What Do Online Educators Do: More Connected and Not Limited to Any Place or Time

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As I mentioned in the previous post, there appears to be a lot confusion about what education is supposed to look like today, adding an online spin to the subject only makes matters worse. It should be obvious that the problem is that none of us can nostalgically look back at our online school experience and use that as a measure about whether kids today are getting as good an online education as we got. What? Well, isn’t that how we measure whether one is getting a good education: all based on our own experiences in the classroom? Isn’t that how decision-makers, congressmen and school district board members decide which programs to cut and which ones to support?

So, let’s dispel with some of the misinformation. For starters, just like education in general, online education isn’t just one thing. As much as I’d love to make definitive statements about all of online education, my comments are based on my own 10-years as an online student and educator with an emphasis on what seems to work best in college level education, but there are definitely elements that could be adapted to any age or grade level. So, as much as I’d like to make fun of decision makers using their own personal experiences as a basis for their decisions, I’m doing the same thing. The difference being that I’ve been at this for over 16-years, at the ground floor level, so I might have something more to offer than what one can get based on cursory three-hour fact-finding tour.

Online Learning is NOT Solo Learning

Pepperdine OMAET CadreBleu - Summer 2001

This is probably the most surprising discovery about online learning. When it is done correctly, it is quite the opposite of what one might expect. During my first go-around with online ed, at Pepperdine University, they did something brilliant. The summer before we were going to begin our online masters program they required that we come out to their West Coast campus for a week so that we could get to know our classmates and put us through a kind of technology boot-camp. Besides making sure that we were ready for the technology requirements that we’d face the rest of the year, we also got use to the sound of each other’s voice and how each of us dealt with challenges during our brief time together. The idea was that when we were back to our own hometowns working with just chat, email and webpages, we could supply the non-verbal cues we’d recognized in one another during our time together. That was intended, but what wasn’t intended or expected was that many of us would exchange IM information and whenever we met together for a class session, many of us would also create a private chatroom separate from the main room where “class” was taking place.

We called our private chatroom group, “the back row,” because it functioned like we were virtually sitting in the back of the classroom, free to exchange notes, make comments inappropriate for the main room discussion and on more than one occasion wake a sleeping classmate who wasn’t responding to a question from the main room. Not everyone participated in a private chatroom during class, sometimes it might be their technical inability to monitor more than one chat stream rapidly flying by (at the time our main class sessions were all text-only chat sessions) and sometimes it was a “personality thing.” The point was that even though we were spread half-way across the world, from California to Saudi Arabia, we made an effort to be there for our virtual classroom sessions because we wanted to hang out with our friends (well, and also chat with the professor about whatever we were studying…). It shouldn’t be too surprising that what works for third graders and eighth graders, the desire to be with their friends, is still a meaningful component of learning at the college level and online. And this isn’t to say that there isn’t room for the outliers who insist on going it alone. It’s just that there’s no reason to assume that because one is working online that one needs to work in isolation, bereft of human contact and companionship.

Not Limited to a Specific Time or Specific Place

Our First Online Session - Together - Back Row Club - 2001

Because we’re not getting in a car and driving to a campus in town isn’t a shortcoming of online education. In fact because our class is online we’re not limited to any specific time or place. Education isn’t the building we might meet in or something we do Tuesday evenings for fourteen weeks beginning in September. Education can become as ubiquitous as having the course materials to work with 24/7 and friends all around the world to work with … well, when everyone else in the house is asleep. Unlike my experiences working on my teaching credential or when I was working on my second bachelor’s degree, where I’d stare at the back of someone’s head for three hours once a week and had very little interaction with my classmates because we were all so busy, my online classmates checked on me if I hadn’t submitted a response to our class discussion threads for more than a couple days.

I get that some people do not want this level of intensity and would prefer to keep their educational experience at arms length. My sense is that if it’s worth doing it’s worth letting it change your life and challenge whatever little comfortable existence you’ve carved out for yourself. I mean, why are you doing this anyway? If all you want is a certificate or the piece of paper, well, that’s your choice. But you are missing out on something much greater and more meaningful then you’ve ever had before. Far from being a weak distant cousin to face-to-face education, online education can deliver on a level not easily possible with large anonymous classrooms. But it really comes down to the quality of the instructors, the depth and flexibility of the curriculum and that the community of learners see the value of their interaction and participation, all without the hinderance of time and space.