Different, but definitely doable: Deconstructing the myths about online learning

As a child, I recall my excitement when we acquired a UHF antenna and were able to increase the number of channels we had from four to six!  We waited all year for that one shot to watch the Wizard of Oz and oh what a novelty that was!  If we missed it, VHS was not around yet, so we could not record it to watch it later.  I grew up listening to music on an AM transistor radio and recall waiting patiently for hours hoping that my favorite song would play. When I got my first tape recorder (you remember the rectangular shaped ones with the handle on one end) I was able to record songs from the radio, but would agonize when the radio announcer would end the song before it was finished or would talk over the end of the song.  I listened to 45s on my record player and later 8 track cassettes that were not easily rewound or forwarded.  As a teenager, I begged my parents to get a longer telephone cord so I didn’t have to stand by the wall to talk on the phone and could have a private conversation.  I remember the frustration of trying to get a hold of a friend, but the line was busy for hours (no call waiting). Yes! I am a digital immigrant and still recall the first computer I logged on to, which required code to operate. As a classroom teacher in the early 90s I remember my first class computer, which was a Mac Performa and in my eyes, it was the most amazing piece of equipment ever!  I could engage my students through computer software like Where in the World is Carmen San Diego, Reader Rabbit and the Oregon Trail.

Not only can technology enhance teaching and learning; if used appropriately and effectively it can serve as a catalyst for needed change in education and the transformation from teacher-centric to learner-centric education, where teacher and learner are partners in learning and learners are empowered to be the architects of their own learning (Padilla-Vigil, 2013).

As a long time educator, I have always been enamored with technology as a tool for engaging learners and deepening the learning experience.  After leaving the elementary classroom, I witnessed the evolution of technology in higher education from the rise of instructional television (ITV) to the rapid emergence of fully online asynchronous learning.  As a teacher at the college level, I have developed courses and taught in online and blended learning environments.  As a student, I have taken courses in various technological formats including ITV, online asynchronous, hybrid/blended, and even took a graduate level statistics course via conference call (and believe it or not, it actually worked—I learned statistics). What I’ve learned from all of these experiences as a teacher and a student is that while there are pros and cons as well as challenges and strengths of the various online learning modalities, ultimately, it is the teacher who creates the learning environment and determines the efficacy of the delivery modality.  The most effective curriculum and the most stable learning management system cannot ensure an effective and meaningful learning experience for the learner.  The teacher as the facilitator of learning creates the environment, sets the tone, elicits the interaction, and forges the relationships that lead to meaningful learning.

The WHY? of technology is really about equity and access to quality education and learners having a voice when it comes to their learning (Padilla-Vigil, 2013).

As a major proponent for online learning as a way to make education more equitable and accessible, I often become impatient and frustrated with the pace at which we approach technological innovations. We first have to acknowledge the why of online learning as the great equalizer as it holds the promise of extending access to rigorous high quality instruction to every student across America regardless of language, zip code, income levels or special needs.[1] One of the biggest obstacles to technological change is the fear that educators hold about technology and online learning that inhibit innovation and transformation in teaching and learning.  These fears have fueled various myths about online learning that serve to rationalize our resistance to change and trap us in the quicksand of mediocrity and complacency.  As such, it is important that we deconstruct these myths and formulate a path for embracing technology and online learning in ways that benefit learners.  If we as educators are not in the driver’s seat on the technological ship of change, we will not be positioned to ensure that the changes are effective and promote successful learning experiences for our students.  As educators, teaching and learning is our business, our industry, and as such, we are the best positioned to envision what effective teaching and learning look like in any delivery modality.  However, we must first tackle the myths we hold about online learning so that we can take steps to develop an intimate knowledge of technology and how it can be leveraged to enhance teaching and learning. For purposes of this article, I will focus on what I see as the three major myths or misconceptions about online learning.

