these students. That told me a lot about the effectiveness of this technology.

MEYER: Did the learning outcomes between your first two teaching online experiences differ?

MATHISON: They differed in terms of what the students could learn from one another. And the students learned a tremendous amount. If you set up your instruction right and you ask the right questions and you break them out into small groups and let them have some really good dialogue and try to solve some problems together without you always being there, they can learn a tremendous amount. And that’s what they didn’t have the first year. And I noticed that in their projects. I noticed that their problem‑solving skills were not quite as sharp as they were the second year.

MEYER: This fall you’ll be teaching your third online class. Tell me about how this one is different from the first two.

MATHISON: Well, this year, I have a little more confidence because I had such a good experience last year. I wasn’t perfect and I still have a lot of things I have to learn — but it helped me realize that I could do this. I know a lot about teaching and I just have to keep figuring out how the technologies will help me teach. I’m going to be teaching 60 students in a fully online synchronous situation where I have them one time a week all together. I am excited about it and I’m still a little scared because it’s all brand new again but I have more understanding of the technology. This year I’ll be using a program called “Wimba Classroom.” Basically, it’s a similar tool to Adobe Connect and Collaborate. All of these programs have in common the opportunity for presentations online with visuals, audio, and for students to use a chat box to make comments, ask questions, respond to polling questions and so forth.

The first year I used Adobe Connect, I was so unfamiliar with the software that I never read anything that students were saying in the chat box because I couldn’t see them. I was trying to do my lecture the way I had always done it before, but I was getting no feedback. Because I didn’t have any visual feedback, it was just all pretty overwhelming for me. I started to get use to reading their comments and encouraging them to make comments but it’s still hard for me. It’s still a challenge for me because I can’t see the whole class at one time. So, this online synchronous class is still going to be a challenge for me in that way. That it’s not like face‑to‑face and I can’t pretend that it’s like face‑to‑face.

I even tried to put a picture up in front of me of a whole bunch of students, so that I would have something to talk to because I was so used to talking with them and seeing them, but that was marginally effective. So, I really had to and continue to try to see them, to visualize them when I’m talking to them like somebody who does radio. I think about that analogy all the time. I hear all these radio talk show hosts who succeed in making it sound like they’re talking to you yet they can’t see you. So, that’s been a struggle for me and will continue to be but I have tried to mitigate that to a certain extent through using the Hangout program.

Now I’m paying more attention to the chat box so I can interact with them individually and in small groups. They ask a question in the chat box and I can see their name and their questions. I can refer to them by name and respond to their question and ask if other people have something that they want to add and then read those things in the chat box. In that way I’m getting more interactive with them and allowing them to have much more engagement. But I still need to see them. I mean that’s just a need that I have. Maybe other instructors wouldn’t have that, but, I have already planned into my classes’ small group Hangout sessions based around readings and I give them scenarios and ask them to problem‑solve a scenario together.

Another Hangout activity is posing a question and asking them to discuss that question based on things that we’ve been talking about. That does more than just encouraging interactivity. It’s also a way of continually assessing their understanding. Again it’s all about student-teacher interaction, student-student interaction and a solid assessment of students’ understanding.

Another technique I use is a short anonymous survey a few weeks into the semester to discover what students find helpful and what they find challenging. Recent results indicated that students would like to “talk” during the discussions. So, I created an opportunity during the next class session for students to talk about a short YouTube we had all just watched. Seven or eight students used the audio capability and some students preferred to use the text chat. This is another indicator that online can support multiple preferences. And, the value of assessing the needs of your students periodically during the semester.

MEYER: What I hear you saying is that you rely on synchronous lectures and you prefer being able to respond to and discuss ideas with students in real time. Have you considered asynchronous lectures? What are the pros and cons of asynchronous vs. synchronous lecture from your perspective?

MATHISON: There are some advantages to an asynchronous lecture. The biggest one that I can think of is that students have a lot more flexibility with when they access the lecture. I think that would be the big plus. Asynchronous online instruction is a tremendous amount of work if it’s done right. When you’re not working with students in real time, it’s hard to find out what they’re understanding and not understanding. How do you know when some of them need more examples? Or just a little more practice?

