Thursday, October 30, 2014

E-Learners of the Future--The Need for a Sense of Community--Part II

The question posed in the last post was:

"How Do We Create a Sense of Community in Online Education?"

I suggested to you that I have an idea that I would like to further elaborate on in this post on how we might accomplish this feat. This is an idea that is based on observation and to many of you it will surprise you as to where we can seek guidance on this.

This is a concept that has its origins in the military sector. Consider the concept of the "boot camp". When men and women enlist in one of the military services that serve different countries around the world, they enlist as individuals who usually do not know each other, don't know each others skills, talents and weaknesses. They are individuals interested in serving their respective countries. Boot camp does the following things to these individuals:

  • it gives them a powerful purpose
  • it seeks to downplay individualism in favour of team work
  • in training together, each individual gets more in tune with his or her abilities but also begins to recognize and appreciate the skills and talents that they don't have that they see in other recruits.
  • some who are unable to meet the challenges that they face during this phase, leave the group
  • when their group or team faces a challenge, they coordinate their resources to meet the challenge and arrive at a solution. Their resources are the different skill sets that each member brings to the collaboration.
  • their training officers are more or less mentors
  • the recruits become a community with a group identity and a powerful purpose
I know that you are probably thinking that the phrase "boot camp" is an unfortunate one to link with education because it brings to mind negative connotations related to experiences in brick and mortar schools that may have not been too pleasant. However, the key is here is how we would set something up that would build a sense of community right at the start of registration in an online education organization.


So, how would we set something like this up in an online education organization? Keep in mind that we are no longer following the industrial model of education and instead focusing on a model that sees the role of the students and educators as change agents in society so that a culture of innovation may become systemic throughout the working lives of a digital generation. Here are some suggestive steps to be incorporated into the protocols of an online education organization:

  1. First instead of calling this starting phase "boot camp", lets call it the "exploration" phase. This will negate any preconceptions that students and educators might have. The goals of this exploration phase are:
  • to assess the aptitudes that students are bringing into the online education organization. In other words we want to know what natural abilities the students have. For example, some students might have an aptitude for mathematical thinking, some may have an aptitude for spatial reasoning, some may have an aptitude for logical reasoning, some may have an aptitude for leadership...etc.
  • to introduce to the students the concept of effective online collaboration when faced with a challenge. Students need an opportunity to discover each others talents and to learn to trust the contributions of others in solving a challenge. Students are introduced to the concept of cross disciplinary learning where they learn that in order to analyze and solve a real world problem, skill sets from a variety of disciplines need to be applied.
  • to introduce students to the tools contained in the courses that they will be using throughout their courses.
  • to introduce students to the concept of  using a professional mentor network as an effective resource when their groups are confronted by challenges within their courses. The professional mentor network will also be the group that connects the students up with professional blogs and professional groups where they can present their solutions to real world problems and receive real world feed back.

The way we go about assessing the aptitudes mentioned above will help determine effective collaborative groupings within the courses. Assessment in the exploratory stage happens in two ways:
  1. The Mentor Group Interview:  The mentor group is a group made up of individuals on the leading edge of their disciplines. With the help of educators they are to design a set of interview questions which they feel would effectively measure aptitude in their particular discipline on the part of students. As a panel, the mentor group would interview students using the questions and any other effective resources that would give them an accurate reading of the students' aptitudes and talents. From the data collected, a starting profile of each student could be set up. The profile data would then be discussed within the mentor group with educators taking part in the discussions. The interview could be set up in such a way that when students register with the online organization, they are directed to a link that leads to a virtual interview room where the mentors and the student are represented by avatars of their own choosing prior to entering the room.
  2. Collaborative Exploration Challenge: The second means of assessment, after the interview, is to break students up into collaborative teams and present them with an immersive simulation where they are confronted with a real world issue that they must try to find a solution to. Using avatars they enter into the virtual simulation room that they will use to collaborate to solve the problem. The teacher will be the "guide on the side" offering direction to web resources that might help. The mentor network will be able to watch and hear the collaboration going on. They will take notes with the goal of making student profiles more complete and making a list of suggestions for specific students that will help them become more effective e-learners. The simulation will have a time limit and students will be able to see a digital clock labelled "Simulation Count-Down". At the end of the simulation the mentors will share their insights and observations among themselves and then assign themselves to groups of students to discuss their observations and give students feedback.
I realize that these ideas will obviously need refinement and you might have questions about different phases but always keep in mind that they start with a powerful purpose for the students. The question for you is :" Are you prepared to step outside the box and push the boundaries outside the box until the box disappears?" More later.........


