Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning
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.
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Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning
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NOT HARDWARE OR SOFTWARE, BUT THE (HARD) SOFT TOUCH
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.
"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"
He That Shall Lose Himself . .