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Accelerating from 0-60 Online: Insights from the Road (Part 3)

There are a number of tools at the disposal of online educators, and some are more effective than others. An important consideration educators must make is to see what real value a given tool or technology can bring to the learning environment.

This is the third installment of Elizabeth Meyer’s four-part interview with Dr. Carla Mathison. In yesterday’s discussion, Dr. Mathison discussed how she changed her approach to online instruction with a year of experience under her belt, and how her style continues to evolve. Today, Dr. Mathison gives her advice to first-time online instructors and compares the online teaching and assessment experience to that of a face-to-face class.

MEYER: What would be your recommendation to an instructor who was going to teach online for the first time? Where do they start? How do they even begin?

MATHISON: Well, I think that my biggest piece of advice would be to realize that you’re not going to be perfect the first time around. Seek help. Know where to go to get the kind of technology help you need. But even more than that, keep in mind the goals of your teaching. What are you trying to get students to understand in your course? What are the key concepts or processes that you’re trying to get them to understand or be able to do? That is really critical because when you are first trying to figure out how you’re going to teach online, your mind, or at least my mind, went immediately to the technology. And what I finally realized is that I can’t start with the technology, I have to start with identifying what I want students to learn. Asking myself, what do I want them to be able to do?

I have to have a really solid understanding of that in my mind and that’s no different than face‑to‑face teaching. I can’t lose that focus; I need to hold on to that as my anchor. Then, from there, understanding my goals, being clear about the learning objectives for the course. Then I need to say okay, I know I did it this way in face‑to‑face. I know that the way I tried to address those goals when I was doing face‑to‑face was this technique or this strategy. Now that I’m going to an online situation, I may not be able to use that technique or that strategy, but I’m still trying to address the same goals, learning goals. So, what are the tools out there that can help me address those goals?

So, in some ways, it’s not like I have to redo my entire course. I have to redo some of my strategies that I have used forever for teaching toward the goals of my course. And I think that’s what is so important to understand that you always have to lead from your goals, from your learning goals.

MEYER: When you analyzed your learning goals and took a look at the strategies you had used in face‑to‑face, how did you know what technologies were available and which ones would be ones that you might choose from?

MATHISON: Well, you don’t know initially. And you need to rely on the support at your university. But you need to articulate what your course is and what you want people to be able to learn, in order to give the technology person a prayer of understanding what kinds of tools might be appropriate.

MEYER: In terms of those tools is it pretty much a list? I mean there’s video. There’s audio. There’s the Google Hangout kind of thing. There is a discussion board. There’s conference calling. What other tools? If you were to have a checklist, what other tools do you think people ought to consider?

MATHISON: Those are the kind of questions you want to ask your tech people. Video and audio are pretty passive mediums, how are you going to use them? What are you going to do with the discussion board and how have other people used it? What can blogs do? I mean we use blogs in social media all the time, could they be useful in class?

The other point I want to stress is to take it baby steps. Don’t try and jam everything into every technology, every technological tool into your class the first time around. It’s not wise.

Also, you don’t want to lead with the technology. You don’t want to say “Oh, I want to use discussion boards” because it sounds like an interesting tool. You have to have a clear purpose for using it. The technology should help you do what you need to do in your course to help students understand the content.

MEYER: Is it fair to say that you think the same learning outcomes could be achieved by your students who are using Google Hangouts in a small group as what they could achieve using a conference call and Google Docs? Is that sufficient or do they need to have a webcam and see one another?

MATHISON: I think we should be asking our students questions like this and my students clearly enjoyed the opportunity to “see” one another. For instance, most of the time students are doing the Google Hangout from home. The camera’s there and you can see behind them and get a sense of their environment. I noticed one of my students had a whole rack of surfboards on the wall, so it was easy to ask “Are you a surfer?” in the same way you would if you were just talking to somebody in person. Another of my students had her little child climb up on her lap. It’s a chance to see students in a more personal way, not just high-tech but high-touch as well. So, while I think that conference calling can be useful, I think that the more mixed input you have, the better the learning environment.

MEYER: Let’s shift for a minute and talk about how assessment changes when you move from face-to-face to online. What are you doing that’s similar or different in assessing students’ progress?

MATHISON: This is in an area that I found really fascinating because in my face‑to‑face teaching, I tried during the lecture to assess understanding. Embarrassingly, I must admit I would ask the useless question “Does everybody understand?” But I also tried to ask more pointed questions, giving people some time to think and a few would raise their hands.

That’s not good teaching. So, one of the things that I’m realizing in online instruction is that I have the possibility of inserting into my lecture opportunities for 100 percent of the students to answer a question that I have posed to them. Let’s say I’m doing a PowerPoint presentation; I can setup an opportunity for them to have input with a multiple choice question or even with a super short response question. That helps me do continual assessment of what they’re understanding without just relying on the students who raised their hand because everybody gets to input their choice or their answer. Because it’s anonymous, students are less reluctant to respond; there’s no risk of humiliation if they’re on the wrong track.

You can also vary the type of questions. For example, it can be a process question. “Does A go before B or B go before A?” It can be a choice about a preference, “Would you rather have online learning or face‑to‑face learning?” Or “Do you like the color blue better than the color red?” or “Which is your favorite dessert?” The True/False kind of speaks for itself. With the short phrase answer option, I can say, for example, “Think of a time in high school when you felt totally engaged in class. Give me two or three words that describe what you were doing.”

I could also give them a whole scenario that requires them to problem‑solve and come up with an A, B, C or D answer. The software lets me wait long enough for all of them to respond. Then, when I press a button, it shows me a whole bar chart that summarizes all of the responses and the students can see it too. It gives me a very good understanding of their grasp of the material. It’s an exhilarating feeling when the responses demonstrate that they all “get it.” I think I did it! I must have done a wonderful job teaching this point. I’m just beginning to use this kind of tool and I love it because I feel like I’m really truly assessing subject-matter understanding. Also, as long as my questions are good, I feel like I’m really assessing all of my students, not just those few who are self-confident enough to raise their hands.

Please come back tomorrow for the conclusion of Elizabeth Meyer’s interview with Dr. Mathison, where she discusses some of her fears related to online learning.

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