Saturday, October 25, 2014

E-Learners of the Future--Tip #3- The Need for a Sense of Community

In the last post, it was suggested that developing communication skill sets that are in line with the online environment is not only a necessity but also carries with it a responsibility on the part of students, instructors and mentors to make it a priority. Communication is key to developing a sense of community.

As active as social media is, it is still very easy for students to feel isolated or only superficially connected with others. This explains in part the phenomenon of what we call "the lurker" who is a person who accesses sites and reads but never introduces themselves or contributes to the discussions. There is a need to see online education evolve so that a sense of community is created for the participants and learning networks help define the community of learners.


Learning networks will shift more and more to the online world which will offer many opportunities that may have been available to some degree in the traditional model but now are expanded on a global scale.
One of the growing problems with online education organizations and what they offer is the fact that less emphasis is placed on creating a community of learners and more emphasis is placed on students as being consumers. We see this in how students approach online learning. The attitude could be described as "buffet style education" where students register with an organization, shop for what they want and then leave. If we want to establish e-learners as creators of new knowledge and skills with a new powerful purpose, you can see that this attitude is counter productive to the powerful purpose. This approach emphasizes the commercial market perspective where students are treated as customers. This is a remnant of the old model of education, the Industrial Model, where the purpose was to create life long consumers.

Linden Labs, the creators of the virtual world "Second Life" had the right idea at its creation which was to create a community for interaction among learners. We can learn from their successes and their failures when it comes to creating a sense of community in online education.

Credit: Stuart Miles

So, how can we go about creating a sense of community among students who register with an online organization? How can we incorporate the new powerful purpose into the design of the learning experiences that emphasize this new attitude of a collaborative learning community?

I have an idea! I will detail a practical concept that might allow us to develop this attitude among learners at the very start when they register with an online organization to further their education.
This will be my focus in my next post....

Friday, October 24, 2014

E-Learners of the Future: Tip #2- The Rules of Engagement

In the last post, it was suggested that students need a powerful purpose in pursuing their education in the online environment. Without a powerful purpose, many students who have been educated throughout their life in the traditional education systems will simply revert back to that framework bringing with them old habits and with that a growing disconnect and mindset that what they are doing is really meaningless in their world.


In order for e-learners to pursue their education effectively so that it is an enriching experience for them, something needs to be said about the rules of engagement in an online environment.
The way that we communicate in an online environment where education is our focus is different from the way that we communicate when we use the online environment as a function of socialization. If you take a close look at the substance of communication when social media applications such as Twitter, Facebook and Messenger are used, you will notice that communication occurs in short bursts using a scattering of mutually agreed upon acronyms. The real question becomes whether or not students can pursue deeper sustained learning using social media contexts? My response to that is maybe in carefully designed learning experiences these formats are useful. The format and context of communication is as important in the online environment as it is in the traditional school systems. One of the noticeable challenges in dealing with online students is to reinforce the responsibility that they have to communicate not only with each other but especially with their instructors and mentor networks.

