Recently, I attended a workshop on assessing student readiness for online learning with some colleagues from other local colleges and universities. That morning, we spent two hours discussing how to assess student readiness for taking online and hybrid courses. This lively workshop included discussions about: face-to-face vs. online, self-paced tutorials; whether or not preparations should also be assessing students’ academic abilities; transfer and nontraditional students who don’t have the same support networks that traditional freshmen have; and which factors we should be assessing to determine “readiness.” Many of the workshop participants lamented about the amount of time they’ve had to spend on technology training because it has cut into the time they need to teach traditional analog skills like proper writing, citation, computation, etc. It seemed like a hard issue to solve, as student learning varies a great deal, and it’s very difficult to provide a one-size-fits-all solution for situations like this (and that, unfortunately, is what colleges and universities want from a management perspective).
Many of my colleagues felt they were not able to provide students with same sense of presence and engagement they had in a face-to-face class. Then it occurred to me that this conversation may need to be looked at from the a different perspective. I derailed the conversation for a few minutes by asking, “So, whose readiness are we really assessing?” In most developed countries, students expect that they will need a computer for college. The majority have cell phones as well as other electronic devices that permit them to be online all of the time. I’ve seen young people type with their thumbs faster than I can type with both hands. They are always connected to an online environment and always conversing with someone (or several people), even as they are in the classroom (unfortunately). Since they’re already so good at technology, the real question is: are we ready to meet them where they are?
If we ask ourselves the questions: How we are preparing to teach a new generation of students who learn differently? Are we ready for students who have a different approach to gathering information and who have a greater level of technology access than we ever did? It turns out that we’re doing this backward most of the time. We are trying to make sure that students are ready to learn online in our way, not theirs. The truth is that they were already learning online long before they came to us. Let’s take a look at the pre-existing knowledge students have:
1. They know how to conduct research online.
2. They are familiar with linked and embedded videos.
3. They participate in discussions online, in which they read, post commentary, and engage with other individuals’ posts.
4. They know how to attach files of many types (documents, pictures, video, etc.) and submit them online.
5. They are familiar with online assessments though participation in interactive online quizzes and polls.
6. They play video games, so they are familiar with frequent low-stakes assessments and the reward systems.
7. Video games also give them an understanding of long-term strategy and planning. This makes them capable of setting long-term goals, breaking those goals down into smaller component parts, and then prioritizing time accordingly.
8. Any online forum, game or communication tool they’ve utilized has familiarized them with the basic principles of group work.
9. By using many websites curated and moderated by others, they have also become familiar with learning management systems.
This changes the conversation a little. Since our students already have the technology skills they will need to be successful in our classes, the technology training can be virtually eliminated from the equation. Unbelievable, I know, but students and faculty have the same goals! It’s the packaging that has to change, because they don’t fit into the box we arbitrarily created a while back called “Online Learning Readiness.” The real question is: how we will use the technology we have to leverage the skills they have in order to produce a successful learning experience? In terms of departmental and faculty preparation, here are some important points to consider when attempting to meet them in the middle:
1. Is there an easy-to-access point of entry to an online course?
2. Does it provide clear and concise directions on what to do and where to proceed?
3. Are course objectives explicit and measurable?
4. Are we, as faculty, producing exercises that: are easy to participate in (or providing clear directions), that provide the least amount of barriers for entry for all students, and that removes technology training through interaction with students in ways they are already used to?
5. Do you know how to search and filter all of the information and misinformation, and to teach students how to conduct thorough research in your discipline?
As a graduate student, and later as a professor in Iowa, I first experienced the previous generation of instructional technology. They called it “distance education” back then, and that’s exactly what it was: I taught in a physical classroom with a camera trained on me and one on the students. Iowa has invested in technology called the ICN, or Iowa Communications Network, which connects a classroom (at least one per county, and many counties have several locations) to other classrooms all over the state with similar technology at each location, so there were classrooms at colleges and universities, public libraries, and public schools. A console at any location allows the instructor to show slides, videos and generally do most of what would happen in a classroom, except that students at other locations watch through large monitors and communicate through microphones at their tables. This model now sounds very dated, as the mass availability of relatively speedy Internet connections has made it possible for students to stay home and do the same things. However, given the technology available at the time it was installed, it was brilliant packaging in that it allowed students from many different locations to participate in live, real time discussions and class sessions without having to travel hundreds of miles to assemble for a face to face class. Although it has a huge geographic area to cover, the ICN does a great job at bringing everyone equally to the table. It also does a great job at “meeting students where they are” in terms of technology skills, because in its actual delivery it’s no different than any other face to face class. The only technology skill students need to acquire is how to press the talk button on the table microphone when they want to speak!
Widespread availability coupled with relative ease of use has made the ICN a success. Students are for the most part presented with a model they are familiar with (a classroom environment with tables, chairs and a live instructor) so they can participate fully from the outset. This is the ultimate goal when designing any online or hybrid course; if we can minimize the barriers to participation that could occur, the result is that we will get more student involvement.
I want to note that I am not necessarily advocating that we all abandon our LMSes for Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and whatever else comes next. Some faculty do use these tools in remarkable ways, but you do not have to run out and sign up for any of these now. Instead, think of the skills one of these tools requires, what skills it cultivates, and how those skills could be useful in an academic setting, especially as applied to your course materials. You can probably find a way to adapt something within your LMS or another tool you already use to provide a similar experience, and obtain similar results. Since it’s about what the students do, not the tool, as long as you can make the procedure relatively painless and ask motivating questions, you will be rewarded with steady, eager participation. How can you make a (covert) learning experience in your course as rewarding for a student as one they voluntarily participated in (like a video game they played with friends over the weekend)? Or at least, how can you use what they already know how to do to create a memorable learning experience?
It doesn’t take a lot of research to figure out that our students and their expectations in education are changing, and the tools and opportunities available to us are changing too. Rather than paving over old cow paths, or dusting off the same boxes we have always been using, maybe it’s worth taking a look at the boxes our students are bringing with them and trying a little harder to find some common ground. It can be surprising how effective a little outreach can be!