Friday, January 15, 2016

Re’Connect’ing and Learning

It’s been a year (since Jan 14, 2015) since I defended my EdD dissertation (online via Adobe Connect). Since then, I’ve co-led a MOOC, and participated in some webinar and conference presentations. But this week marked the first time in over a year that I stepped back into an Adobe Connect classroom. I lead my first three-hour synchronous sessions for two MEd courses that I’m teaching at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology. Amazingly, there were no major technical glitches across six hours of live interaction. My experiences this week were exhilarating – not just from the standpoint that I’ve embarked on a new journey in my professional career, but also because they reminded me that I, too, am along for the ride as a lifelong learner.

I prepared for my first week of #EDUC5101G and #EDUC5103G by creating a pair of course websites using free online tools outside of UOIT’s LMS. And I made a point of explaining to course participants just why I did that. I’ve had a lot of experience building courses in different LMS platforms, so I know their strengths and limitations. My choice of Weebly to build my course sites was prompted by:
  • A desire to demonstrate the power of concentrating on instructional design instead of fretting over the mechanics of an unfamiliar platform. 
    • (Blackboard is one LMS that I have not personally used. And one of the main points of my dissertation was that cognitive overload associated with learning new tech contributes to teacher’s perceptions of low self-efficacy. Conversely, focusing on learning outcomes and instructional design elements helps increase self-efficacy when working with educational technology – and specific tools are secondary to instructional design (and come and go.)
  • A desire to demonstrate the power of what can be done using free online tools, which every teacher can access. 
    • (After all, not all of my course participants will have the same (if any) LMS at their disposal at their institutions.)
  • A desire to capitalize on the interactivities enabled by BootstrapUI, which is foundational to the Weebly platform 
    • (but difficult to integrate into LMS content pages without extensive coding experience and, in most cases, administrative rights on the platform).
  • The fact that Weebly-hosted sites are mobile-responsive
    • (meaning that accessibility is increased for course participants, and I did not need to draw upon my coding skills to ensure device interoperability).

I also prepared for my UOIT courses by building in a mix of synchronous and asynchronous, as well as individual and group learning activities. When it came to the logistics of the group activities, I tried to be both pragmatic and equitable. And I learned that it can be difficult to get that balance just right. On the pragmatic side, I needed to get things rolling pretty quickly with the formation of teams and the selection of group assignment topics. This can be a challenge when you are not meeting with your students face to face every other day, so I embedded a free online tool into the course websites to show participants ways of randomly assigning people to teams during a synchronous online class. During my first Adobe Connect session, I polled the participants to get a feel for whether or not they’d be ok with random group assignment (and it turned out that they were overwhelmingly in favor of that approach). Perhaps a simple oversight – but I skipped that step during my second Adobe Connect class. I know that adult learners need to feel in control of their learning experiences, and that random assignment to a team for a learning activity can take away some of that sense of control. It appears that most participants are happy with their teams and with being randomly assigned. But, I’ve learned that the simple step of asking their preference in advance can go a long way to mitigating adult learners’ anxieties associated with lack of control or choice. So, I’ll make every not to skip that step next time around!

That said, on the equity side of things, I did take steps allow teams to choose their topics and presentation dates. This was a particular challenge in my second class, where each presents only once during the term (they’ll actually be leading a one-hour Adobe Connect learning activity, in addition to building associated online resources). So, if each group presents only once, how do you show equity in choosing the topics and dates? I took a two-step process. First, after forming the teams and assigning each team a number, I used another free online resource to “cast lots,” and generate a random order in which the teams would get to make their selection. Then I directed each team to a Doodle poll. To add an extra measure of fairness, I did allow for up to two teams to choose the same date and general topic. It’ll be interesting to see if any of the course participants posts their thoughts on how that part of the process went (or includes their thoughts in their learning reflection assignments).

Overall, here are my takeaways from my first week teaching online with UOIT:
  • Integrate as many communications channels as possible, even when using an external resource to build your course site, BUT
  • Limit the channels that are considered ‘official,’ and that will be analyzed when assessing student participation.
  • Don’t forget to turn on your webcam for a few minutes at the start of the synchronous class. It helps to establish teacher presence, and to humanize the online learning experience. BUT
  • Don’t keep your webcam on for too long. It becomes distracting. And it eats up participants’ bandwidth.
  • Be as equitable as possible. Offer choice when possible. BUT
  • Be pragmatic. Realize the limitations of time and interaction in a synchronous online event, and be prepared with tools to accommodate for those limitations.
  • AND – always remember that technology-based tools could freeze up or fail during a live session. Don’t let that phase you. Roll with it. Learn from it. And move along with another approach!

All the best,

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