The type of communication that students need to be mentored in is what I term "collaborative thinking communication style." This type of communication is not a type that comes naturally to those who have been communicating in the online environment over an extended time. The following conditions need to be presented to students in order for them to have appropriate opportunities to see the benefits of this style of communication when they are given a powerful purpose in their online education:

  1. Collaborative thinking and communication means that you acknowledge that you need to go beyond just communicating with other students on a purely social level and that you need to understand what talents or gifts they bring to the powerful purpose that you are engaged in. For example, one student might have an above average aptitude for mathematical thinking while another might display an above average aptitude for spacial reasoning and yet another might have an above average aptitude for logical reasoning and argumentation.
  2. Individually a student would have difficulty dealing with learning experiences that have challenging problems presented. Together, a problem can be analyzed, understood and potential solutions proposed. This type of communication requires that students value each others contributions to the solution of the problem. The powerful purpose that unites them is their guide.
  3. This type of thinking expects that the goal is to make a difference in solving a real world issue. It does not stop at the hypothetical. 
  4. It is expected that students using this type of thinking will have real and relevant outlets to communicate what they think in an effective manner and trains them how to deal with the feedback that results.
  5. In this type of communication, all possible online forms are available to be used to communicate a coherent solution. For example, 3D graphs, animations, YouTube videos, virtual reality scenarios can all be coordinated in the online environment to communicating solutions.

 If we accept the idea that we want students and educators to be agents of change in our society and that we wish to see a culture of innovation ingrained into the greater education systems, then we want students to be able to think critically with the emphasis on the higher thinking skills as contained in Bloom's revised taxonomy. Our goal is to have student be creators of new knowledge and skill sets. Therefore, in the design of irresistibly engaging learning experiences it is a given that they are designed in such a way as to nurture and reinforce this type of thinking. This is a second rule of engagement.


A third rule of engagement is to encourage a divergent mindset among students when it comes to their approach to their education. Students need the habits of an eclectic in order to bring in diverse ideas within a collaborative group as contributions to the solution of challenging problems contained within learning experiences. They need to be able to look at available resources that could be used in the solution of a problem in a multitude of ways or contexts.

These suggested rules of engagement are not all encompassing. Since online education is evolving, we can expect this list to grow and better reflect the reality that changes as our technology and pedagogy continue to take shape.

Next post........Tip #3

Monday, October 20, 2014

E-Learners of the Future---Tip #1--Students Need a Powerful Purpose!

If we truly want to see students become effective e-learners who will in fact change the world, we need to understand that students need a powerful purpose for working in an online environment. If you were to survey students who are active in the online environment and ask them how they use their time in the online environment, what would you discover?

Credit: Jane

You would discover that students spend a majority of time in social media such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and of course, game playing. The idea of using the online environment effectively to plan their education future is something that is foreign to them. The question is why?
To answer this question we have to look at the purpose of their devotion to online activities. You don't have to be a psychologist to realize that the digital natives of the 21st century have a desire to feel connected to other people in ways that they are denied, living in today's world. They also want to make a difference in the world and not be relegated to contrived classroom experiments where like rats in a maze they go through their paces to reach a prize at the end but are still left with the question: "What have I done in this world that makes any difference at all??"

Students need a powerful purpose to aspire to something that is greater than themselves. The online environment is great for connecting to others and communicating with others who you think you have much in common with but beyond this, there is nothing.

 Students need to know that if they use the online environment for education that there is a powerful purpose for doing so. They need to know the full potential that the online environment has for making a difference in the world and that in this environment, there are no walls and that the opportunity to connect in meaningful ways to students around the world for powerful purposes that will have an impact on the world is real.

Students who enter the online world for the powerful purpose of using education to shape and change their world need to be "de-institutionalized" and mentored by educators who will highlight important issues, guide them in developing the necessary skills sets and inspire them to aspire to powerful purposes that are greater than themselves.These educators may be traditionally trained educators or they may be people on the cutting edge of their disciplines. Our world needs inspired young people to reject the narcissistic attitudes that the old model of education, the industrial model, nurtured in young people for decades. We need students to aspire to a higher altruistic purposes that will benefit generations to come.

