|[ ASCILITE ] [ 2004 Proceedings Contents ] |
Faculty of Education
Australian Catholic University, Canberra
What can the duality of experience of being an online student/ online educator afford? This paper draws on recent literature on reflective practice principles of online learning and teaching to explore experiences from those who have been on both sides - online educators and online students. Educators and online course developers need to hear from student voices in order to inform online pedagogical directions, create innovations and enrich and expand on how to provide stimulating and challenging online learning environments. Educators can do so through engagement in learner roles through experiential online learning, thereby enabling a reframing/ reconceptualisation of online teaching. By listening to student experiences, allowing for a heightened sense of awareness of learner needs, educators gain insights to improve pedagogical practice. By using qualitative in depth interview techniques with 5 online educators/ students across two Australian states, the study explores the vantage points afforded by these experiences. The findings can inform how educators can provide engaging and empowering online teaching and learning environments that move beyond traditional 'comfort zones' and established pedagogies.
The impetus for this paper came about when one of the authors had the opportunity to be enrolled in a postgraduate online subject as a student, having previously been involved in tertiary teaching in online subject environments over 5 semesters. The experience afforded by being an enrolled online student triggered reflections on her own online teaching practices. In turn, the reflections confirmed, challenged and transformed some of her assumptions about online teaching and learning and became a starting point of discussion between the authors to reflect with others who had experienced both roles of online educator and online student. The paper draws some significant inspiration from the work of Elizabeth Burge et al. (2000: online) who emphasise "that it is time now to encourage the writing of intrapersonally reflective and frank records of our experience with Web based practice", out of which began the investigation described in this paper. We first outline the literature on reflective practice and explore the reflective practices of web based practitioners. We then outline our methodology, results and discussion of interviews with 5 online educators/ students across two Australian universities. The research focuses on ways to rethink/improve online teaching through engagement in experiential online learning in order to improve pedagogical practices. Educators achieve improvement by reflecting on and extending their own roles and by listening to student experiences, allowing for a heightened sense of awareness of learner needs. The findings can inform how practitioners can provide engaging and empowering online teaching and learning environments that move beyond traditional 'comfort zones' and established pedagogies. The reflective processes of being an experiential student, of shifting roles- from online educator to online student, can then also contribute to staff development approaches in formal ways, or be part of an individual online educator's activities informally.
However, some have found weaknesses in Schön's approaches, such as Boud and Walker (1998) and Bleakley (1999) who warn of the dangers in 'reflective practice' becoming a 'catch all phrase'. Bleakley advocates moving beyond Schön's 'artistry' notion of reflectivity to 'holistic reflexivity' which is 'reflection as action'. He aims to complexify reflection beyond mere descriptions to address the difficulties of practising it innately and simultaneously reframing, as described by Schön. In addition, Argyris and Schön (1996) distinguish between 'single loop' and 'double loop' learning, where 'single loop' learning involves evaluating something to improve it through reflection. In 'double loop learning', this reflection is part of a larger cycle on engaging in the reflection activity itself, hence double looped, similar to what Boud, Keogh and Walker (1985) suggest, and akin to what Mezirow (1990, 2000) would call 'transformative learning' which is the essence of creative practice (McKee, 2003: 404).
To add to the multiplicity of reflective practice issues, there are various other works on reflective practice and ways of 'doing reflection' that have been used since Schön's (1983) seminal publication, despite its suggested weaknesses and lack of reflexivity, as it still counterbalances techno-rationalist perspectives of developing professional practice. Reflection is now seen as a generic professional skill (Brookfield, 1987, 1995; Connelly & Clandinin, 1999; Schön 1983, 1987, 1995; Kemmis & McTaggert, 1988). Some of these various methods advocated by theorists have been summarised by Kuit et al. (2001).
Whilst there are many ways 'to do' reflection, a useful generic definition is suggested by Boud, Cohen and Walker (1993) where reflection involves description of the processes of exploring experiences to enhance understanding. So even though reflection techniques are varied, it is one of the important ways of learning about one's own practices of teaching and learning that moves beyond prescriptivist 'telling' modes of professional practice. "Therefore, reflective practice is about the process of teaching rather than about a simple evaluation of teaching, questioning why we do something rather than how, and most important of all, learning by this process. This is a continual reiterative process, which can be visualised as an infinite line of connected loops with each loop representing a cycle of reflection" (Kuit at al., 2001:130-131). Reflection in its various forms encompasses multiplicity and its aim should always be learning transformations. Applying this principle to our research, the aim was to investigate the reflections of online teachers when they assumed the student role and learnt first hand the essence of an online student experience.
