Reflections on the Theory and Practice of Distributed Learning

As I reflect back over the past semester, I don’t think my personal theories about learning have changed much as a result of the things I’ve learned; however, I am more aware of the practical limitations of some of the things I believe when it comes to teaching in an online environment. Although the online environment seems like an ideal format for students who are motivated to take control over their own learning and therefore well-suited to a learner-centric, constructivist theory of learning, many of the people who find their way to online courses do so out of convenience or because it is the only option open to them. These students are often unprepared for that type of environment and need a great deal of teacher support to make it in an online course. Additionally, many online instructors are not yet ready to let go of their “sage on the stage” mentality. For some this may be due to a fear that online learning threatens their existence, and that if students can learn without them, they will find themselves out of a job. For others, it may just reflect a lack of adequate training on what it means to facilitate learning, or what good online facilitation looks like. For the most part, technology has caught up to allow courses to be designed from a constructivist perspective, but some learning management systems place limitations on what is possible, and often the possible is limited by the instructor’s or designer’s training on the system. Until we bridge the gap between under-prepared learners, reluctant instructors, and inadequate technology, social constructivist learning will be limited to a few online courses.

I have, unfortunately, yet to narrow my research interests. My mentor tells me this is the curse of the gifted; I am interested in everything. In my work time, when I’m not doing research for a grade, I tend to expend my energies on the faculty. I guess I figure that if I am going to be a change agent, I need to affect the people who can make that change happen, and I believe in education that is the faculty. I conduct needs assessments, plan, create, and hold professional development sessions, bring in external solutions, and evaluate the effectiveness of what I’m doing. My major research interest surrounding the faculty right now relates to the effect that Quality Matters training has on a faculty member’s perspectives concerning standards for online learning. I’m not sure how that fits into my personal learning theories, except that I do believe that online learning needs to be well designed to be effective, and that there should be a set of minimum quality standards adopted by every institution informing design best-practices. If an instructor posts a list of course readings in no particular order without a schedule of when the readings are to be read, and just expects the student to be prepared, that is not a quality design.

As far as student interests, I am interested in student engagement and interaction with the course, the instructor, and other students. I have done a little work with Community of Inquiry and a bit of research with an intervention a faculty member dubbed “Simulated Student Interaction”, where she engaged with students in the discussion board as a student using an alias to model the kinds of postings she wanted and to stimulate their interactions. I am also interested in student cognitive load and attention, especially in the areas of synchronous web conferencing. In both these cases, these are techniques that are more prominent in a social constructivist environment, and so I think they lend themselves to my personal learning theories.

I predict online learning becoming more mobile with the increase of phone and tablet use. I think the new tablet laptop combos will replace our existing laptop computers and we will soon see desktop computers be replaced by tablet docking stations. Phones are getting larger, lighter, and more powerful, so I think people will carry their phone and their tablet and we’ll see the end of the traditional computer altogether. As a result, online courses will need to become more responsive. Videos will need to be able to stream quickly. Content will need to be easy to read and adjust to narrow screen widths. We may see PDFs become a thing of the past, and instead we may see more pod-casting, allowing students to listen to lectures on the go. Discussions may become verbal rather than typed, or a combination of the two, similar to what you can do with Voice Thread. Synchronous Web Meeting platforms will improve their apps to allow those connecting from mobile devices the same affordances as those connecting from computers. Test security from mobile devices will have to be increased to provide a more secure experience with less likelihood of cheating.

Part of what I learned this year was learned out of frustration as an online learner when my instructor became ill. Left to my own devices within the course, many of the assignments did not go as originally planned. There was little support except from other learners and no clear instruction on what to do. In this case, learning really did fall under social constructivism. We had to figure things out on our own; use the assigned readings and videos and our own experiences to determine how to handle an assignment or what to write about in our blog on a given week. While we worried about a favorite teacher and struggled along on our own, somehow we made it through most of the tail end of the semester with very little guidance and one another for support. While it was neither fun nor easy, it was a reinforcement of the belief that sufficiently prepared and motivated learners can learn in a social-constructivist environment. Doing so becomes all the easier with a well-trained faculty member facilitating the course, as our instructor usually does. I look forward to having him back this summer, hopefully in good health.

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One response to “Reflections on the Theory and Practice of Distributed Learning

  1. Julia thanks for sharing your thoughts. Concerning going deeper into mobile – it’ll be a standard that’s way I think you’re right that everything will have to be responsive meaning adjusted to mobile devices.

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