So, what I can simply point out is that if you introduce students to online education but in fact put them back on the assembly line model of education, you will do them a great disservice and they will know it. Do not be surprised if they revert back to their social media sites while showing only token interest in your course "in sheep's clothing"!

Next........Tip #2

Friday, October 10, 2014

Transformational Teaching: A New Frontier in E-Learning

The question that still remains is how do we make digital native more effective e-learners? Part of the answer lies with how the instructor approaches teaching and learning. Transformational teaching is an approach based upon the following understandings:

  1. The model and vision of education is that the instructors and learners are in a learning relationship that sees the role of the instructor and learner as agents of change within society. Due to the evolution of technology, the Internet and the desire of society to develop a culture of innovation, the need for educated agents of change is essential.
  2. Working within the online environment with students who have always been connected to the web requires a different approach in the design and instruction of courses. Unlike the practices of the past, it is not reasonable to instruct students to simply gather and repeat content in order to move on in their education. Irresistibly engaging learning experiences that lead students to deeper learning and enable them to be creators of new knowledge and new skill sets needs to become an established norm throughout all levels of education.
  3. Cross disciplinary learning that requires students to use the skills and knowledge of more than one discipline to solve real world issues and have ties to feed back in regards to their solutions from these disciplines is essential.
  4. Collaboration among students tasked to solve real world issues is an essential to this approach.
  5. The formation of real world professional mentor networks whose purpose is to act as a resource as students become new knowledge and skill set creators is important. This coincides with the understanding that cross disciplinary learning is the approach to follow in transformative teaching.
  6. Educators are to form global collaborative networks in order to test and promote an online transformative pedagogy. A symbiotic relationship is to be established among three important elements for transformation: technology, change management and pedagogy.
  7. Students will have ample opportunity to publish their solutions in social media venues and on professional discipline blogs so that they receive real world feedback from those on the cutting edge of their disciplines. This will allow more individual networks with people in the fields that students are most interested in to form.

The purpose of transformative teaching is to teach students how to learn and how to explore and create new knowledge and skill sets that tackle real world scenarios. It is not just to be an isolated classroom experience but instead it is to be global in outlook.

Next post....practical tips for helping e-learners.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Challenging Digital Natives to Become Better E-Learners---De-Programming Instructors--Part II

The last post posed the question:

"Are digital natives automatically good e-learners?"

My response to this question was that this doesn't necessarily turn out to be true in real practice. I would suggest to you the following additional observations about digital natives and e-learning:

  • The assumption that digital natives are proficient with all things involving computers, mobile or otherwise, is false. I base this statement on my experiences both in the brick and mortar classroom and the decade that I have been involved in e-learning. What I have found is that students are proficient in narrow areas of computing such as social media & gaming and to a growing degree, computer coding but in other areas of computing such as computer architecture and networks they are naive. Let me describe to you a personal example from my experience:
"When I was a site administrator for a brick and mortar school, one of the tasks given to me and another instructor was to set up the school's first web site, complete with a picture of the principal and a message to the community. Everything was coming together well until one weekend, a couple of students hacked the school website from home and replaced the picture of the principal with a picture of "Chucky, the Killer Doll" from a movie website. In big letters under the picture, the students left the message "Catch us if you can!". We have to give these students credit for finding a weakness in the school firewall which was in fact the responsibility of the school division's IT department. However, they still didn't understand how networks work and that the service provider could be called to obtain access information to the hosted website. As a result, my partner and myself walked into the class of the two students and walked up to their desks the following Monday and said:"We received your message!".
The students looked amazed and asked how we knew it was them. We told them that the principal and the police are waiting to continue your education dealing with computers."

  • Communication on the Internet, as students have learned it, presents challenges to students when it comes to e-learning courses where more is required than the typical dialogue found on social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter. In order to meet this challenge, teachers need to change the nature of questioning so that it is irresistibly engaging to the students.