Myth #1: Technology will replace teachers

The best way to deconstruct this myth is to frame technology as a tool for teachers. Not just a tool, but an incredibly powerful mechanism that when leveraged appropriately and effectively can enhance teaching and learning and transform education as a whole.  Teachers are the drivers of technology and in turn, innovation and transformation. Teachers make important decisions about what types of technologies are appropriate for the different contexts of teaching and learning.  They decide how best to implement the various technologies and as experts in differentiating, individualizing and personalizing instruction/learning to meet the varied learning needs of diverse groups of learners, they can fine tune these technologies in profound ways to create authentic and meaningful learning experiences. Teacher presence is also essential in online learning as it communicates to learners, that the teacher is available, communicative, and supportive (a true partner in learning to the student).  Teacher presence is defined as “the design, facilitation, and direction of cognitive and social processes for the purposes of realizing personally meaningful and educationally worthwhile learning outcomes.”[2]  In essence, teacher presence establishes the teacher as the orchestrator of learning, a role that involves all aspects of an online course including, design, organization, facilitation, and instruction.

As mentioned previously, even with the most stellar curriculum paired with the most state of the art learning management system cannot assure deep learning will occur. We all know there are no silver bullets in education. What works for one learner may not work for another and it is at this critical juncture that teachers come in. An important role of teaching is to get to know students as individuals and to help them make good decisions about their learning paths. Additionally, teachers are the subject matter experts within their respective fields and as such, can identify within the virtual world, resources that will best support student learning. Learning is no longer restricted to a written curriculum, a physical textbook and the four walls of the classroom. Teachers can create learning environments that not only provide students with a wide array of learning resources, but can also position students in an empowered role, whereby they can shape and direct their own learning paths and be the architects of their own learning.

We know how important it is for the learner to make connections with new content, find relevance and to be able to apply new learning in real world settings. Teachers create the contexts in which students can accomplish these elements that are so important to learning. The shift from teacher-centric to learner-centric instruction is an important one here, because learning is a joint and collaborative venture between teacher and learner. The teacher is the guide, equipped with content expertise and skilled in art and science of teaching.  From this position or role, the teacher is able to serve as an advisor to learners, helping them make good decisions about their learning and providing them resources and tools that will support their learning.  Technology as a tool can serve as a catalyst for helping teachers become the facilitators characteristic of a more learner-centric approach,[3] transforming the teacher-student relationship to more of a partnership in learning.[4]

If we think of learning as a journey, teachers are the tour guides who have mapped out the territory and understand the travelers’ needs, interests, and capabilities and can help to construct pathways that lead to more meaningful, authentic and powerful journeys.  Because journeys can be unpredictable, teachers act as co-learners with their students responding to the different twists and turns that the journey presents.  Given this complexity of teaching and learning and the dynamic relationship between teacher and learner, it makes sense that technology cannot replace the teacher.  At the essence of the act of teaching and learning is the evolving relationship between the teacher and learner.

Myth #2: What I do in the face-to-face (f2f) classroom cannot be reproduced in the online environment

A common misconception held by teachers is that it is not possible to reproduce the lessons, activities, and interactions that they have created and become accustomed to within the physical environment of the classroom.  To a degree, this is correct.  What we’ve learned about the transition from f2f to online learning is that we cannot simply take what we do in the f2f environment and repackage it in the online environment.  There is no question that learning looks different in the online environment.  However, all of the elements that are important in the physical classroom environment are also important in the online environment. The difference is in how these elements are accomplished. This can be challenging for even the most experienced teachers because they are naturally prompted to re-conceptualize their teaching, their role as teachers, and how they construct and deliver curriculum.  Part of the challenge is becoming comfortable in the online environment and then recreating one’s self and one’s work in that environment.

