Stephen Wilcox

Stephen Wilcox

Stephen Wilcox received a B.M. in instrumental performance (tuba) and a B.M. in music theory from West Chester University, a M.M. in Composition at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, as well as a Ph.D. in Composition at the University of Pennsylvania. Most recently, he has been creating online music theory courses for Rutgers University and working as an instructional designer at UC Berkeley.

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Understanding the Online Classroom: an Analogy

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The “Empty Face2Face Classroom” Analogy


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The online classroom* can be equated to an “empty face2face classroom.”
The lights are off, the desks are vacant and the instructor has yet to arrive. 

*By “online classroom”, I am specifically referring to the digital learning space itself. This space can be hosted on a Learning Management System (LMS) or on any number of other online platforms.

Objective:

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In my working life as a faculty developer and instructional designer (ID), I’ve seen two models for online course creation: the Faculty Developer Model and the Managed Model. I believe an analogy will address some of the shortcomings of both models. For the faculty developer, it should provide a starting point; a way to think about the online classroom in relation to the familiar face2face classroom. For the ID, it provides a useful tool for drawing out a SME’s (Subject Matter Expert’s) previous instructional experience.

Background: Models for Online Course Creation

Before providing a detailed explanation of this analogy, let’s provide some context.

Faculty Developer Model:

nullBy far the most ubiquitous model for online course creation is the faculty developer model.* It is the faculty developer’s job to create course materials and then to upload these documents onto an LMS. Depending on the institution, instructors can expect some software training, technical support and limited consultation time with an instructional designer. In this model, faculty learn “on-the-fly” what is and is not, effective in the online classroom, and adjusting to the changing expectations and behaviors of online students. These adjustments allow instructors to take full ownership of their online class; however, there are some drawbacks. Depending on the subject and the faculty developer’s level of digital literacy, this model can be incredibly time intensive.

*This model is cost effective, requiring only a limited production budget, equipment and support personnel.

Managed Model:

A less common model for online course creation is the “managed” model.* In this paradigm, a faculty person/SME works collaboratively with an instructional designer (ID) and media experts to create high-quality content: content that reflects the most current trends in educational theory. nullThe time-intensive elements of digital content creation, formatting and designing are “managed” for the instructor, significantly reducing a course’s production timeline. Additionally, experienced IDs can logistically organize content in ways that limit the possibility of “mistakes,”  or the need for “corrections of course” during a class’s run.

*This model is expensive, requiring large support staff, specialized equipment, and a large production budget. Despite the expense, this model is growing in popularity among larger institutions who are scrambling to increase their offerings of “high-quality” online courses.

Background: Preconceptions:

Everyone brings preconceptions to online teaching and course creation. However, the follow assumptions seem to be prevalent.

Instructional Designer Preconceptions:

  • Online learning outcomes can be as good (or better) than face2face learning outcomes. 1
  • “Traditional” face2face teaching techniques are not effective in the online classroom. 2, 3
    This belief is sometimes expanded to suggest that these techniques are no longer effective in any contemporary learning setting. 
  • The online classroom represents a paradigm shift in education. 4
    Paradigm Shift: “A fundamental change in approach or underlying assumptions.” ~ Oxford English Dictionary

Faculty Preconceptions:

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Preconception: The online classroom provides intrinsic motivation.

  • Online learning outcomes cannot possibility be as good as face2faces outcomes. 56
  • Instructors are unsure how and to what degree, face2face skills are applicable in the online classroom 7.
  • Learning Managements Systems are designed to engage students and simplify instructional workflows. As such, these platforms will intrinsically motivate students, keeping them on task 8.
  • The online classroom represents a paradigm shift in education.

Preconceptions & Models:

Preconceptions and the Faculty Developer Model:

Preconceptions can have a profound effect on faculty developers. The skeptical SME often has trouble getting started, does not understand the variety of options provided by an LMS, is overwhelmed by the creation of digital content and is not convinced that the effort is worth making. As such, only the most internally/externally motivated faculty seem to complete their course builds. It is not a surprise then when instructors are often cajoled into the developer role; persuaded by administrators with offers that “can’t be refused.”

