20 Signs that you are a Student-Centered Teacher (or do you prefer facilitator?)

  1. You devote significant time helping students learn how to learn.
  2. You pride yourself on being the one to bring the conversation back to, “What is best for the learners?”
  3. You realize that the only non-negotiable in a learning environment is the learner, not the teacher.
  4. You may like educational technologies, but you demand evidence that they are actually helping improve individual student learning.
  5. You like to point out that you teach students, not content.
  6. You know strengths and challenges of each learner in your class.
  7. You think about those strengths and challenges when you are planning lessons, often as much or more than the content.
  8. You choose strategies that are sometimes difficult or uncomfortable for you because you know that they are helping learners.
  9. You are also constantly looking for new strategies and teaching and learning “possibilities” that will help individual learners.
  10. You measure success of a lesson or unit by the success of individual learners (What did they learn?).
  11. You live to eradicate bell curves. If you saw a bell curve in your class, you would wonder what you did wrong.
  12. Your students both ask and answer more questions than you.
  13. Student questions are often not even directed at you.
  14. You value and respond to student comments about what and how they learn.
  15. You act like a learning detective, persistently scanning the classroom for signs of learning and struggles.
  16. You talk to individual learners and small groups of learners more than you talk to the entire class.
  17. You measure your success by the work of the students more than your own work.
  18. You might even consider student portfolios to be a better measure of your success than your own resume.
  19. You love it when your students don’t need or depend upon you in order to learn.
  20. You assess much more than you grade…and you know the difference.

I’m Seeking Online Mentors More than Online Teachers

I have been involved with online learning since my first online high school pilot in the mid-1990s.  Even in those days, I distinguished between the design of effective online courses and the teaching of those courses.  By separating the two, I soon started to break down the role of online teacher into distinct tasks that can be accomplished by a single person or by a blend of people and technologies.

Eventually, I came to realize that the role of teacher, in the traditional sense, is not especially important in highly effective and engaging online courses.  Please don’t misunderstand me. I am not saying that online teachers are unimportant.  In some ways, I’m suggesting the opposite.  In many content areas and with many learning outcomes, there is great need for modeling and mentoring to take place. It is within modeling and mentoring relationships that people learn to become a practitioner of a given discipline, that they progress toward expertise.  With the exception of a few prodigies, one doesn’t become a great musician without ample modeling and mentoring.  The same is true in many areas of study.  As a result, some of the most powerful lessons learned in traditional classes come from students carefully observing the teacher, sometimes imitating the teacher, as well as getting persistent and customized mentoring from the teacher.  Each of these things are important in the formation and transformation of a learner, but it doesn’t necessarily require a teacher in the traditional sense.

This is where my concern resides with what I see happening in online learning, even in my own online teaching.  Imagine that you are a teacher who believes that your greatest contributions come in the form of presenting new content, facilitating a few class activities, and providing feedback on student papers.  Now put that person in an online course where the content is pre-developed and the activities are pre-determined.  What do you do with your time?  Unfortunately, some decide that their only important tasks are to promptly respond to emails, give a few closing thoughts on threaded discussions, and give good feedback on papers.  I know this from firsthand experience, both as an online teacher and an online student.  This isn’t necessarily bad.  I’ve had wonderful learning experiences in online courses where the teacher did little more than these three things.

With that said, this is where we have an opportunity to fundamentally transform teaching (yes, I intentionally wrote “teaching” instead of “learning” in this instance) in the digital age.  What I am about to suggest is not a claim that this is the only right way to do it.  I see great potential and value in computer-based instruction, self-directed learning environments, peer-to-peer learning, game-based learning environments, highly scalable online learning and a variety of other traditional and emerging perspectives.

However, alongside each of those, I would like to ensure that we also capitalize upon the power and potential of the highly committed mentor in the online learning industry.  What if I enter the course believing that my primary responsibility is to mentor students individually and collectivity with regard to the course outcomes, even the overall program outcomes? How will I spend my time and effort differently?

