v6.2.3 - moving along, a point increase at a time

Humanizing online education: we're not just a bunch of robots

Captain Data (an android)
End of another week.  Sometimes when I reach cognitive overload I feel like a stranded sailor - what days is it? where am I?  what did I do this week?  Did I learn this thing this week or last week?  Anyway,  I've taken some notes throughout the week so that I can discuss and summarize a bit things that made me think. 

So, I had discovered a MOOC, on the Canvas Network, on Humanizing Online Instruction (or #HumanMOOC). I recognized some familiar names as organizers (which was a big draw), and the topic seemed interesting.  Something I could use in the way I conceptualize the course I teach (The Design and Instruction of Online Courses) so that I can keep materials fresh, re-work, re-frame, re-conceptualize the course.  I wasn't sure if I was going to participate in the course, and if past performance was any indication, I would not be "completing" this course; I haven't completed a course on canvas yet - and I've been a content grazer and looky-loo at most xMOOCs this past year (if the topic was marginally interesting and there was no badge or certificate that was free).

Anyway, I started participating in #HumanMOOC because I was drawn in by the gentle nudging email that raised concern about my ability to succeed in the course since I had not logged in during the prep-week (week 0).  I found this odd, and refreshing, so I thought I would give it a try.  If things got too crazy with other commitments I could always step back.  In any case, one of the questions this week was about what we do, as instructors to humanize our online course.  To tell you the truth I had always taken humanization (or at least what is referred to as the human element) for granted in designing and teaching online courses.  It seems like such a foreign concept to me that this element would not be there that it never entered my mind that it isn't there in all online courses†.

The interesting thing here, however, isn't just this.  Another thing happened at work this week.  One of the things I do as part of my day job is to answer inquiries about our online MA in Applied Linguistics.  One of the inquiries wanted to know what type of online program we offer.  This prospective student had heard that there are two kinds of online courses.  The first kind is one where the instructor assigns readings and assignments and  the learners learn on their own; and the second kind where students access the online course environment and learn though videos. It's hard to fault students, who don't know better, about reducing online learning to these two camps.  On the one hand, the former example gives a nod programs of study that are sort of like correspondence study, but in online environments, and the latter example really speaks volumes about the influenced that MOOCs have had on our society, and what is considered education.

The interesting thing to me is that prospective learners, in their minds, see these two "extremes" as two ends of the online learning spectrum, but they are really the same end of the spectrum, the only thing that changes is the medium.  It doesn't matter if learners "learn" though reading textual materials or by viewing videos.  If the instructor presence isn't felt, the materials don't do the work of building instructor presence in the course.  Even when video of the instructor speaking to the learners is created and shared in the course, that's not enough to provide learner with a sense that the instructor is there.  Don't believe me?  When was the last time you watched a documentary and thought that the presenter was talking to you? Videos created in classroom contexts, if that's the only thing that bears the instructor's likeness in some way, are in the same category as documentary videos.  Instructor presence is felt throughout the course in a dynamic, non-pre-programmed, and sometimes chaotic, way.

A more recent metaphor I have developed about setting up instructor presence in the online classroom is that of the garden.  As an instructor, and instructional designer, you can have a common starting point to setting up your presence in the online course.  Mine is to contact students early, before the class starts, and provide them with the syllabus, some info about the course, an intro video (on youtube), and some ideas about what the course entails.  I think of this as the seeding stage.  Each group that comes into a specific class has a distinct personality, and there is a a different group dynamic in each group.  One can't really determine how they will establish an instructor presence before getting to see the group in action. Thus, the instructor, like a gardener, should keep an eye out, see what needs watering, pruning, cleaning, and so on. Just like gardening depends on the environmental conditions, and the interaction of the plants that you put next to each other, so does teaching (and instructor presence) require frequent recalibration.  One size does not fit all.   I often tell students that they should develop a toolbox that they can dive into as the need arises.  It's perfectly fine to have a toolbox, you just don't need to use all the tools simultaneously :) Judicious use of tools and practices can help increase instructor presence - even when that presence only means posting one announcement sometimes.

 As a side note, in #HumanMOOC, and in EDDE 802 this past week we've used a tool called voicethread.  I've been familiar with the tool for a few years now but I have a like/dislike relationship with it.  I think I may have written about this in a previous post over the years, and my feelings are not really altered since then. One of the things that a tool like voicethread (or any tool that allows you to do voice or video posting) is that it really lacks scanability.  With plain text I am better able to scan through the text and pick up main ideas, key concepts, and do a quick mental analysis of whether this post is or is not of interest to me, and whether I'd want to respond to it.  Tools like voicethread need you to view or listen to all of the comment in order to determine if it's of use, or if it will get some mental gears working.  This really takes a task that can be quicker and makes it much longer.

That said, both in #HumanMOOC, and in the one EDDE 802 discussion there was some value to voicethread, despite its length. I think that the value of the voicethread activity derives not from the content shared by participants but by actually seeing or hearing those folks.  My EDDE cohort communicate mostly textually, in our facebook group, on the landing, and in live sessions.  I often feel like I am monopolizing the airtime when I speak (or I would if I spoke every time I wanted to say something), so I self-sensor when it comes to using my microphone.  I don't know if others do this, but the net effect is that even our synchronous communication is text-based.  Being able to hear our cohortmate's voices discussing something does add an extra dimension to that feeling of connecteness.  I think this is where tools like this are good.   Added to that, I think it was great to connect with people from Cohort 6 (we are Cohort 7) since the voicethread transcends semesters.  Some people from Cohort 6 I've "met" on twitter and through their blogs, but adding that audio-visual element gives a sense of greater inter-cohort connections.

Of course, the hidden objective here is the social objective that isn't discussed when we are assigning students to work on tools like this one, thus we are meeting a content objective and a social objective by using a tool like this. I still have issues with the lack of captioning in voicethread, but that's just a post for another day ;-)

Thoughts? #HumanMOOC participants?  EDDE 802 cohort-mates?

† online here means traditional online courses, MOOCs I think need a slightly different conceptualization of things like teacher presence and humanization.
- If you are in #HumanMOOC and you are reading this, I hope you weren't scared or put off by my Flipgrid photo - I was messing around and I guess "angry face" became my profile photo ;-)
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