Ed Tech, Education

A Meaningful Online Experience

By Sarah Warnock

The growing field of distance or online education has traditionally been used as a stopgap for those who were unable to attend a physical location but still needed to take classes. Satellite campuses allowed live streaming video so several classrooms could benefit from the same lecture at one time. Correspondence classes allowed a letter/email-writing interactivity between teacher and student.

With current and developing technology, online education has transitioned from a substitute to a primary mode of gaining a degree.  And with this transition, educators are finding that the traditional lecture-read-write-test-repeat model, while still usable in a locally attended course, does not meet the needs of an online education program.

Technology in higher education has evolved from the use of overhead projectors to Powerpoint. Now with the use of tools like Prezi and Camtasia, an educator can present teaching material in such a dynamic way that the student feels drawn in.  While the material itself is not interactive, it provides a sort of pseudo interactivity with Prezi’s engaging zooming presentations and Camtasia’s screen capturing and audio tracks.  Additionally, an LMS like Moodle at first allowed a common storage area and upload/download site for documents. Now, it facilitates a more dynamic learning space; a virtual classroom.

The technology available to educators in current-day academics makes a successful online learning experience a possibility. It does not, however, provide the assurance that virtual or hybrid (part online/part face to face) courses will take flight.

Two key pieces to keep in mind while constructing an online education program are time management and pedagogy.

Time management, in part, reflects the understanding that learning rarely happens by simply reading or hearing information. Instead, repetition must be utilized to create new pathways for storing information in the brain. Time management also reflects the reality that losing track of time is easiest when you don’t have to physically be somewhere to accomplish something. Establishing a weekly rhythm for the disbursement and reception of course material allows the student to create a lifestyle of learning.

An example of such a rhythm might include a reading assignment between Monday and Tuesday. A forum discussion in order to reflect on the reading with a small group of students might take place between Tuesday and Thursday. Friday and Saturday can be used for paper writing or test-taking.

A weekly rhythm, like this one, allows students with different learning styles to engage the same material in a number of ways, progressively and repetitively. It also gives the students the regularity necessary to remember that every Tuesday they might need to enter a discussion forum, or that every Friday they may need to take an online quiz.

One traditional difficulty with online learning is the lack of connection between teacher and student. It is very easy for teachers to set up a schedule with assignments and back out of the course; assuming that students will either engage with the material or send an email if there is a glitch in the system. This type of hands-off teaching diminishes the overall experience for all involved.

A successful online education program requires a new pedagogical strategy. A virtual classroom means a teacher cannot regularly (if at all) meet face-to-face to see if there are any issues with the assimilation of new material. Therefore, the teacher must also establish a weekly rhythm so that the level of engagement the student is committing to will be reflected in the teacher’s forum participation and submitted assignment feedback.

It is with these three pieces, technology, time management, and a new pedagogy, that an online classroom can be a source of meaningful and life-impacting education.

Sarah Warnock is an adjunct professor, teaching both online and on campus at the George Fox Evangelical Seminary.

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