  • Perhaps I will host real-time office hours.
  • I might create required one-on-one and small group synchronous sessions to workshop ideas.
  • I might experiment with recording audio feedback on work so that I am more likely to offer lengthy narrative feedback that is personalized, includes stories and examples, and gives a more intimate form of asynchronous interaction than comments embedded in a rubric or inserted in a PDF or Word document.
  • I might provide feedback on projects and papers through Skype and phone conferences, suggesting improvements, letting the student work on them, and then having a follow-up meeting.
  • I’m probably going to take the extra work to give students a chance to demonstrate their knowledge orally and not just in writing, given that oral communication is often a key to their performance in the workplace.
  • I’m likely to use lots of ungraded formative feedback and allow the submission of multiple drafts.
  • I’m less likely to grade a test or paper and move on without ensuring that the students can use their performance on the work in order to improve.
  • My feedback will not be solely focused on form or substance, but the student’s progress toward expertise with the area of student…the student’s ability to apply the ideas in real-world contexts (even, or especially if it is a liberal arts course).
  • I will know the students by name and I will strive to be aware of their individual strengths, weaknesses, goals and aspirations.  I will recognize that they often have other life commitments and I will take that into account as I interact with and mentor them.
  • I will simultaneously teach students as individuals and a group.
  • My written and oral communication with them (individually and in online group settings) will be informed by knowledge about them individually.
  • I will carefully monitor student progress and provide frequent encouragements and gentle corrections in an ongoing manner.
  • I will adjust and customize learning experiences, content, and assignments based upon my assessment of what will best help that student progress toward expertise.

In a time where so many people are looking at the promise of massive open online courses, computer-based instruction, automated paper grading, and other efforts at efficiency and scalability, I am looking for a team of people who want to start a parallel revolution in online teaching and learning, one that is driven by the belief that online learning can be high-impact, highly relational, and transformational through the persistent passion and commitment of mentoring in the digital age.  Are you in?

Why a MOOC? 6 Reasons

There is no shortage of news about MOOCs in the media.  When a topic gets that much traction, one of my questions is, “What part of the story is not getting much attention?”  Many of the recent editorials, blogs and press releases focus upon three things.  The first is about new MOOCs and new MOOC initiatives.  These stories are interesting, but they are not intended to drill down into any deep questions about MOOCs.  They are largely announcements with a few details.  A second popular type of news focuses upon the concept of the MOOC as a disruptive innovation.  They are largely essays that muse about the implications for higher education.  The third is the MOOC critique, as people consider some of the potential dangers or limitations of this type of learning environment. All of these have their place, but I am looking for more discussion about the “why” of MOOCs.  Let’s briefly consider a few of them here.

1. Research – When the leadership of Harvard and MIT hosted a press conference about edX, they noted that it was a massive research project intended to garner insight into promising or best practices in online education.  Of course, I do have questions about that.  Given the fundamental characteristics of the MOOC, edX is likely to lend it self toward certain research questions and away from others.  Nonetheless, their stated intent is clear.  This is a research effort.

2. Scaling Education – Some point back to early comments in the 1960s and again in the 1990s and 2000s about how to massively scale education using emerging technologies.

3. Opening Education – A third vision behind MOOCs is a vision for open learning, increasing access and opportunity for individuals around the world.  This is largely what motivates my recently announced MOOC.

4. Marketing – With the growing number of press releases about Universities offering MOOCs, it is becoming increasingly apparent that there is a marketing drive behind the efforts.  I don’t question that they are offering value, but it seems clear that part of the “why?” has to do marketing, even if it is an interesting approach to relationship marketing.

5. College Readiness – This is a new and exciting answer to the “Why?” question about MOOCs.  The first that I saw it explicitly stated was in a press release about a MOOC project at the University of Wisconsin Lacrosse.  They announced a grant-funded MOOC that will help prepare prospective students the remedial math assistance, hopefully improving their chance of success once they reach the campus down the road.

6. Digital Citizenship – I don’t hear anyone actually using this phrase with regard to MOOCs, but the spirit of “University as citizen” or “University as digital citizen” does seem to be behind many efforts as well.  James Bryant Conant once noted that, “A scholar’s activities should have relevance.”  Similarly, The University of Wisconsin is well-known for The Wisconsin Idea, a vision that the work of the University should be of service to the people and communities in Wisconsin.  These are visions for leveraging the knowledge and expertise of the University in service to the local, regional, national, and global community.  I suppose that this could be seen as similar to  “open learning.”  The difference that I see is that the “open learning” movement appears largely focused upon increasing access and opportunity, where the digital citizenship vision is a broader and more general act of participation in the digital world, engaging in a give and take relationship.

I’m sure that this is not an exhaustive list.  Please add to it with a comment.

Books Written About Education by Teenagers

What do the following three books have in common?  They all address some aspect of education or learning.  They were also written by teenagers.

One Size Does Not Fit All: A Student’s Assessment of School  by Nikhil Goyal  – This 17-year old has amazing insight into the challenges and limitations of the current education system in the United States. Of course his access to certain minds doesn’t hurt.  Wait until you see the list of people that he interviewed as part of his research for this book.

Truancy by Isamu Fukui – a dystopian novel about education, written by a 15-year old.

Do Hard Things: A Teenage Rebellion Against Low Expectations by Alex & Brett Harris – This book is a call for teens to step up their game, but the words work on a 40-year old man as well.  One of the most inspiring parts of the book is discovering how much these two authors practice what they preach.