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Not Hardware or Software, But the (Hard) Soft Touch

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

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To shift the metaphor slightly, the teacher never becomes "the life of the party"; the learning always is. But the learning would not happen were it not for the teacher's skills as a superb host.


The role of the teacher in online learning is the subject of much

discussion. In this interesting commentary, but James Rhem,

executive editor of the National Teaching and Learning Forum, looks

at the importance of the "softer" aspects of discourse, reflection,

communication, and interaction. It is from the National Teaching and

Learning Forum Newsletter, March 2001, Volume 10, Number 3. ?

Copyright 1996-2001. Published by Oryx Press in conjunction with

James Rhem & Associates, Inc. (ISSN 1057-2880) All rights reserved

worldwide. Reprinted with permission.


Rick Reis

UP NEXT: Serving on Promotion and Tenure Committees

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning


---------------------- 1,611 words ----------------------


James Rhem, Executive Editor


One year into a three year grant from the National Science Foundation

to help educators in science and math develop online courses, George

Collison and his colleagues at the Concord Consortium realized the

experience they were having was its own subject matter. Understanding

and coping with the problems of teaching and learning online became

vital to achieving the goals of their grant. It also yielded a

universe of reflection and analysis out of which they've mapped one

of the best books around on online learning. The book "Facilitating

Online Learning: Effective Strategies for Moderators," by George

Collison, Bonnie Elbaum, Sarah Haavind and Robert Tinker (Atwood

Publishing: Madison, WI, 2000) rises above the clamor of similar

titles because, rather than focusing on software and technical

mechanics, it concentrates on discourse, reflection, communication,

interaction - the fundamental human components of powerful teaching

and powerful learning.

At the end of the first year, Collison and the others could see the

problems: being a "moderator" wasn't quite the same as being a

"teacher" in the classic sense, at least it couldn't be if student

learning were to be active, "authentic" and more than a passive

exercise in memorization carried out with high-tech equipment. An

online teacher, a moderator, was more like "a guide on the side"

instead of a "sage on the stage." These characterizations have become

cliches in the rhetoric of advocates of non-teacher-centered

pedagogies. Seldom have the practical and theoretical implications of

being a "guide on the side" been so well explored or so clearly

articulated as they are here.

Beyond Cliches

"College professors have a big problem with this persona," said

Collison in a recent telephone interview. "When they pose questions

or summarize, you hear the voice of authority right in the middle

dispensing the information; they have a heck of a time." Medical

people and ethics people do well quickly in learning this new mode of

teaching, he says, "because they have to listen and then make sense

of what they hear. They have to get their persona out of the way."

As Collison readily points out, the book offers "a book of practice,"

a book of synthesis, not a new theory or original thinking. Richard

Rorty (Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature), Peter Senge (The Fifth

Discipline), John Dewey (Logic: The Theory of Inquiry) and others

laid the intellectual foundations.

While the book does talk about "the water cooler" (a section of the

course Web site devoted to more social interactions) and "threaded

discussions," and other technical design issues, it doesn't spend

much time on them. The time it does spend connects directly to the

more important matters in making online teaching effective - the

nature of a discourse community, the differences between social,

argumentative and pragmatic dialogue, the importance of tone and of

"voice" or persona and the importance of variety in tone, voice, and

persona. And beyond that, the critical thinking strategies needed to

keep online discussions from "wallowing in the shallows" by shaping

them into "reasoned discourse."

The "Life" of the Party

You begin to get an idea of the difference in the perspective

presented here when you learn that the authors call many of a

moderator's postings "interventions," not "contributions." But even

that may be misleading. The "interventions" don't assert authority so

much as they hold a mirror up to what's going on and prod it to go

deeper. In the teaching model presented here, the moderator/teacher

remains central, but not in the center. The heart of the teaching and

learning beats in the inquiry the students and moderator enact.

Inquiry, not the teacher's information or authority, creates the

pulse; the moderator acts as a pacemaker and - at times, when things

have stalled - a defibrillator. To shift the metaphor slightly, the

teacher never becomes "the life of the party"; the learning always

is. But the learning would not happen were it not for the teacher's

skills as a superb host.

College professors who begin trying to operate as effective online

moderators, Collison reports, often say "It's going to take me

forever to learn to do this." In fact, they learn to adapt much more

quickly - by week six or seven in a ten week course. And they'd learn

much faster if they didn't already know so much to begin with, that

is to say, if they did not already have firmly held notions about a

teacher's proper persona and a teacher's proper role. (Usually they

see themselves as "conceptual facilitators" rather than "mediators"

or "counselors.")

He That Shall Lose Himself . .