As teachers, our ability to be adaptable, flexible, and responsive is important in the f2f classroom as the contexts in which we teach are ever changing. Adapting to a new teaching landscape is not something we should shy away from.  Additionally, there is much power in examining our own practices and our approaches to teaching and learning.  The transition from the f2f classroom to the online classroom presents a unique opportunity for personal and professional growth, development and learning. Redmond (2011) refers to journey from traditional f2f teaching toward technology enabled, blended, and fully online teaching as a role shift, whereby, teachers experience changes in beliefs and pedagogical practices.[5]  For many, this materializes as a rediscovery of the self who teaches and a reformation of identity.  In working with many teachers who have made this transition, I have heard many powerful stories about their transitions, which could be described more accurately as transformational experiences.  One of the most common claims is, “Learning to become an online teacher has made me an even better teacher in the f2f classroom.” However, for some teachers a change in the environment in which they teach can be perceived as a threat to their identities, as they have spent numerous years establishing competence and comfort in the f2f classroom.

Although the process of redefining one’s teaching self in the online environment can be invaluable, it is still a difficult transition for many teachers because it involves a redefining of professional identity.[6] It makes sense that this will take time, training, resources, and support.  When teachers begin the shift, in a sense they leave their role as expert behind and return to the role of novice as they learn to maneuver and construct the online environment. This can be frightening for many teachers and can serve as a source of resistance.[7] While the transition from f2f to the online environment is not seamless, simple, or standardized, it is doable.  I have yet to come across a teacher who did not grow professionally from this transition and was unable to see the power in technology to enhance teaching and learning and make quality learning experiences more accessible to students.  Further, as teachers experiment with the broad spectrum of online learning from hybrid/blended to fully online synchronous or asynchronous formats, they come to a place where they develop their own innovative models that work best for their content and their students.  Because technology is a tool, it will be used differently by different teachers, learners, and contexts.  Again, it is the teacher who determines what the environment will look like and how the elements of a learning environment that are important to the teacher, will be addressed by the structure, tools, resources, pacing etc. of the course.  In addition, no different from the f2f environment, teachers will continue to be researchers using data from their own teaching experiences to continue to shape and reshape their online environments and approach to online instruction. In order for innovation and change to occur, teachers must take on the role of researchers in teaching.[8]

Myth #3: Relationships cannot be developed in the online environment

As teachers, we know that authentic relationships are important to teaching and learning. While establishing relationships in an online environment looks differently than it does in a f2f setting, when constructed effectively, the online environment promotes and supports rich interaction, which supports the relationships that are so essential to teaching and learning. The key here is “interaction.”  Again, it is the teacher who creates the online environment, which can take many shapes and forms, but the learning culture is established by the teacher. In a quality online setting, students have robust opportunities to interact with the content, classmates and the teacher.  While the tools available to structure the interaction will vary by learning management system, most have the basic communication tools: discussion boards, chat rooms, and messaging.  Just as in the f2f environment, the teacher must structure interaction between and among students using these types of tools.

Taking interaction to a higher level, teachers may opt to also promote collaboration among students using tools such as wikis, blogs, and web conferencing.  While not all learning management systems offer these tools, there are many open source solutions available as well including PBWorks and Wikispaces (free to educators) for wikis, WordPress for blogs, and Skype, Google Hangouts, and Ovoo for real time communication. Packaging content so that it is engaging and promotes rich interaction and is not strictly text-based is part of the design of a course.  In the ideal situation, teachers/faculty can work in partnership with instructional design specialists to package content in an interactive and engaging format.  This can be done strictly through the learning management system tools or, software can be purchased to support course design (i.e., Soft Chalk and Rapid Intake). There are also open source options for content development like Lesson Builder.

If rich interaction is something that a teacher values in the f2f classroom, it can also be established in the online learning environment by utilizing the wide array of interactive tools (both proprietary and open source).  A personal experience for me was witnessing the introverts shine in the online environment.

The opportunities for those who tend toward reflection, synthesis, and personal introspection [introverts] to participate in a course discussion or activity is dramatically increased, in effectively designed fully online and blended learning.”Dr. Curtis Bonk.

While these individuals wouldn’t necessarily contribute as much verbally in the f2f classroom, given more time to reflect and process information, these individuals contributed thoughtful and reflective responses in the discussion forum that served to enrich the discussion and learning for the class as a whole.

