Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Virtual Education Students: Breaking Bad Habits and Stimulating New Habits:Part I

A good question that should be asked in virtual education is what are our expectations of students in this new environment and what counter-productive online habits need to be broken?
If you suggest that they are the same bad habits that exist in the brick and mortar school, then you are not using your imagination and are being a little naive.
Having taught as an active online educator for a number of years, I have learned that the Internet environment has bred a whole new myriad of bad habits that are germane to this environment.

One of the most difficult for students to break is the temptation to plagiarize. I know that you will say that the problem exists in the brick and mortar school but the online environment gives this habit a whole new dimension. In the lives of our students who I will remind you have never known a day when they were not connected to the Internet, there is a culture that suggests that everything that is put on the Internet should be free to use. This has been further fostered by vigorous attempts to resist the ability of governments to regulate the Internet. Ethical hackers and black hat hackers are united in this resistance against government regulation. For our students, the concept of intellectual property and ownership on the Internet is a foreign concept. The downloading of everything from music to games to videos without paying a royalty for use to the author has been going on for years. This is the background that our students come from. So, the obvious question is how do you counter this temptation in an online education system?
I have been fortunate to be involved with one of the better virtual schools in North America, if not the best. The problem of plagiarism was encountered in the early life of the school. First and most important a school has to acknowledge that plagiarism is unacceptable for any student and has to be willing to consistently enforce a policy on plagiarism. Obviously, students need to be informed right at the time of registration what plagiarism is, why it is not acceptable and how the school will deal with plagiarism. This must be made clear to the student and the student needs to sign off on the policy. The policy that the aforementioned school used is that they defined two types of plagiarism: (1) Negligent Plagiarism is where the student plagiarized as a result of laziness or carelessness. A procedure for the teacher was laid out that described what to do instances of this type of plagiarism which was based on the number of instances, (2) Deliberate Plagiarism is where the student knew what he or she was doing and went to pains to hide or cover their tracks. This was of course dealt with more harshly with an final result of a student be de-registered, loss of their tuition fee and the instance being recorded on their official academic record.
To make sure that a student understands what is expected of them, a way to get this across is to set up a tutorial that a student must take before gaining access to their course and on completion of the tutorial, they must pass a quiz to test their understanding which they must pass before gaining access to their course. Also, there would be a line for their digital signature acknowledging the taking of the tutorial and the results. This would then be stored so that teachers would have access to it in the school who see a need to review it. This method was similar to what the virtual school did that i was involved in. I do know that some educators used the "Turnit In" service as one method of checking the integrity of student work.

A second problem has more to do with the nature of lesson design than it has to do with the students. In an online environment, you can't design lessons that ask a student to relate information only. This type of lesson is self-defeating if it ends at that point. Students must become involved in "thoughtful engagement" with the subject matter. They must see that this work is more than just cutting and pasting information off the Internet. If that does not happen then another bad habit emerges which is the overuse of Wikipedia in assignments. With the rich resources of the Internet available to students, we want them to seek out primary resources that allow students to sample the thoughts and arguments of leading people in the topics being accessed. As a teacher this presents a host of teaching opportunities such as teaching students how to evaluate websites in terms of either good and relevant or bad and a waste of their time.

A third problem involves something that students already know how to do, that being making connections. Students already make connections through social media such as Face Book, Twitter,...etc. with people of their own age. The question is how do you harness this skill for educational purposes that will advance their learning? There are experts who have expertise in a variety of fields who are willing to volunteer some of their time to help a student advance their education. A teacher can also set up learning experiences within a course that has the student come together with students in other parts of the world to work on a project with an expert as one of the mentors. Making relevant connections is important in assessment for learning when it comes to an online education environment.

More later.....

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