What Do Online Educators Do: Tools of the Trade

Many years ago, when I was describing my job as a tech specialist at my school to an in-law she responded with a dismissive, Oh, so you’re not really a teacher anymore. Wow, talk about taking the air out of my sails. There are so many wrong headed and largely nostalgic notions about what educators do that it’s not too surprising that adding the online element pretty much breaks everyones’ brains. So, this week we’re going to explore this curious thought, “What Do online educators do,” beginning with a look at the tools we use (gotta start on the geek side of the street!).

Learning Management Systems/Course Management Systems (respectively). In the virtual world where do you go to access your course information, course calendar, turn in completed work and check your grades? Some school website, right? On the simple end of the spectrum we have PDFs of course materials pasted to webpages (not an optimal learning environment). Then there are much more complicated interactive portals that are a cross between a social network where one can communicate with instructors and classmates, and an interactive portal where one can turn in work and engage published lessons/units. We have a whole course in the EMDT masters program, that I taught for several months, devoted just to exploring the wonderful world of learning management systems. While teaching that course I created the following two videos, the first being about Full Sail University’s own learning portal:

FSO Behind the Scenes Walk-Thru

My first month or so at Full Sail I was sitting in class where we were being given the run through of the FSO platform and I saw that HTML tags could be added to the content text boxes and that completely freed me to post course material that went several generations beyond the dreaded PDFs posted to a website version of online learning. I’d been creating webpages and blogging for almost ten-years at this point, so I was very much at home making my course pages much more visual and self-contained. Before FSO, I’d used a platform called SchoolLoop and Digication to teach my middle school students. Hell, I even used a combination of iCal and webpages as a home-grown CMS where my students could access materials (when I didn’t have a proper course management system to use).

Digication Walk-Thru

Since the latter video was posted, I’m not entirely sure if Digication is still available for free. But there are several systems that are available for free for those interested in getting their course(s) online, such as Edmodo and Schoology. These systems are primarily asynchronous, meaning that the instructor creates or posts course materials and the students access the course at a different time.

Synchronous Sessions:
In contrast to the asynchronous websites where instructors post course materials and students turn in their assignments are the portals that most mimic a traditional class, where instructors and students meet in realtime, albeit, virtually on the Internet. These are called synchronous sessions. At Full Sail University we use a platform called Wimba to meet with our students. These sessions feature a window where the instructor can post presentation images while talking, or share his actual computer desktop or share a webcam view of himself as he’s sharing the lesson. There’s a chat stream for participants to post questions and comments and a list of who is in the room with status indicators and place for them to indicate a raised hand. There’s also polling/quiz features and a way to break the room down into smaller interactive groups. Some features work better than others (screen sharing can be funny with the audio/video delays), but even still this system is much better than the text-only system that Pepperdine used called Tappedin, while I was working on my masters degree online with them. Ack.

IM/Chat/Social Networks:
Continuing with the analogy between the virtual classroom and the traditional classroom, where the asynchronous website is like the printed syllabus with assignments, assignment dates and where one can turn in work, and the synchronous sessions are like actual classroom meetings, IM/Chat/Social Networks fits in as “office hours” where one can interact with ones instructors that’s not connected to class time. As one might expect, the idea of office hours and traditional limitations on when can interact with students is completely artificial with online learning. We’ll talk about that in a later blog post. For now, it should be noted that one needs to look at IM/Chat/Social Networks as tools to connect with students, meet them where they’re at and continue the learning conversation begun with the other tools. It’s about participation, conversation and availability and much less about using IM/chat/social networks to broadcast or push a unidirectional message. And all of this presents special challenges for K-12 instructors that one would be wise to not ignore or not have policies in place to deal with possible complications. This is where closed educational systems like Edmodo can really shine for those willing to do the work.

Year after year, month after month, the online tools are getting better and better. I paid for one-year’s usage of a platform called SoapBox where students can ask questions, answer polls and post whether they’re getting the lesson, all in realtime in a way that can work for face-to-face classroom and virtual classrooms. I’m also a big fan of having students on-camera in class, so that it increases the level of “being there” versus just being passively plugged in. So with smaller groups I’m thinking of experimenting with Google hangouts as a way to have more participants on camera at the same time.

pcburningSomething that we learned at the beginning of the desktop publishing revolution in the mid-80s: All the fancy technology in the world is not going to make you a better writer if you can’t write. That’s probably putting it too negatively, but whether online or face-to-face, technology is not going to save you if you’re not a very good teacher. It helps if you’re comfortable and are good at using the tools, but it’s not about the tools. It’s about the task of learning and working with learners. I love the tools, but I came into the classroom not knowing what I could and couldn’t do from the beginning, so that I now do this thing completely online shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone. Love the tools and what they can enable me to do, but it’s not about the tools.