Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning
The posting below expresses some further ideas about online learning in response to Msg. #601 THE DOs AND DON'Ts OF ONLINE LEARNING. It is by Professor Amram Eshel, Department of Plant Sciences, Tel-Aviv University, who can be reached at: .
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Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning
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FURTHER IDEAS ABOUT "DOs AND DON'Ts OF ONLING LEARNING"
A recent posting in TOMORROW'S PROFESSOR(SM) MAILING LIST entitled "THE DOs AND DON'Ts OF ONLINE LEARNING" presented a rather grim view of the experience of instructors who are involved in this mode of teaching. This is a discouraging situation when we think that we make a great progress investing large amounts of money and human resources in making the on-line platforms available and end up with disappointed and frustrated instructors. These feelings are probably reciprocated by similar ones at the students' side.
Reading the entries in this posting made me realize that many of the complaints raised with respect to the way the students behave in on-line environment are not unique to this mode of learning, but are relevant to learning situations in general. However, it does not have to be that way. In the following text I intend to clarify that some of these negative feelings are based on misconceptions that lead to unrealistic expectations by the instructors. Later I will suggest techniques that can help in guiding students towards the desired conduct, emphasizing those that are especially effective for on-line teaching.
The first misconception stems probably from the opening question that was posed to the instructors who took part in the study "How should students go about establishing a good instructor/student relationship with you?" The implicit notion that the students are responsible for the instructor/student rapport is erroneous. The responsibility for establishing and maintaining civilized atmosphere and proper behavior in the classroom or in the on-line teaching environment is totally with the instructor. This is not always an easy task and is influenced by numerous factors which are outside our control, from student age to the time-of-day that the class takes place and many others in between. Nevertheless, the instructor is the one who sets the rules for the activities in the teaching environment and should use disciplinary, or better other means which I will describe later, in order to make sure that those rules are upheld.
The second misconception is exemplified in the following answer by one of the instructors "Students obviously glean instructors' favor by being dedicated, hard working, and willing to go the extra mile to learn." This is an unrealistic expectation. Nature favors those forms which make the most gain for the least effort. In biology they are called "the fittest" in engineering "the most efficient" and in economics "the most profitable". Going a truly "extra mile", meaning without gaining anything for it, goes against the grain of human behavior. The good news is that students as other humans view non-materialistic entities such as recognition, praise and a good grade as a gain worthwhile making an effort for. Instructors should use that as means to achieve the ends they want. I will explain later how that can be done.
I am now getting to the Dos. What are the actions the instructor, and especially the on-line one, can take in order to have students act the way it will be acceptable and meet all the expectations. The most important thing is stating clearly and in full your expectations from the students. Do not be annoyed by "those who assume I should be online 24/7 to answer their questions". Simply state: "Questions will only be answered once a day, in the afternoon except on weekends" or whatever you see appropriate. This way they will know what to expect and act upon it. Anyone who does not comply will not get it his way. It is very important to lay down those ground rules clearly at the start. Do not give the students the feeling that you invent them as you go along. These rules should be put in writing and made available to all students. Here is an advantage for using a course website, no one can say they misplaced that page or wasn't there when it was handed out. Make sure it is mar!
ked clearly and easy to find in your website and refer to it in your answers and instructions.
Another effective communication tool, that is used in numerous websites in order to lower the burden of repeating answers, is having a "FAQ's" section in your website. This is especially important if there are many technical details the students should be familiar with in order to perform their assignments. When you get questions related to an item you took the trouble to explain among the FAQ's simply answer by "See FAQ #X". They will soon come to recognize it as a valuable resource to check instead of writing and waiting for this simple answer.
Remember that the responsibility for establishing and maintaining a courteous atmosphere in the teaching environment lies totally with you. If you act that way, in most cases students would respond in a similar fashion. Address your students respectfully and try to start every communication with a positive note, even if your main message is criticizing e.g., "I appreciate the effort you made, however ..." There will always be those who require a disciplinary action, but in order for it to be effective they should be informed what are they disciplined for, and the ground rules I mentioned earlier will be of great assistance here.
I suggest you set aside a certain fraction of the final grade for management purposes. Much the same way that my elementary school teacher used to give 5 points for tidiness and 5 points for clear handwriting out of the grade of every paper we handed in. If you want the students to make an effort, make it worthwhile to them by giving extra points. For example, if you want them to search the literature for certain information, announce that the first one who will post the correct reference will gain some points towards the final grade. Give them points for participation, if this is important, but remember that stalkers may learn as much as those who are active. This may work both ways. A good technique that reduces tardiness is announcing that a certain amount of points will be deducted from late submissions for every day that passes since the deadline. By giving points for meeting your demands and deducting points for failing to do so you establish an atmosphere of student a!
ccountability that should be of general educational value.
Finally, plagiarism can be dealt with rather effectively in on-line courses. I do that by announcing that after all papers will be submitted electronically they will be posted in the course website under their names for everybody to see. I do not see any problem with that. Student papers are not privileged information as long as you do not openly publish the grade each one was given. This will eliminate copying form one another and obvious cut-and-paste from common resources. In my experience it will also make the students regard their assignments more seriously. They usually regard peer opinion higher than that of the instructor, and would not want to be caught by their friends doing a sloppy or a dishonest job. Another use of this is when you think they can learn by reading each other's works e.g., seeing other points of view or different styles. I use a polling tool available in our on-line teaching platform to get the students elect the best paper. This make them read t!
he papers you posted, provided there are not too many students in the group. The winner is recognized and may also get an extra point.
In summary, it is the instructor who is responsible for the student behavior in the teaching environment. By encouraging desired behavior and discouraging undesired one the instructor should maintain good and productive atmosphere. A precondition for it is setting clear ground rules at the start and making them known to everybody. Giving appropriate rewards will persuade the students to make the efforts you expect them to do.