Given the pandemic, the stay at home orders and the shift to online learning, it has been a surreal few months. One day in March, we were sent home with the University closing due to the virus. Few of us thought it would be four months until we were able to return to campus. March now seems both very far in the past and just yesterday. It seems the pandemic has both compressed and dilated time. Working remotely from home while the kids learned remotely from home, social distancing, only going to the store for essentials while wearing a mask, the only social contact through the phone or computer screens has affected the way I perceive time. The timeline of the pandemic has also contributed to the distorted understanding of time. Initially we were told the lockdown would last for a month at most and by Easter we would be able to go back to our lives. With Easter long gone, the school year ended online with some students and teachers having checked out well before. Summer has brought more restrictions and more advisories. Vacations and travel plans were postponed and then canceled. The media has contributed to fear and uncertainty. Rather than any positive news, both print and screen media have focused on negative stories: the increases in cases, the deaths, the fights between people who wear masks and those who do not, the warning stories about parties out of control, the arguments between politicians about extensions of benefits for those who unfortunately lost their jobs. All the negativity has led to a renewed focus on the smallest subset of the family unit (husband/wife, kids) and a focus on work. Work that allowed for thinking of other things besides what’s going on but which absorbed much more time than before.

As schools prepare to start yet another school year, they quibble over modalities. One thing is clear, that even the fall semester won’t resemble anything close to the old normal. The question becomes, or it has long been, when are we going to go back to normal? Not having an end in sight affects the concept of time as much as everything else. Given all this, what are the long time effects on our understanding of time? Has it changed for everyone or just me? Will we be able to go back to “normal”?

Online courses depend on the creation of three types of presence: cognitive, social, and teaching. While we tend to create all three in the classroom without giving it much thought, it’s a lot more difficult to create and maintain them in an online course however, student persistence is tied to them. Also, one of the biggest worries for faculty transitioning from face-2-face courses to online courses is how to replicate the classroom discussions. The answer is online discussions. While they do not take the same format as face-2-face discussions, online, asynchronous discussions can establish all three types of presence and provide students with a level of engagement that is similar to the one in the classroom.

However, transitioning discussions from on the ground to online is not as simple as moving them in text format. Online discussions need a lot of forethought and preparation. The first thing needed is to decide what the purpose of the discussion is and how it relates to the goals and objectives of the course. To engage students and give them a voice, a good online discussion relates to the goals and objectives of the course and makes a meaningful connection to the “real world.” Questions also have to be open ended to allow students to express their thoughts and structure needs to be provided. Therefore, here are some suggestions when creating online discussions that allow students to use their voice:

  • Establishing your expectations for students will allow them to make meaningful contributions.
  • Splitting a large class into smaller discussion groups allows students to answer the question without fearing that someone else has already said what they want to say.
  • Being involved in the first few discussions allows the instructor to model the expected behavior however, as the semester progresses, less instructor presence in the discussions is advisable. If the instructor over participates, students end up expecting that the instructor will answer all questions. It may also create anxiety that their answers do not fit what the instructor wants and will be reluctant to respond prior to the instructor.
  • Having students facilitate the discussion can help them find their voice. Having one student start the discussion, another ask questions, maybe one providing counter arguments, allows students to develop their own approaches to the discussion without faculty interference.
  • Providing students with meaningful, personalized feedback is important. While it is impossible to provide feedback to every single post, just as we don’t provide feedback to every single conversation in the classroom, providing meaningful, growth oriented feedback, especially during the first discussions not only establishes the ground rules but allows students to develop their online discussion style and contribute meaningfully.
  • Using a rubric is something that a lot of instructors rely on to provide structure and help students determine the expectations. I’m not a big fan of rubrics because I feel they tend to box students in and they end up only trying to make sure their answers fit the rubric however, establishing good ground rules and expectations for the discussions is important, regardless of the use of rubrics.

When done right, online discussions have a lot potential. They allow students who may be too shy or need more processing time to be able to answer questions they may not be able to in a live class. They can help establish all three types of presence, and engage students in the course, helping them persist and be successful. They can make meaningful connections to the real life subject matter of the course and prepare students for their future lives.