What about instructors? One thing that should be made clear is that not every teacher who is proficient in the "brick n' mortar" classroom would necessarily be a good e-learning instructor. There are certain qualities of personality that are necessary for a instructor to be successful in an e-learning environment that actually have an impact on that person's use of pedagogy within an online environment. The following are some suggestions and questions that instructors should think about when it comes to the online education environment:
  1. Are you flexible in your thinking? Can you adapt quickly and effectively to a changing environment? Instructors are human beings like everybody else and as such have strengths and weaknesses. Some instructors have the attitude that they will resist changing their repertoire because something new takes them out of their comfort zone. Surprisingly enough there are still many instructors who are highly resistant to exploring the use of technology in their classroom. Some instructors claim to be skeptics when it comes to technology. Healthy skepticism is a good thing. It is when it gives you a rationale to dismiss every use of technology in education that it becomes very unhealthy for not only the instructor but also the students who he or she instructs.
  2. Are you prepared to take on  new roles that will change the roles that you have had and have been trained in for many years? Are you prepared to step off the stage as the fountain of knowledge and take on new roles as an agent of change, a mentor, a designer..? In the developing culture of innovation, the roles of students and teachers change so that together they become agents of change in society. The combination of evolving technology and transformative pedagogy will bring about a re-visioning of e-learning on a global scale. The key to this will be how we manage change information.
More on the transformation  of instructors and their craft in the next post.....

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Challenging Digital Natives to Become Better E-Learners

We accept the fact that students who live and learn in the 21st century have never known a period of time when they were not connected to the web in some manner. However, we need to ask a very important question which is this:

Are digital natives automatically good e-learners?

I am going to suggest to you that they are not and point to the following problems and suggest that the solutions lie with the learner, the educator , and pedagogy.

Problem #1 --The Need for De-Programming the Learner

Astounding as this may sound, from the time that young people enter school to the time that they leave they are "engineered" socially, emotionally and intellectually to fit a particular mold that was set many years before. Students acquire very specific understandings about education and what is expected of them by the system.

Some of these understandings, up to the point where the world wide web entered their lives in the late 1990's, are:

  • The teacher is the fountain of all knowledge and authority in the school
  • Students are to be compliant and follow directions given by the teacher
  • Always strive to give the "right answer" without questioning the validity of the question that was asked.
  • What happens in school, in the classroom, is not the real world. Thoughts have walls and are not to go beyond the boundaries.
  • To excel in school, you need to get good at telling teachers what they want to hear and expect. You need to follow the guidelines in every subject area in order to pass the exam at the end and graduate into the real world.
Now, add to this list the understandings that occurred when the world wide web grew exponentially in the lives of students. The following understandings arrived in the minds of students:

  • Everything on the Internet is true and free to use without boundaries
  • Teachers don't know everything and based on the Internet are often wrong about what they profess to know about their own subjects
  • I can learn more from the Internet that I want to know than I can from a teacher.
  • The education system that I am a part of is not relevant to my life
  • I am entitled to what I want in life and should not be hindered by others who are not really connected

These understandings and expectations of education are what need to be "unlearned" in the 21st century because they belong to a model of education that was never intended to function effectively in the digital age. It is this programming that students bring with them into the e-learning environment. It is for that very reason that not all students can be successful e-learners. In order for them to be effective e-learners they require instructors who are effective and in synch with the e-learning environment. This brings me to the second problem:

Problem #2- The Need for De-Programming of Instructors

Instructors are the products of their training! Many were trained that they were to be the "sage on the stage" and students came to them with minds that were "tabula rasa". It was their job to fill those minds with the required curriculum and they would be judged by the performance of their students and the school as a whole. They were to follow the curriculum to the letter, follow all procedures, test and re-test. Set aside defective students who didn't measure up for remediation. Students were to reflect their society and not cause trouble to make change as some of their instructors dared to do in the 1960's era of creative chaos. Maintaining the status quo was the mantra of the education system and use the bell curve to illustrate the effectiveness of the system. The right to create change rested with the social elites who paid for private education.

So, what were some of the understandings that instructors brought with them about education? More on this in the next post........