In recognition of this need, some universities now offer professional development programs in online teaching, for example, various staff development models are discussed by Wilson & Stacey (2003), some of which engage staff in reflective practice through experiential learning. Three different approaches are outlined below, moving from provision of online resources to immersion in the online experience. One example of online staff development for e-learning is provided by Lefoe (2000) which combines video of cases studies of effective teaching across different disciplines and a website with teaching resources and support structures. Another dimension presented by Ellis & Phelps (2000) was the recognition that the transition to online teaching involved more than technological skills - it also requires change to work practices and the adoption of new pedagogies. These authors also suggest a collaborative action learning model for change management which provide opportunities for staff to learn together and share ideas and frustrations. In the model, staff were asked to keep a reflective journal to record their experiences, but were not directly involved in experiential learning practices online. In contrast, O'Reilly & Ellis (2002) took the staff development process a little further and engaged participants in role play, adoption of student perspective and immersion in the online experience. This was augmented by opportunities for reflective practice through online journaling. This immersive approach to staff development for online teaching is supported by the findings of the present study, ie that teachers gain a great deal of insight into how to transform their practice by taking a student perspective, and by first hand knowledge of learning online.
As our universities are requiring more evidence of good teaching, we are advocating engaging multiplicities of reflections to encompass insights and learning transformations that occur in 'reflection as action' to inform teaching practices. As McKee (2003: 404) suggests: "To enter each other's world, we must first know how to get here. But we also have to be willing to 'shift frames', to suspend the ways of looking that orient us to our own world". It is only "when we are somehow enticed [emphasis in original] to have a look outside the frame, when we find ourselves curious about what might exist at the margins and in the gaps of what we know, when we have reason to doubt what we see clearly and completely, we sometimes discover the limitations of our frame" (McKee, 2003: 403-404). The study drew upon data collected from online teachers who had also experienced being online students, as our major research questions were centered on:
We designed our questions for in-depth interviews using elements of reflective phenomenology (Van Mannen, 1990, 1995), as Burge (1993) and others have called for more phenomenological explorations of 'being online' from student perspectives. In designing our interview schedule (Appendix A), the variety of reflective practice techniques, described earlier, were used asking participants about their stories about online experiences. They were then asked to reflect on critical incidents and the best and worst online encounters, how they experienced interaction and support as learners, their perceptions of roles, learning and dialogue and how these experiences would in/trans/form their online teaching. These were elicited through reflective face to face interviews with participants. Given the time limitations for this paper, we conducted rich in-depth interviews with only 5 participants across two Australian universities across 2 states. Interviews ranged between 45 minutes to 2 hours. The interviews were recorded and transcribed and thematic analysis was used after listening and reading over the transcripts a number of times. Open coding and then axial coding was used for the emergent themes (Miles & Huberman, 1994; Strauss & Corbin, 1998). Internal validity was sought based on thematic checking with content and cross checking of initial themes. In addition, the data was analysed by two researchers, in order to ensure inter-rater reliability. Interview transcripts were verified by each participant and a pseudonym was given to each participant to maintain anonymity.
We have chosen to categorise the responses under the 5 issues of (1) presence, relating to teacher presence, feelings of isolation and engagement; (2) access and equity, relating to technical matters and flexibility; (3) empowerment issues, relating to experiential dimensions such as autonomy, fear, emotionality, communicative ease; (4) metacognitive aspects, relating to learning about one's own style, learning preferences and motivation; and (5) pedagogical aspects which include matters of feedback, support, clarity of instructions and roles. To illustrate and validate these themes, some of the participants' quotes are revealed.
|Presence||Access and equity||Empowerment||Metacognition||Pedagogy|
Need to meet people
Need for teacher voice
Access to lecturer Access to resources
|New skills learnt|
Time to think
Learning about own practice
|Expectations must be clear|
Progressive feedback needed
Pressure to post
Each of the five categories is illuminated by using direct quotes from respondents.