What other hints do you have for successful online discussions? How can we stimulate student participation and engagement and make the discussions meaningful?

decorative image of the statue of the thinker

Pedagogy

The Merriam Webster dictionary defines pedagogy as “the art, science, or profession of teaching.”  As concise as the dictionary definition is, pedagogy is much broader. In 1905, following earlier work by German philologists, G. Stanley Hall, defines pedagogy as including “both didactics or the methods of teaching or imparting knowledge or instruction generally on the one hand – all those processes by which information is given – and on the other, education or development from within outward” (Hall, 1905, p. 375). Therefore pedagogy addresses both the imparting of knowledge and how students are learning. While traditionally pedagogy has seen students as a vessel that needed to be filled with the knowledge imparted by the teacher, pedagogy has evolved and schools of education throughout the country are interested in developing the study of the subject and in helping future teachers reach all students. Frameworks, such as Universal Design for Learning, based on psychology and neuroscience look to improve the teaching and learning process.

Open

As concise and simple as the Merriam Webster dictionary definition of pedagogy is, it has twenty definitions for the word open. In education, the concept of open comes from the open software and probably, the Merriam Webster definition that fits is “completely free from concealment : exposed to general view or knowledge.” While software today is mostly propitiatory, the Linux operating system best illustrates the concept of open. It is an operating system that the creator made available to the entire computer aficionado community who were free to contribute to it and modify it. According to Linux.com open source has the following characteristics:

  • “The freedom to run the program, for any purpose.
  • The freedom to study how the program works, and change it to make it do what you wish.
  • The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbor.
  • The freedom to distribute copies of your modified versions to others.”

Open Pedagogy

The question then becomes what happens when we combine the ideas of open source and pedagogy? Has that been considered? It turns out that Open Pedagogy is a big concept in the field of education. As far back as 1979, Claude Paquette defined the concepts of Open Pedagogy. Paquette identifies four basic principles for open pedagogy: “the respect for individual differences,” “individualized growth, “the indirect influence of the educator,” and “the natural learning process resulting from the internal dynamism of the student.” Robin Derosa, in her blog, describes the modern implementation of the open education concept. Using concepts such as blogs and personal websites, students help decide the learning goals and the process, create knowledge, connect with each other and the public at large and, ultimately, take a leading role in their learning process where the teacher acts as a guide rather than the source  of all knowledge.

Run, Explore, Learn

Open pedagogy is an interesting concept. While Derosa describes the successful process of introducing open pedagogy to her First Year Seminar class in college, open pedagogy is not an easy process to implement. The instructor has an important role to play in making sure that students are meeting the learning goals that the group develops and to keep the entire course and class on track. The role of the guide is definitely much harder than that of the sage on the stage. While k-12 is making strides towards some of the concepts of open pedagogy, it doesn’t happen a lot because of the prescriptive nature of k-12 education. This boxes both the students and the teachers in and makes it hard to later adjust to the concept of open pedagogy. I teach graduate students in the college of education (teachers) and even an open choice projects creates anxiety; I had to provide a list of options that they can chose from. Regardless of my encouragement to come up with their own projects, most of the students in my class end up using one of the suggestions from the provided list. I think that if we are to be more successful in introducing open pedagogy, it’s a concept that needs to be introduced in the earlier grades and perpetuated throughout. Otherwise, I’m reminded of Sir Ken Robinson’s example of the paperclip challenge and divergent thinking.

La pedagogie ouverte est fondee sur une influence indirecte de l’educateur
Éduquer est un acte d’influence. En pédagogie ouverte, cette perspective est acceptée. À ce moment l’éducateur joue un rôle important. Cependant, nous considérons que l’influence de l’éduca- teur doit être indirecte. I l y a influence donc intervention mais qui s’adapte à la conjoncture et à l’évolution de l’étudiant. L’éducateur intervient non pas pour faire assimiler des informations à l’étudiant mais pour l’aider à cheminer selon ses différences et ses potentialités.”

Claude Paquette (1979)

Google Translate:

“Open pedagogy is based on an indirect influence of the educator
Education is an act of influence. In open pedagogy, this perspective is accepted. At this time the educator plays an important role. However, we consider that the influence of the educator must be indirect. There is therefore an influence of intervention but which adapts to the situation and to the evolution of the student. The educator intervenes not to assimilate information to the student but to help him to walk according to his differences and his potentialities.”

image of a cup next to a macbook displaying a videoconference

The current world wide pandemic has resulted in an explosion in the use of video conferencing systems. Education, business and personal use skyrocketed. However, educational institutions, faculty, teachers and students all struggled with integration. Here are some of the issues that have come up.

How many choices do I have?

