Flexibility

Some years ago, I taught a few online courses for one of the for-profit online universities. Afterward, I felt a little sorry for the students, for I didn’t think they were getting their money’s worth—a local community college would have been cheaper, and the students would have had much more direct interaction with their teacher—and the teacher would have been in more control of the course, able to meet unusual needs or take an unscheduled detour when needed. With the same group of students in a ‘traditional’ environment, I am sure I could have aided the students much more than I did online.

That doesn’t mean that I condemn online learning—or even that it is second-rate compared to classroom situations. The problem, in this instant (and, unfortunately, in most for-profit online situations), is that the school is attempting to mass-produce its courses. It is trying to make teachers identical cogs in the machine of education, replaceable at will.

That doesn’t work.

When I agreed to teach online, I didn’t realize how limited my options as a teacher would be—or that I would be overseen by people not as qualified in my field as I was and whose specialty was teaching methodology. Wedded to a particular mindset by training, they and the school were further constrained by the design of the program used for class interaction, a program built on certain assumptions about learning, about students, and about teachers and constructed inflexibly, as though these assumptions were truths.

Though I have sometimes taught via use-specific educational programs since, I now gravitate away from them, for all of them force the teacher into specific patterns of instruction, though I doubt that is often their intent. The people who have built the programs have their own ideas on what effective learning is—and what good teaching is—and, quite naturally, construct their platforms for online teaching along those lines. They aren’t as interested in flexibility as in ease of use in a pattern they have accepted.

They also tend to center on the needs of the teacher and not so much on those of the learner—but I’ll deal with that another time.

What I am interested in at the moment is the assumption that there is one way of teaching, and that it works best for everyone in all situations.

This just isn’t true. Different students learn different subjects in different ways at different times. Different teachers, also, teach effectively for different students at different times and, again, in different ways. Flexibility is at the heart of good education. The two basic requirements for effective teaching are flexibility and the ability to find ways to motivate students. This is the basis, if an unconscious one, of our systems of multiple teachers at any one time—once students get past grammar school. Students are exposed to a number of teaching styles, and they start to find the ways of learning that work best for them, and start to learn to be able to adapt even to situations which are less than perfect for the particular individual. The students, ideally and in addition to the content of each course, learn flexibility, and also learn what motivates them.

When I’ve added an online component to my courses over the past few years, I’ve avoided things like Blackboard, using freely available wikis and blogs, creating what I need out of the Web—or asking students to do it (even better). This provides flexibility and keeps me from relying on the ideas of others about how education should unfold. It also means I can change things at will, dropping the blog if it isn’t working well—or adding something that might, given the particular class. That’s a little more difficult in the closed environments of most online-learning situations.

They are closed in another way: the entire class generally “exists” within the confines of the program. I’m moving to a place where I don’t see that as such a good idea. If anything, I want my classes to be “hybrid,” taking advantage both of the Internet and the classroom. Giving me, again, flexibility, and allowing me another platform for motivating the students. And broadening the student’s learning experience.

The pattern I’m following towards an expansive learning environment is the pattern I spoke of in my last post, followed by the people who had been involved in programmed instruction in the 1950s. They realized that programmed instruction—or programmed learning—works best when simply one component of any particular course, and that it works best for mastering facts. They realized that a teacher should not rely on any one technique or methodology, but should develop situations promoting variety in student activities, in learning processes, and in presentations by the teachers themselves.

When I say I want to start where the student is, I also want it assumed that I understand that there are a number of pathways between that point and the goal at course’s end. And that those paths aren’t mutually exclusive. Until they can provide the variety I need, I don’t believe I will ever be satisfied with the proprietary educational systems for online instruction that are now—or that will be—available.

Until flexibility and multiple ways to motivate are build into online courses, I don’t think students in them will ever be getting their money’s worth. And I don’t think I shall be using them again. Not alone, at least.

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