It was our last class together as senior seminar students with Dr. Anderson. For most of us, the moment represented the penultimate step in completing a rather lengthy graduate degree and…we were elated. Together, we shared virtual eggnog and recounted stories of how our families traditionally celebrated the holidays. A number of students were located in Eastern Canada, a few on the West Coast, one in the Bahamas and another in Dubai. We were teachers, administrators, two emergency room doctors, a nurse, a web developer and an instructional designer. During the previous three months, once a week, we had all come together at the same time, to explore the then current trends in distance education.
On this particular night, I remember Dr. Anderson cheekily asking us to fess up and tell him what we really did while we participated in his class. He knew that we weren’t always sitting there, glued to our computers, pen and paper in hand, waiting for an epiphany. For nearly five years of my life, I had spent what could have been my daily downtime chillin’ in front of the TV or zoned out with a good book, revved up and thinking about distance ed practice and pedagogy. And yes, I’ll admit it now, sequestered in my basement office, I sometimes had one ear on a baby monitor, a stack of laundry at my elbow, and was often sporting my flannel jammies! Nonetheless, I was still able to actively engage with the process, the people and the content.
I am an online learning convert, but why do I love it so much? Well, there are some pretty obvious benefits to learning at a distance (beyond the accepted garb!) that have been widely discussed. Here are the ones that I can relate to with the most enthusiasm:
Learning online provides freedom and flexibility. The notion of anytime, anywhere learning is pretty intoxicating for somebody who loves to discover new stuff all of the time, or wants to master what he or she already knows. You don’t have to travel farther than the nearest laptop to be able to actively participate in an online session with master teachers and a group of diverse and invested peers. For me, the ability to maintain a busy professional and personal life while pursuing graduate studies, without the hassle and expense of travelling to the nearest urban centre, is liberating. Also, with the myriad of available platforms that support both asynchronous and synchronous collaboration, the task of scheduling group work, organizing follow-up sessions, and even attending an impromptu meeting becomes much less cumbersome.
Learning online enables community building on a large scale. I love meeting people who share my professional interests, in the hopes of both learning with them and from them. What better way to open up a community to as many stakeholders as possible than via the net? During my years at Athabasca University, I met people from all over the world, and together we supported each other’s learning and created some pretty cool content that I can still readily access. Of course, sustaining communities of practice or professional learning communities is yet another challenge, but one that is again potentially less difficult to overcome without the constraints of having to be physically present somewhere.
Learning online encourages accountability. This means a couple of different things to me. Online learning helped me be accountable to myself in terms of taking ownership of my learning and development as a professional…in a province where no formal requirement is made of teachers to upgrade either skill set or knowledge base. Being accountable as a student in an online setting is another aspect. It’s really hard to hide in an online class with only a dozen or so participants. Individual participation is easily noted, and it can also be quite obvious when someone doesn’t come prepared or isn’t really “there”.
As much as I appreciate the many benefits of online learning, I acknowledge that in order for online PD to be embraced by more teachers and school boards, it has to be effective, and not just in terms cost savings. So, the question you may be asking is what does GOOD online PD look like? Well…it should probably look like GOOD traditional PD! It should meet the needs of the individual, positively impact on practice, and ultimately improve student outcomes. But how? The research literature in the field suggests that high-quality PD has to:
- be content/subject-matter focused with an understanding of student learning needs
- provide opportunities for active learning around authentic tasks
- encourage collaboration
- occur over time
- allow for feedback and follow-up
- be supported in order to allow for continued growth and change
Now, all we have to do is figure out how to meet all of these benchmarks, using the best-suited technology at our disposal. What does THAT look like? Is it a blend of both online and offline learning experiences? I strongly suspect that it is, but what’s the magic combination?
This year, LEARN is offering a series of web events which we hope will respond to a need from within the milieu. We aim to target a different topic or practice each month, across curricula and communities. To me, these initial monthly online sessions are only the very beginning of a grand experiment in which we will collectively discover a model that might help us to systematically implement meaningful PD for our educators. And, we invite you to please join us as we engage, explore and exchange.
I’ll make sure to keep you posted!
For more information on LEARN Web Events, click here.