I have never taken a completely online course before. So when I enrolled in “Universal Learning Environments in the 21st Century”, a Graduate certificate program, connecting Rocky View Division employees and the University of Calgary Werklund School of Education, I was open to the unexpected. My online cohort consists of a dynamic group of Rocky View employees with varying backgrounds that range from psychology, Learning Specialists, administration, teachers, and Learning Support teachers, to name a few. My current course is titled, “Designing Inclusive Learning Environments”. We have a total of three online meeting discussion times scheduled, where we all meet online to converse about different topics and share ideas. The rest of the time, we are given a weekly challenge and required research readings to discuss and debate with each other through postings. Almost a month in, I feel this online learning experience has shown me a new perspective on Education.
Accepting the Awkwardness of the unknown…
I will admit, the first online Connect Session using Adobe Connect was a bit strange. With no expectations, I logged into my first Adobe Connect group session. On my laptop screen there was a list of those who were signed into the session. I could type comments or questions on the side for everyone to see or use I can talk into a microphone. In the middle is a slideshow area for images. Basically, a chat room.
I found this first session awkward simply because I could not see any faces!. Communication is so visual. When I interact with people in real life, I can see smiles, eyebrow raising, frowns, and essentially all the body language cues that people use to communicate either directly or indirectly. Are their arms crossed in anger? Are they relaxed? Are they nodding in agreement or frowning in disapproval? So, here I was, sitting on my bed, looking at a laptop screen, listening to voices, then talking when it was my turn to comment (but what really felt like talking to myself, alone in a room). Maybe it felt awkward because of the “unknown” at the time…or maybe I felt awkward at clicking a mic and felt pressure talking to 30 of my colleagues at once, like being put on the spot, but with only my voice as a tool. And really, who enjoys listening to their own voice? One session down…two more to go.
Learning can take place anywhere, any place and at anytime. I am blessed to be on maternity leave with my two young sons, Everett (8 months old) and three year old Jackson. Life can be hectic at times, but I find time to learn when they take naps or when they go to bed or when my dear husband takes the boys on an adventure. I don’t want to miss out on the beautiful things in life, such as going for walks with my sons, visiting with friends or having a few moments to rest. I can be up at 11pm responding to questions or I can get up early in the morning with a hot cup of coffee, ready to go. I can even skip a day if I choose. I can be anywhere. I can be at home, at a coffee shop, or in another country. I can be standing in line at a store and browsing comments on my iPhone. This online learning program is truly flexible to my needs in life right now. I know many of my colleagues in this class are currently teaching full time and they can decide when and where this course fits into their life schedules. So now, how can I make learning more accessible and flexible for my students? If learning can take place anywhere, anyplace and at anytime…do students always have to be in a classroom five days a week? Do they need to be in a physical “school” for 8 hours a day? Do they need to arrive at 8:50am and leave at exactly 3:40pm every day?
Time to really think before I answer.
I can set the pace. Questions and tasks are assigned on a Monday and we are given until Sunday evening to provide our thoughts, have discussions and debates with peers and ask questions. When having group conversations or sitting down to chat with someone in person, conversation often flows quickly. For example, at staff meetings, questions can be posed and you are asked to provide an opinion, at that exact moment. And how often during classroom discussions, do I ask my students their thoughts and then expect them to answer that class? Meanwhile, how many students are confused, are struggling or want to share but are too timid, or just don’t know yet? I am understanding more clearly that providing “think time” is crucial for students to process ideas, reflect and gather evidence and experiment with ideas.
And with time given to process, I find myself reflecting upon my own beliefs. I type thoughts and then wake up the next day pondering if I feel that way still. I also have the time to discuss concepts with other people in my life, beyond this class, to explore differing perspectives. My thoughts shift frequently. I can reflect over a course of days as opposed to just within a controlled class timeframe.
Evidence & Research to understand or shift perspectives
I find this Grad course has really challenged me to question my beliefs and to question why I believe an idea in the first place. We are challenged not to simply state an opinion but also to support our opinions with research. How often in Education do teachers always use research and evidence to determine decision making in the classroom? Or do we do something simply because it has been done before? For example, High School standardized final exams…do teachers have evidence to support their choice in using such an exam for assessment purposes? Is this the best proven method for the students? Or are exams being used for 50% of a grade, simply because everyone else is doing it? Or because “it’s always been done that way?”. I personally need to improve as an Educator by staying current with research. I am learning an immense amount from my colleagues contributions. The cohort consist of all grade level Educators, so I am gaining insight into where my Middle Students come from in Elementary and where they head into High School. I need to question the why I make decisions to better understand the purpose of a task, a decision, an assessment…basically all that I do as an Educator.
Tone of text…
Sometimes text can be interpreted the wrong way. When you are beside a person, having a conversation, the vocal tone of a can give clues to human emotions. Sarcasm, humour, sadness…these can be tough to decipher from visual text on a screen, unless said directly. I am learning to write with a better tone as to not come across too strong or opinionated. I will keep working on that. (Could you tell if I was serious or not?)
Online learning has taught me to embrace the unknown, that flexibility is beneficial to learning, and that time is crucial to allow for deeper understandings.