Yes, teaching and learning in the online environment is different, but it’s definitely doable!  However, it is essential that teachers, as the experts in learning be at the helm so that technology is implemented effectively and authentically. Is there a big learning curve for most teachers?  Yes, as many of us are digital immigrants.  However, there is a reason and purpose for this transition—equity and access for all learners.  As teachers, we pride ourselves in being life-long learners—adaptable, flexible, responsive and reflective. We cannot afford to hold on to the cheese; we need to move it so that we are better positioned to serve more students, enhance teaching and learning, and transform education as we know it.  Learning to teach in the online environment is no different than learning to teach in the f2f environment in that any learning is a journey.  Our journey towards competence in the online environment will no doubt take time, effort and commitment. We know that there is an art and science to teaching and this is no different in the online environment.  As with any journey, there will be phases from getting our feet wet and to establishing a comfort level with the technology, to truly rediscovering, redefining and establishing ourselves as digital-age teachers. The first step is to acknowledge our fears and the myths that may underlie them.

 


[1]  Digital Learning Now! (2001). 10 elements of high quality digital learning. http://www.digitallearningnow.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/09/Digital-Learning-Now-Report-FINAL1.pdf.
[2] Anderson, T., Rourke, L., Garrison, D.R., & Archer, W. (2001).  Assessing teacher presence in computer conferencing context.  Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, 5(2), 1-17.
[3]Sandoldz, JH., Ringstaff, C., & Dwyer, D.C. (1997). Teaching with technology: Creating student centered classrooms.  New York: Teachers College.
[4] McGrath, B. (1998).  Partners in learning: Twelve ways technology changed the teacher-student relationship. T.H.E. Journal, 25(9), 58-61.
[5] Redmond, P. (2011). From face-to-face teaching to online teaching: Pedagogical transitions. Paper presented at ascilite 2011: Changing Demands, Changing Directions.  Australia, December 4-7.
[6] Melancon, L. (2007). Exploring electronic landscapes: Technological communication, online learning, and instructor preparedness.  Technical Communication Quarterly, 16(1), 31-53.
[7] McQuiggan, C.A. (2007). The role of faculty development in online teaching’s potential to question teaching beliefs and assumptions. Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration, 10 (3).
[8] Laurillard, D. (2002). Rethinking teaching for the knowledge society. Educause Review, 37(1), 16-25.
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2 thoughts on “Different, but definitely doable: Deconstructing the myths about online learning

  1. Dr. Virginia Padilla-Vigil,
    I just want to commend you on a well written and easily understood blog about educators like yourself who are willing to tackle a learning curve and leave themselves temporarily vulnerable for the betterment of education and the students who will gain the most from this shift in technology. I have a couple professors in mind who might benefit (I really wanted to say “would definitely benefit”, but like you said, it is up to the teacher to decide what they are willing to risk) from this piece and get to the next level of education so that student learning can occur more efficiently and wide spread. You are absolutely right when you state that it is up to the teacher to decide how easy or how difficult this technology (especially ITV) change will be, and in turn their decisions affect all of their students. I haven’t taken an ITV class yet, but this semester is the first that a class of mine has included ITV students. I was appalled when the professor forgot he had ITV students, didn’t know who they were, gave the remote control to one of the students to navigate (In fact, it was our own J. Martinez and she accepted the challenge like a pro) and ignored them the rest of the class period. My ex-girlfriend is in an ITV class this semester and she says that the professor makes them mute their microphone for almost the entire class period when 25% of their grade is participation and has over-populated the class as if they were sardines in a can. Finally, I know a well-known, well-established and well-respected professor, who I look up to as an educator, but refuses to run ITV classes and this professor’s motto is “learn something new everyday.” Kudos to you and your attitude towards learning the technology available to be of service to students who need you, but also to be of service to other professors who may change their mind and learn from your example and up and coming professors who share the same philosophy as you do and want to use technology as well and have somebody like you to learn from.
    Thank you and with much admiration,
    P.S.

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