HELPING STUDENTS AND FACULTY STAY ONBOARD, REGARDLESS OF THE SIZE OF THE WAVE
The waves of innovation are growing bigger, faster and more powerful. While broadband promises speed, size and power for connecting people with data, the true test of the technology will be in its ability to connect people. Or, rather, the true test in internet-based teaching and learning will be for us to recognize the potential for using the medium to initiate and cultivate relationships for teaching and learning.
The purpose of this paper is to explore building a community of “surfers”, teachers and learners who will support one another, regardless of the size of the waves. Join a group of five educators and learners who are grappling with what it means to form and build community within the midst of changing technology. Through the use of an ongoing online discussion, these educators addressed the question, “how can we stay focused on community as the waves get faster and stronger?”
The School of Education at George Fox University serves the needs of pre-service and in-service educators in Oregon and across the Northwest. For the past six years, professors in the School have been delivering internet-based graduate courses to educators, many of whom live and work at great distance from the University campus. Dr. Scot Headley, and five of his students, all of whom are professional educators, in an ongoing online discussion this winter, formulated and responded to a number of questions regarding teaching and learning, building community and changing technological tools. An edited version of the discussion is presented here. For a more complete version of the conversation, see < http://voyager.georgefox.edu/sheadley/onboard.htm>.
The participants are William Taaffe, an educator in a private school in Japan; Mary Ann Brewer, an educational consultant and tutor in the Seattle Washington area; David Robinson, a college IT administrator in Portland Oregon; Jim Steele, also from Portland, a consultant and trainer for global high tech firms; and Scot Headley, professor of educational leadership at George Fox University, near Portland Oregon.
When asked to describe his personal interest and the context from which he approaches the discussion, William replied, “As an educator in a private junior high and high school in Japan, I am very interested in the potential for online learning in the field of EFL/ESL. I think that broadband has a huge potential in second language acquisition, and I am in the process of creating some trial courses for my institution”. Mary Ann added that, “As an educational consultant and tutor, I am interested in helping students achieve success in their learning and plan to continue development of support strategies for those whose focus is learning online.”
David added, “Of primary interest, I think, is the fostering of love and commitment within a professional body. Since online communities must do this at second- or third-hand we have to do everything possible to encourage interest and effort in the community. Residency requirements are abolished on the 'Net, but commitment requirements become even stronger.” Jim stated, that as both an online teacher and student, “there needs to be a realization that the online classroom is not simply a different place to teach just like we do in the classroom, but it is a completely different environment that for the most part employs a very different mix of skills and techniques.”
We first by described community and discussed its value. Jim began by stating, “formal education, from its earliest foundations, has evoked images of people living and learning in community.” He continued:
William believes that, “we must first recognize our common interests and then consider how to foster sharing, participation, and fellowship. Clearly, in the field of adult education at least, both teachers and students have a binding common interest of furthering education”. Mary Ann added that, “We bring shared interests and values where an interdependence is developed by the group to achieve specific goals – in this case learning in the online environment.”
As David described it, community is centered “around shared calling, common concerns, similar challenges, linked experience, and broadly similar goals. Those who walk the same path of vocation have in common (thus ‘community’) a vision and purpose of service, one that must be nurtured by constant contact and mutual support, or it will risk desiccation and failure.”
Regarding the work of the student in a learning community, Mary Ann believes that “each person has a share in the work and products of the group. It seems that community becomes more cohesive and productive when the students step into working roles in the group. New levels of understanding are achieved.”
Technical Tools and Personal Interactions
Moving from our descriptions of community, we developed and answered a set of questions regarding the relationship between the technical tools and personal interactions in teaching and learning. We explored the nature of the relationship, and given that relationship, how we can best ensure a proper balance between the technical tools available to us and the personal interactions that are so vital. David offered that “we have to find ways and means to limit the learning curve for the technology, and extend the blessings of technology widely within the profession and our learning community.”
Mary Ann reminded us that, “tools are just tools and it is our (teacher and learner) responsibility to understand: 1) how to use them and 2) the best effective use. I think there should be a pre-determined framework of expectation for online classes in terms of interaction. There is a need to care and/or watch for one another and the technical tools can facilitate that in a public or private format.”
William agreed that “technical tools are just that, tools, and like any other tool in education it is how they are put to use that defines their value. Such tools will never eliminate the necessity for personal interaction however. Broadband and other technical advancements have given us the opportunity to teach and learn in entirely new ways by providing access to education without geographical or cultural boundaries, but with new opportunities come new challenges. Simply having access to information does not ensure educational success.”
Jim stated that, “Facility with technical tools is part of ‘learning to learn’ in the online environment. Imagine entering a traditional classroom if you had never seen a desk, a whiteboard, or a book. This is the level of sophistication with which many students enter their first virtual classroom. Part of becoming an effective member of an online learning community involves becoming an effective ‘person’ online...this involves a different set of skills than those most of us have developed in a traditional education.”
Our bottom line regarding tools and interaction was summed up by William, “personal interaction is an integral part of what education is all about. Education is about the exchange of ideas and opinions; it's the negotiation of knowledge. This negotiation can only be achieved through personal interaction.”
Focus on Community
How do we stay focused on community, regardless of the technology? Jim provided a succinct summary:
William added that, “we have to be constantly vigilante in our efforts to encourage interaction. Web-based or broadband education will be successful when we are able to focus on its educational aspect and not its technological aspect”. Mary Ann added a cautionary note:
Jim concluded with a question. “Is community really possible without expectations of some sort? I would surmise that most effective communities, particularly those focused on learning, have developed implicit or explicit expectations for their members (or both).”
The group explored the particular relationship between broad access and types of media that will be used for teaching and learning. William began by pointing out that, “Broadband education may not be for everyone, and I think it is perfectly legitimate to set minimum technological requirements. While it may seem unreasonable to set high-end technical requirements, we should remember that technology changes extremely quickly, and today’s high-end will be tomorrow’s minimum specs.”
Jim pointed to one apparent difficulty inherent with our continuously improving technologies. He said, “I think that as educators, we can reach an impasse between our philosophical desires to provide egalitarian access to every educational experience, and our need to raise the state of the art which requires certain minimum capability for all participants.”
David, who serves as a college vice president for IT, provided an in-depth view of broadband, media and challenges in teaching and learning:
Mary Ann also explored the differences in media and applications that arise when considering the ever-increasing bandwidth:
Space limitations require that much of the original dialogue of our group is excluded from this paper. Other topics that we explored were: a) orientation of new teachers and learners, b) preparation and certification of teachers, c) exploration of new tools now available for use with broadband access, and d) hardware and software standards. You may read the entire conversation by visiting http://voyager.georgefox.edu/sheadley/onboard.htm .
While faster and more powerful tools provide hope for increased effectiveness in teaching and learning, we cannot dismiss our basic premise that teaching and learning is about human interaction. As much as our new tools hold the promise for expanding our access to information, those of us who teach and learn in the online environment must be mindful about cultivating relationships, seeking to build community, and helping our colleagues become proficient with the tools. The continued introduction of new technologies means that many learners and teachers are using older technologies and find it hard for financial, educational, or personal reasons to stay onboard. Will we choose to catch the next wave alone, or wait for others to take the ride as well?
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