Students connecting as online teachers and learners in the Faculty of Education at Western University
Professor John Barnett in the Faculty of Education at Western University has been teaching a fully online graduate-level course called Teaching in a Virtual World for the past three years. His focus is making the learning experience more human through the appropriate use of technology to amplify students’ abilities. Central to this is connectivism, a learning theory that stresses that learning is more about making connections – whether with people, content, ideas, and/or machines – than about remembering specific content. Reflecting this theory, the course he offers features collaborative learning, student choice, development, and moderation of content, peer assessment, and the instructor functioning as a co-learner.
Teaching in a Virtual World provides students with the opportunity to teach and learn online, while examining the issues and relationships between evolving technologies and the educational environment. Registrations in the course include not only students from the Faculty of Education, but also requests from Health Sciences and Information Media Studies students and others. The course is structured so that each student researches, creates, prepares, moderates, and assesses an online module, related to their expertise and interests. As well, they contribute to the discussions as part of the modules of other students.
Choosing a Module: Prior to the start of the course, Dr. Barnett posts a list of possible topics on the course web site. Students may pick one of these or submit an idea related to their own particular interests. The module topics in past courses included online communication, safety, assessment, Indigenous education, multicultural education and science education. The focus is always on the online aspects; for example, looking at the theories, resources, and experiences of learning and teaching second languages online.
Two topics are then scheduled for each week of the course and students may pick which ones they will follow on a first-come, first-served basis. With 20 students in the course, 10 follow each one of the two topics each week.
Preparing a Module: Students are provided with a variety of materials to guide the development of their modules, with Dr. Barnett posting the first one, which all students take, as an example of structure and approach. In addition, the course web site offers a detailed teaching manual on how to research, write, and illustrate a module, as well as how to facilitate a productive and focused discussion and assess the module and discussion.
For each module, the student prepares a synopsis of the key research on the topic, followed by three open-ended questions to spark discussion and debate, and some of the references that were most useful.
Moderating and Assessing the Discussion: The student who prepared the module also functions as moderator and facilitator of the discussion based on the three questions posed. This involves commenting on posts, adding new ideas, keeping the discussion on topic, and adding a final summary. The moderator is expected to check the site about five times a day to track and facilitate participation and may alert Dr. Barnett to any posts they consider inappropriate.
After the module is completed, the moderator/student also assesses the module itself and the participation of the other students. This forms part of the assessment of the moderators as the professor compares their impressions with his own. Student assessments of other students are not a factor in the evaluation of the participating students.
The preparation, moderation, and assessment of the module are worth 40% of a student’s final grade.
Participating in Modules: Students registered in each module are expected to contribute to the discussion at least three times during the week, with posts of between 50-150 words. These posts are to be on three separate days, as a way of encouraging the students to follow the discussion and make connections with the content, their reading, and experience.
The online Course Requirements page provides detailed explanations of the requirements – particularly for appropriate participation in discussion, critiquing of ideas, and substantiating ideas. Dr. Barnett also provides multiple examples of posts that would merit full, partial, and no marks – awarding full marks to those which advance the discussion through adding new ideas, synthesizing those already offered, constructively critiquing an idea, or posing an insightful question.
Participation in each module is worth 3% of the final mark – for a total of 30% for overall participation in the 10 modules each student has chosen. As the course is structured around making connections, contributing to the discussions is essential.
Final Presentation: Students are put together in teams of two to synthesize the modules they have created and taught, using Prezi presentation software. The emphasis is on blending what they learned into one presentation – not a simple chronological discussion of each topic. This is worth 30% of the final grade.
Outcomes and Benefits
Dr. Barnett describes many students as “blossoming” as they develop subject expertise and moderate the discussion during their modules. Most enjoy the opportunity to practice teaching online, to learn by making connections between their readings, and the discussions, and to develop an understanding of the multiple ways that technology can make a difference in education. As potential online teachers, they have gained experience in both teaching and learning online.
Consistent with the emphasis on connectivism, student moderators are supported in developing the ability to ‘read between the lines’ and so work with other students in terms of what they are learning, how they are responding, and what they may be experiencing as students in the class.
The students are exposed to current learning theories concerning online learning from a variety of angles and, through the discussions, consider implications and shape their own opinions.
The online course has been extensively re-structured over the three years that it has been offered, based on student feedback. This has included the inclusion of a Quick Start Guide that summarizes all the components and the Teaching Manual with full instructions on leading a module.
Challenges and Enhancements
The structure presents challenges to students as they are required to be self-directed and disciplined in taking charge of their own learning. The initial reactions are often apprehension and anxiety, but most students come to enjoy both the independence and connectedness of the course. For students who prefer a highly structured learning environment, it can be an ongoing challenge.
The professor carefully monitors each module, provides extra guidance to individual students on assignments and discussion participation, and assesses each student’s participation on a weekly basis – all of which are highly demanding in terms of time.
The true nature of connectivism implies an equality of participants – which is not possible within an academic environment with the professor having responsibility for the awarding of grades.
Dr. Barnett is particularly interested in the challenge of making education more, rather than less, human through the integration of technology. He sees connectivism as offering great potential for achieving this.
To further explore its possibilities and limitations, Dr. Barnett and two students who had just completed the course, conducted an online discussion over nine weeks on how the course was effective in being connectivist and its weaknesses. They prepared an article on their themes and conclusions, entitled “Connected Teaching and Learning: The Uses and Implications of Connectivism in an Online Class”, which is in press (as of July 2013) at The Australasian Journal of Educational Technology.
Dr. Barnett is willing to share his experience and research and would like to see more faculty and instructors using and assessing connectivism in their online teaching and learning.
For Further Information
Dr. John Barnett Associate Professor Science and Technology Education Faculty of Education Western University [email protected]