The lecturer didn't come into the picture at all. I see a lazy lecturer who put up everything for everyone to read and that was it. But where is the lecturer's voice? (Dianna)Access and equity issues
... It's crazy to say that there's chemistry in an online course, but there is! (Connie)
I got a big buzz of being able to sit at home and access the journals, when I was in another country. (Brenda)Empowerment issues
The best one [subject experience] that reinforced all my beliefs was just fantastic! It was mainly with international students... and I adored it! Because of the time differences I couldn't wait to get up in the morning to see what had been posted up the previous night! Oh it was just totally addictive!.. We had such a lot of fun on this course! (Connie)Metacognitive issues
[I] Learnt about my own learning style. (Anna)Pedagogical issues
The best part was knowing that one could contact the tutor anytime and get some guidance. (Anna)Interestingly, the strong themes that emerged in participant reflections involved interaction with students and visibility and commitment of the teacher relating to social presence online. Also, an element that emerged strongly in some of the responses and which is often absent in the literature was the importance of fun in learning, although the works of Hudson (2002a, 2002b) provide some excellent suggestions on how to do this. What has emerged is that teaching online is not just about content or technology, but rather about using technology effectively to communicate and converse together with others. "Adopting a learning perspective invites us to rethink the roles of technology and teaching. The role of technology is not to be a delivery system but rather to be an environment that enables learning, while the role of teaching is not simply to convey information but rather to engage students in actively constructing knowledge. The challenge of teaching with technology is to create a learning design that cues and supports the full repertoire of learning strategies" (Olgren, 2000: 15). Another interesting aspect is the ability to deal with the unexpected effects, which are also highlighted by Herrmann, Fox and Boyd (2000).
With the best course I did, we got individual private feedback each week based on reflections from the teacher. Absolutely fantastic! (Connie)
The data also revealed the centrality of the role of the teacher online, although the pedagogy is nevertheless student centred. "The teacher, or if you wish the facilitator, plays a key role throughout the e-learning experience - even when the discourse and activities are controlled by the students. The teacher is an ever present and key person, managing and monitoring the process. We suggest that teacher presence is a necessary part in both formal and non-formal learning contexts" (Garrison & Anderson, 2003: 75). It seems that in all learning, and especially online learning that:
We learn, I believe, not from texts or other resources, but from someone. The best online resources take account of this: you have the feeling that there is somebody there, that the writers have taken care to put themselves into the production process at the level of some detail ... this is produced by people who have a deep love of knowledge which is expressed not just intellectually but aesthetically....quality is marked by the fact that somebody is there, that they care about what they are doing and they are doing it with a deep sense of educational purpose. (Walker 1997 cited in Johnson 2001)The themes are congruent with what has emerged in the literature about online student experiences. For example, many studies already reveal the importance of presence in its variety of forms from social, cognitive to teaching presence (e.g. Tu, 2002; Garrison & Anderson, 2003; Gunawardena & Zittle, 1997; Stacey, 2000; Hudson, 2002a, 2002b). Also, Burge (2000a) highlights that the type of strategies that adults use are metacognitive. "Becoming oriented, managing the learning process, and evaluating outcomes all require metacognitive strategies in knowing how to plan, regulate, and assess learning" (p.11). Her learners said that the "most important skills in learning with technology are self direction, self-discipline, self-motivation, time management, taking initiative, staying on track, and skills in organising resources" (p.11). Other studies have shown metacognitive aspects being used 4 times more by online students than students in a face to face environment (White, 1999; Olgren, 2000; Burge, 1994). Further issues that arose related to privacy and public aspects of having one's text online and its permanency and not having the opportunity to retract one's text. These ethical issues are also highlighted by Cahoon (1998a) and Holt (1998). Further, Hudson (2002a, 2002b) notes using metaphors with students to "capture complex ideas" and to "dissolve traditional static frameworks" to allow the voices of adult learners to emerge in collaborative explorations as useful devices in online classes. He advises knowing 'where one is' online, as frustrations can arise from open ended aspects and he uses the metaphor of the jungle syndrome (being lost online) ( emphasising the importance of acknowledging this disorientation explicitly with online students, but noting that such disorientation is part of the challenge of adult online learning. Also, Herrington and Oliver (2003) suggest that for students to be engaged in the online environment successfully then they need to be provided with authentic complex learning. More importantly positive experiences can emerge because online courses can "provide 'enormous opportunities' for learners to be the teacher" (Hanna et al. 2000: 20)... students described the "sharing of knowledge" and the "richness of the information" as a highlight of the experience" (Buckingham, 2003: 85).
