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.


Irma Illonka said...

The change is hard to accept and to show.

I connected your questions and concerns about teachers with the training programs, workshops or seminars that most of them attend to. I have attended to tons of them, too. But I did not change much as a teacher.

Are the new workshops successful trying to change teachers into becoming better ones?, not much
Some of those teachers learn how to use terms like "learn by doing" and "meaningful" activities. They also talk about planning "holistic" classes. They use those terms as a new vocabulary learned in a class, or a workshop. Some of those teachers, specially the novel ones, might use it to belong to the herd, but do they know what they imply?, Are they aware of the new embedded perspective of teaching/learning?. No. The training fails. I have lots of examples that show that teachers using those terms are only capable of repeating their same mistakes in panning and teaching.

Is there a place for essential questions in their training?
Not without making a revolution in universities.
New trends in every field are hopefully to be discovered while we study in college. The way the university provides or not the possibility in developing successful performance instead of summative exams will determine the new teachers for new generations.
I believe the gap between the way that I learned during my college years is huge from the content of my very first on line course I am taking.

Without a serious and continuous training programs for teachers that will immerse them in their own essential questions, the change will not happen. That is the challenge universities in southern countries need to face and hopefully solve.

Karen said...

What were the survey results? Karen

Justin said...

@karen - survey results are coming soon!