I think it can be done but it would require a lot of branching. You’d have them take small, little quizzes or something to assess their understanding. Then depending upon what they said or didn’t say or what they got right or wrong, you would need to then branch them to even more new examples. If they got everything right and seemed to understand then they could move forward.

I think that asynchronous instruction can work, but I’ve never done it. As I think about it, to do quality asynchronous instruction really well, it would require a tremendous amount of work upfront. Some piloting would be important, so that you can get an understanding of what were the hard things for students to understand. What were the easier ones? As an instructor having taught face-to-face, you may know what the more difficult concepts are, you may know where students typically have the biggest challenges understanding the material. However, with asynchronous, it’s almost more of an individual kind of a thing. It goes back to the old programmed instructions where you were branched out depending upon your level of competency and your determined level of understanding at any given time. So, I think we need to wrap that back into the instruction. Again, it’s not something I’ve tried with current technology. It’s something that I think is definitely in the future for education, but it’s got to go way beyond what we’re seeing right now.

MEYER: Sebastian Thrun [UDACITY], teaches artificial intelligence asynchronously in a massive online open course (MOOC). He provided the lecture with interspersed quizzing so students can check their knowledge. If they aren’t grasping the concepts, they are routed back to review the content (though new examples are not provided) They also enabled students—all 160,000 of them—to submit questions via email, and using data analytics the instructors held synchronous sessions to respond to the most asked questions. It looks like the branching model is being explored. It seems that some curriculum might be more suited for that kind of branching than others. What do you think?

MATHISON: Well, I think so, it always depends on the pedagogical techniques, the instructional strategies you use. They are closely related to the content that you’re trying to convey or help people understand. So, I think that that’s an area that really has to be explored. You said something very interesting, you said, they would be rerouted back to a review. The effectiveness of that technique depends on what kind of review we’re talking about. If they’re just seeing that same part of the presentation again, it’s like repeating a part of your lecture – only louder.

I don’t think that that’s good teaching. But if it’s truly a review and it’s parsed down enough, it could be very effective. I think we have to be very systematic about how we go about that. And, it may not work for all types of learning situations. It may be great for learning facts, processes, procedures and so forth but asynchronous may fall short when you have to teach deeply conceptual material. We’ll see. Right now, I like the idea that my students have the opportunity to have synchronous sessions. I think that that is very, very important.

Please come back tomorrow for part 3 of Elizabeth Meyer’s interview with Dr, Mathison, where she will provide some advice for future first-time online instructors.

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Readers Comments

Chuck Schwartz 2012/10/23 at 11:34 am

I think Dr. Mathison’s insights into the challenges of asynchronous learning are very thoughtful and astute. Interestingly, despite its shortcomings from a teaching perspective (that she describes so accurately), asynchronous learning is certainly dominating the online learning landscape in the US. Of course the main advantage is accessibility.

But the fruitfulness of discussions possible in a synchronous learning environment– where, as long as students are talking to each other, they can’t even remember whether they spoke face-to-face or over Google Hangout– is a big advantage you lose with asynchronous learning.

Ian Richardson 2012/10/24 at 9:38 am

Sure, Chuck, synchronous online learning is appealing in some ways because it seems to more closely resemble the traditional learning environment (though it is still very different– as Mathison demonstrates with all the technology she has explored). But asynchronous learning is fruitful and advantageous in lots of unexpected ways other than just being “convenient”; lots of students appreciate the time to develop their ideas and thoughts, instead of having to respond in the “instant” moment of real-time “chatting” during class. Secondly, I have heard some very compelling evidence for the use of discussion board in online learning as an exceptional tool for engaging with your students and knowing where they’re at, with the material and with their general skills. It requires them to write and articulate their thoughts about the course on a regular basis.

This kind of “mandatory” participation (in the gentlest way) allows the instructor to get to know how their students think and feel in a very real and direct way– possibly more than in a real-time discussion environment, where one or two students often end up dominating the dialogue.

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