|1.||Move beyond the comfort zone to explore possibilities beyond 'glorified text', such as blogging and wikis and explore what is possible.|
|2.||Inspire, interact and establish presence by welcoming students online; communicating inspiration enthusiasm and fun; and being more visible! For example:
|3.||Improve assessment practices, for example:
|4.||Be aware of technical constraints! For example, 'find' all the online students in the first few weeks. Be proactive, so as not to lose anyone!|
|5.||Be ongoingly reflective and learn about your own practices and preferences and stretch these comfort zones.|
The emphasis by participants was to move "beyond the comfort zone" of present pedagogy into more challenging and student centred ways of teaching, moderating and supporting students online. These shifts were categorised as (1) Move beyond the comfort zone - to be aware of new possibilities, such as blogging and wikis; (2) Establish presence through greater visibility and proactive support, as Connie highlighted: "I guess it's just about remembering that it is a person on the other end. That it is a person on the other end of the text...it is flesh and blood"; and also emphasised by Brenda was the importance of establishing belonging: "You must establish a sense of belonging! What people are not necessarily seeing when they move into online is the need to establish this feeling of belonging to the students or this feeling that someone out there cares and knows who they are and where they are and knows what's happening"; (3) Improve assessment practices and provide ongoing feedback; (4) Be aware of technical constraints and (5) Be ongoingly reflective and aware of your own teaching preferences.
Connie, one of the participants in the study, reminded us: "I think there is a real danger about, y'know that we teach the way we were taught and then there is a danger for me about teaching online in that I will teach the way I have been taught online, so I have to keep reminding myself that there is more than one way of teaching online". Essentially, how we experience and reflect influence how we perform as online teachers. With our increasing online teaching and learning practices, the visible online capturing medium makes it more readily available to reflect on our public/ visible teaching and learning practices. Perhaps fortuitously in the online era, online teachers will have to always be online learners, reflecting on practice, whether it be by changing roles or deeply questioning teaching practices. Whatever the methods, our online learners will inevitably be our online teachers as we evolve our praxis. To propel us into re-learning to e-learn, Burge (2000a) poses some of her 'brain burning questions':
1) How do I now think about learning technologies? If any metaphors are involved, how do they illuminate my constructions of reality? 2) Ethics: What does it mean to be an ethical user of any educational technologies? 3) Walking my talk with learning technologies: Where are the difficulties in being congruent? 4) What in general terms, does it take for an adult learner to act with competence and feel connected in a technologically mediated learning environment? There are no answers, only more questions... (p.95)The essential feature that resonated from all the online teaching reflections is illustrated through what we know of good teaching in face to face: "...the importance placed on interacting with students, reflecting the belief that effective teaching requires two way communication, not one way 'broadcasting'...." (Ballantyne et al., 1999: 248). In addition, the importance of conversation in teaching is also acknowledged: "I can define teaching in one word: teaching is 'conversation'. This is a very basic concept for me so when I structure my learning activities, they revolve around engagement and conversation. Even independent learning takes place in social context..." (Ballantyne et al., 1999: 248). These highlight the importance of constructivist teaching and learning principles (Jonassen, 1998a, 1998b; Jonassen et al. 1999) that can be afforded and applied even more readily to web based environments.
In summary, the reflections presented by participants in this study highlight that being reflective about our professional practices can help us engage in a dialogue between our thoughts, beliefs and actions to allow our practices to evolve creatively, and help us move beyond the comfort zone of current online practice to enhance our teaching. Professional development for online teaching needs to consider the centrality of enabling teachers to become aware of how students experience e-learning, and this can best be achieved by involving teachers in student roles. This form of experiential learning triggers reflection at a deep level and improves praxis.
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|Authors: Reem Al-Mahmood can be contacted at email@example.com|
Catherine McLoughlin can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
Please cite as: Al-Mahmood, R. & McLoughlin, C. (2004). Re-learning through e-learning: Changing conceptions of teaching through online experience. In R. Atkinson, C. McBeath, D. Jonas-Dwyer & R. Phillips (Eds), Beyond the comfort zone: Proceedings of the 21st ASCILITE Conference (pp. 37-47). Perth, 5-8 December. http://www.ascilite.org.au/conferences/perth04/procs/al-mahmood.html
© Reem Al-Mahmood & Catherine McLoughlin
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