The VTC market, like any technology market that prior to the pandemic was considered niche, did not have a particularly dominant actor. While Microsoft Teams, Apple FaceTime, Google Hangouts all existed, they competed with more business oriented companies such as Cisco WebEx and Zoom as well as a multitude of other smaller companies such as GoToMeeting, BlueJeans and many, many others. This glut of choice left schools and instructors trying to figure out which one met their needs and which didn’t. Institutions already invested in the support of one choice over another found themselves under assault from faculty who preferred one system over another. Trying to decipher the differences in features became a chore that was not made easy by the charts and tables provided by each company.

Which features do I need?

Another issue that faced many of the instructors trying to understand how to make the sudden transition from on the ground to remote teaching was trying to figure out what they needed to conduct their courses successfully. Breakout rooms, locked rooms, virtual backgrounds all became features that many of us had not heard off but needed to suddenly learn about.

What’s Zoombombing?

As soon as we made the transition to remote learning another term that we all had to learn in a hurry was Zoombombing (which btw, my automatic spell checker is still highlighting as an incorrect spelling). While many teachers and students were trying to figure out how to use the platforms some users decided that the best use of their time and access to technology was to hijack remote sessions with obscene or racist attacks. While the term refers to Zoom, which became the most popular app during this time, no video conferencing platform was immune from such attacks.

What’s Zoom Fatigue?

To continue the list of new lexicon with negative connotations that was introduced with the pandemic we also have “Zoom Fatigue.” Students, teachers, and everyone who used video conferencing for extended periods of time started feeling more tired at the end of the day than they normally were. It turns out that Zoom fatigue is the culprit however suggestions to combat it soon appeared as well.

So are you tired yet? I know I am.

A community of inquiry, as described by Garrison, Anderson, and Archer, is a community of teachers and learners that relies on the interaction of three core elements: cognitive presence, social presence, and teaching presence. As is emphasized in their article, and the many others that followed it, a successful online course depends on the development of this community of inquiry that successfully integrate all three elements. My own experience, as a learner and as a teacher can attest to this. However, it’s not an easy goal to accomplish and a lot of effort and thought is necessary to be successful.

As I plan my course for the fall, I am intrigued by how I can successfully develop a course that meets all the requirements. According to Garrison, Anderson and Archer, while cognitive presence, “the extent to which the participants in any particular configuration of a community of inquiry are able to construct meaning through sustained communication” is the most basic element, it is heavily dependent on the other two. Social presence, “the ability of participants in the Community of Inquiry to project their personal characteristics into the community, thereby presenting themselves to the other participants as ‘real people.'” Finally, teaching presence, is defined as the function of the teacher to design the educational experience and the shared function of the teacher and the learners to facilitate the course. So how can these elements be combined in a successful course?

The cognitive presence in the course will be constructed through the materials available in the course. The goal is to identify the essential learning that students should accomplish in the course. This, as my colleague Lauren Tucker explains, refers to identifying those things that we want students to be able to do when they leave the course. This will help define the learning activities in the course as well as how the students will demonstrate their learning. A careful consideration will help construct the learning activities in a way that stimulate critical thinking and a meaningful application of the concepts learned.

The cognitive presence will be supported by the social and teaching presence. By using another concept that Lauren Tucker describes well in her training video, Universal Design for Learning (UDL), I can establish my teaching presence and encourage meaningful cognitive and social presence. By using multiple means of engagement, I can engage students in a variety of types of work, from group assignments to individual work, discussions and short lectures on the various concepts of the course. By employing multiple means of representation, I can provide students with a variety of resources to engage them with the class. I can provide text materials in the form of articles to read, I can provide presentations that use screen capture to show them different tools, and I can use YouTube videos that present the perspective and experience of others. By employing multiple ways of expression I can incorporate writing, video and text into the course. For example, faculty and student introductions, so essential to establishing social presence in an online course, can be done via written text, audio, or through the integration of a more whimsical technology platform, such as Flipgrid. All this is reliant on that teaching presence that requires the work in setting up the course, the involvement in facilitating student conversations and in allowing students to engage in conversations within the course that they themselves facilitate.

