By Jhoanna Gonzales Miners, MA
This Fall, I took the course Online Learning Environments at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) Continuing & Professional Learning (University of Toronto).
Our course began with the assertion that “One thing that a lot of people forget with eLearning is that it is still learning.” (Christian, 2020). This is a very important reminder especially in the current context of the global pandemic where we have seen that every educational level, from K to 12, post-secondary, and workplace adult education have all migrated to varying degrees into the virtual learning environment.
As an adult educator engaged in both instructional design and facilitation, I found myself challenged to expand my skills and my comfort zones during this transition. How do I design and facilitate experiential learning in an online setting? How do my current lesson plans translate online? Do I pursue a blended approach, or solely synchronous or asynchronous delivery?
And what about full-day in-person training? How does that translate? What are the best practices in terms of how long learners can engage in an online learning environment? Do I divide up the day in modules? If so, are they offered all day, or stretched out over a few days?
What about the activities and exercises? How do I ensure that they continue to be participatory and engaging for the learners? What technologies are available to support these goals? What is my familiarity with these online tools? Are there additional costs? What is required from the perspective of time and technological aptitudes in order for my facilitators to also deliver the course confidently and consistently? Will it disengage, exclude or intimidate my existing cohort of facilitators?
Based on all of these aforementioned questions and self-reflections, I believe that the online learning environment and the online learning tools that I will be using will need to be:
- Easy to learn for both the facilitators and the learners,
- Will not get in the way of the learning process but rather enhance it,
- Is accessible and at no additional cost for at least the learners,
- Is stable and reliable, and
- Is able to support experiential and participatory learning.
For example, Zoom as a video conferencing online tool for synchronous learning is so popular that it was a familiar tool for a lot of learners and facilitators. There are tools to automatically and randomly place participants in small groups where video-enabled discussions can occur, and it has a built in whiteboard, chat, reaction emojis, and polling functions. Learners can set up a free account, while facilitators can be added as co-host (also in a free account) while course administrators can have the paid account to enable hosting longer sessions and more participants. In this example, one can see how Zoom can be both the online learning environment, with integrated online learning tools. The use of these tools however, still rests upon the instructional design and how they can enhance learning.
Tony Bates’ (2015) Teaching in a Digital Age, 2nd Edition was one of the main texts that was used for our course. Bates (2015) suggested that to have meaningful online discussion, the online learning environment must have:
- appropriate technology;
- clear guidelines on student online behaviour;
- student orientation and preparation;
- clear goals for the discussions that are understood by the students;
- choice of appropriate topics, that complement and expand issues in the study materials, and are relevant to answering assessment questions;
- setting an appropriate ‘tone’ or requirements for discussion;
- defining clearly learner roles and expectations;
- monitoring the participation of individual learners, and responding accordingly, by providing the appropriate scaffolding or support;
- regular, ongoing instructor ‘presence’; and
- ensuring strong articulation between discussion topics and assessment.
Perhaps this is one of the most important “frameworks” that I will take away from this course because when asked about my teaching philosophy, or what can learners expect when they enter my classroom (may it be online or in person), I would say that respectful but open and democratic dialogue is one of its foundational components. This is particularly important when I design and facilitate courses that could have adult learners with a wealth of prior knowledge and experience, many participants with diverse and often diverging views, or when I design and/or facilitate course topics that are challenging such as those in the realm of social change including: equity, diversity and inclusion, addressing gender-based violence, workplace harassment, or racism and/or discrimination.
To an extent, the online learning environment may be a more suitable space for engaging in some of these topic areas as learners can have a more private space to reflect. Modules are or can be broken down into smaller segments and also be offered asynchronously which allows learners more time to think about their responses as opposed to the immediate reactions required within the traditional learning environment.