25 March, 2010

Focus on Pedagogy in Training On-line Teacher-Designers

I have been looking into teacher training for on-line programs in different universities.  I am amazed to see that most of them focus on effective use of the tools offered in their digital platform and on the Internet.  I can see a reason for this in northern countries where teachers set foot into university classrooms only after obtaining a teaching certificate and graduate work both in education and in their field of study.  For the most part these teachers have deep understandings of sound pedagogical principles and need to learn how to implement these principles in an on-line environment.

However, it is confusing for me to see universities in southern countries that do not have such qualified teachers follow the same route when training them to offer on-line classes.  These teachers give on-line classes in much the same way they give their on-site classes, only through the Internet. In this way, answering questions about a power point presentation happens pretty much the same way either on-site or on-line. I imagine that if a university considers that teacher's on-site classes acceptable, then there is no reason to consider his/her on-line classes any differently.

When I was asked to plan a teacher training program for designing and facilitating on-line classes, I never hesitated to put pedagogical concerns at the heart of the program, just as my university does for any type of class.  To implement social constructivism in an on-line setting requires not only mastering a core set of tools because the teacher-designer needs to make key decisions about how to best use the tools to encourage autonomous learning, collaborative structures, authentic performance-based assessment and peer feedback sessions in an effort to guide students towards answering their own essential questions.

This is not to say that teachers in the program are not familiar with these concepts, as many of them are. However, it seems that in too many cases these principles have degenerated into slogans like "learning by doing" that have lost much of the meaning they might have once had.  When teachers attempt to use their previous knowledge to design meaningful on-line learning experiences, the depth of understanding of these principles becomes evident.

Challenging questions inevitably arise for teachers who take their role as designers seriously:
  • What are the key differences between designing an on-site class and an on-line class?
  • How can teachers establish rapport in the classroom with little physical contact?
  • How can we encourage and support autonomous learning with students who come from a school system where those are discouraged and often punished?
  • How do I manage my time and how do I calculate appropriate task time for my students?
  • How do I plan performance-based assessment for on-line classes?

These questions cannot be answered by spending 10 or 20 hours learning to manage the tools offered in a digital platform or on the Internet. Some might be answered by trial and error or by participating in forums for on-line teachers. But what about those questions that are left unanswered? Or what about those teachers who never get over the hump that these questions impose? In either case these teachers will fall back to their comfort zone by following traditional teaching methods. And in either case learning is the first casualty.

Further, a focus on tool management can lead to the idea that they are the key to learning, when in reality they are mere instruments for implementing pedagogical principles. Learning to emphasize principle over form in on-line course design happens painlessly in very few cases, and it takes time to for the necessary low-stakes trial and error process to yield its fruit in a well-designed course.

In this way a teacher training program for on-line instructors-designers should focus on pedagogy and should give teachers plenty of time to build their courses, reflect on their effectiveness in low-stakes environments and correct their own errors. Teachers will then be well prepared to face on-line teaching challenges with much the same confidence they have in their on site classes.

24 March, 2010

A Sports Analogy for Assessment

On page 96 of the book "A Repair Kit for Grading", the author (Ken O'Connor) draws a useful analogy between performance-based assessment and a band or a sports team:

"It is critical that both teachers and students recognize when assessment is primarily for learning (formative) and when it is primarily of learning (summative). Students understand this in band and in sports, when practice is clearly identified and separate from an actual performance or game."

If we follow this analogy, then the final exam for a unit and/or course becomes the big game for the sports team. If you are training basketball players, don't you think that the best way to test their abilities is to have them play a game? In this way the coach sets out the big game as the final exam, and in the same way all of the activities that lead up to that game are meant to help the players prepare for that game.

The diagnostic assessment is an initial activity that puts students in a simulated game to see what their strengths and weaknesses are. Once they have been identified, the formative assessments are the practice sessions that help students refine specific technical skills, build leadership skills, raise stamina and work on team building, all necessary for each player to perform at his/her best and for the team to win.

Note that in this case,

• All of the players clearly understand what is expected of them by the time the big game comes around.
• All of them understand what their individual and collective strengths and weaknesses are and are motivated to improve their skills in order to support the team.
• The coach wants the players to do their best and pushes the players to practice hard so they can do so.
• The team knows that the practices don't give them points in the final game, and for that reason its the game that counts and not the practices, although the more they practice the better they will play in the game. After the big game, the team evaluates its performance, draws up new strategies to improve and starts practicing again.

Designing a multi-stage, complex performance task as the final exam allows teachers to identify all of the discrete skills students will need to perform well at the end so they can be practiced in low-stakes situations, tried out in scrimmage games and practiced again so that everybody feels ready for the big game.  This movement back and forth between instruction and applying, between drilling discrete skills and performance of the whole task is what helps students learn well. It also helps them learn to learn, which is a capacity that comes in handy as the students take on further personal and academic responsibilities.

Although teachers don't give the same or similar tests more than once as coaches do, we do teach more complex skills that build on what students had to learn for the previous exam. In this way the capacities teachers aim to develop in our students by the end of the semester or year are complex and broad.

This analogy has provided me with a variety of new perspectives on assessment as well as some criteria to evaluate my own assessment strategies. I have become a better teacher by practicing this concept and I hope it gives others some valuable insight too.