Creating a community of inquiry and conducting a successful course is not easy. I’ve both failed myself and have participated in courses where the community was not well established. I have participated in online courses where the instructor asked students to read the book and answer the questions at the end of the chapter. If we didn’t hear from him, everything was good. Clearly the teaching presence was not established in a course like this and it led to a lack of social presence and a minimal cognitive presence. However, these failures are not always easy to catch and understand. I’ve also conducted courses where the group discussions did not go as well as I anticipated or wanted. Group discussions in an online course are hard to construct and manage. They require a deep and thoughtful approach that combines both cognitive and teaching presence. Students can easily get lost in the demands of the topic or their responses to their peer comments can end up being minimal and consist of “I agree with…”

I’ve also taken online courses that were rewarding, where the instructor clearly established all three elements and the level of engagement from all students was great. That showed me that while on the ground courses are sometimes more comfortable to create and conduct, well designed and run online courses can work just as well if not even better. As the research shows, students in an online course can have the ability to interact with each other in an asynchronous environment that allows time for reflection and encourages critical thinking leading to richer discussions and participation from students who might not participate in a fast moving on-the ground discussion.

As Laura Gogia talks about in her blog, a Community of Inquiry has the potential of extending learning into the creation of Personal Learning Networks (PLNs) and e-portfolios.  The two tools, if employed correctly can lead to life long learning, the stimulation of ideas, and the creation of knowledge that is not necessarily possible when conducting scholarship within the closed walls of a classroom or office.

One of the most interesting things to follow during the pandemic has been the relationship between the media, education, and politics. When states suddenly closed in March, schools, both in higher ed and k-12, scrambled to move online. While most colleges and universities had at least some online teaching and learning presence prior to the pandemic, for most k-12 schools it was a brand new experience that they never considered. In addition to the teaching and learning considerations most schools, both in higher ed and k-12, bumped up against a problem that they had long ignored: the lack of equal access to technology. Some schools provided their students with tablets or laptops to take home and internet service providers promised free access for those who couldn’t afford it. However, not all schools could afford to provide their students with the technology or if they did, still had no access to the internet.

For those who were fortunate enough to gain access to a computer and internet, they quickly found out that the level of education was hit or miss. Many faculty members in higher education and teachers in k-12 had no idea how to teach online leaving parents and students frustrated. Some students stopped trying or couldn’t access remote learning and Zoom bombing disrupted courses. Higher education institutions had to refund dorms and meal plans.  Higher education students who realized they were not getting the experience they were promised started asking for tuition refunds from schools.

All in all, the remote teaching and learning experience was painful for most teachers and learners whether in higher ed or k-12. Unfortunately, the battle was just starting. While schools had no option in the Spring but to go online, the fall is another case. This is where the media, the politics, and the social are now entangled in an ugly war of words and plans, protests and threats, trying to figure out what education will look like in the fall. One thing that we’re fairly certain of, is that the pandemic will be with us in the fall as well. The Trump administration has threatened to withhold funding from schools that do not open in the fall. Some universities plan to open with limited capacity, others like the California State University System have long ago announced they would continue remote teaching. The administration first announced that they would refuse visas to international students who don’t have courses on campus and then backtracked on that decision. To make things even more difficult, the CDC has been withholding documents that may help in the reopening decision process.

Meanwhile k-12 teachers in some states where Covid infections are out of control are protesting against fall reopening and filing lawsuits. While some parents want their children to head back to school, others are protesting reopening plans. To compound everything, teachers in k-12 have limited days of professional development while in higher education faculty, who are not employed during the summer, are working on their own time to learn as much as they can about remote teaching so that they provide a better experience in the fall. Schools that are planning on reopening are cognizant of the fact that they may, at any point, return to online learning but are nevertheless investing in technologies designed to teach both on the ground and online. Students who had 60 days of free internet from ISPs will still have to figure out how to gain access to the internet again and schools that could not afford to provide technology to their students will have to try yet again to find the resources necessary. Colleges and universities are worried about funding and lost income, starting to turn to layoffs. College students want a discount for remote fall courses while faculty are worried about their health and some don’t want to teach in person.

Throughout all this, the media has generated a veritable virtual dump of articles around education issues with thousands and thousands of pages filled with opinions, announcements of doom and gloom, and taking of one side or another. They are a mirror of our society and leadership which provided more of the same. Now, more than ever, we need to be cognizant of the dangers and work towards constructive solutions to issues that either only arose because of the pandemic or were unearthed by it. We need to acknowledge the problems but try to find solutions. As a society, we need to curb our desire for schadenfreude and realize that the success of our society and our future, lie in the education of the generations that will follow us. Our students of today cannot become the “forgotten generation” because it will have an impact on all of us as well as our future.