Providing an analogy that helps faculty overcome their preconceptions should diminish resistance.

Preconceptions and the Managed Model:

In the managed model, different sets of assumptions make reaching a balanced, and the collaborative working relationship is challenging.

ID Preconceptions & Professional Motivation Faculty Preconceptions & Professional Motivation
Online learning outcomes can be as good (or better) than face2face learning outcomes. Online learning outcomes cannot possibility be as good as face2faces outcomes.
“Traditional” face2face teaching techniques are not effective in the online classroom. Instructors are unsure how and to what degree, face2face skills are applicable in the online classroom.
Professional Motivation:
Paid for expertise in online courses creation.
Professional Motivation:
Lured, cajoled, pestered or forced to create online courses. Few professional benefits provided.

It’s not surprising that the instructional designer usually takes the leadership role in a managed model course build. Faculty who are inexperienced with, or fearful of, “the process,” often defer to the judgment of the instructional support staff. In these instances, instructors tend not to take full ownership of their online class, limiting the collaborative nature of this model. Additionally, insulating faculty from potential “mistakes,” unintentionally hides significant opportunities for review and reflection. In the online classroom, a lack of “smoke” is not necessarily an indication that there is no “fire,” only that students are not complaining about being burned.

Providing an analogy that allows IDs to better leverage SME expertises should relieve course quality concerns, and outline the role of the instructor in the virtual classroom. In short, in the managed model, it should help balance the influence of the instructional designer and faculty developer.

Analogy Repeat


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The online classroom* can be equated to an “empty face2face classroom.”
The lights are off, the desks are vacant and the instructor has yet to arrive. 

*By “online classroom”, I am specifically referring to the digital learning space itself. This space can be hosted on a Learning Management System (LMS) or on any number of other online platforms.

Analogy Repeat:

There is one preconception that seems be common to both IDs and SMEs. The belief that the face2face classroom and the online classroom are fundamentally different spaces. The idea that the online classroom represents a brand new paradigm, a sea change in education, is prevalent indeed. The “empty face2face classroom” analogy posits that these learning environments are fundamentally the same.


The Empty Face2Face Classroom:

An “empty face2face classroom” is a class in potentia. All of the instructional ingredients needed to engage learners are present: desks, whiteboards, computer projectors and screens, sound systems, video playback, etc. All that is missing is the faculty person and the learners. 

In the face2face classroom, a sense of social and cognitive community is created naturally by physical proximity. Everyone is in the same place, at that same time, and actively adapting the experience to meet the group’s needs and learning goals.


The Online Classroom:

The online classroom is also a class in potentia, with all the same instructional possibilities. There is almost nothing that can be done in a face2face environment that can’t be accomplished or simulated virtually. However, only launching an online class will not automatically create a social and cognitive community.

In the virtual classroom, there is no physical proximity between faculty and learners. Additionally, there is often no fixed time frame. Without proximity, there is no natural way for body language and behavioral cues to pass between the learners and the faculty. The loss of these signals and the need to create ALL materials in advance makes it hard to identify and adapt to students’ ongoing learning needs.


The Challenge: Replacing Proximity with Intentionality

In the worst case scenario, the online classroom is the same as an empty face2face classroom. “The lights are off, the instructor has not yet arrived, and the desks are vacant.” 

The largest substantive difference between the face2face and online classrooms is the lack of physical proximity. In a real sense, a lack of proximity is built into the online classroom, often leaving online learners with feelings of isolation and frustration. I would like to suggest replacing the “proximity” of the face2face classroom with increased “intentionality” in the virtual classroom,  With deliberate and systematic planning, online instructors can create social and cognitive community in their classrooms. In so doing, they can enjoy the feeling of accomplishment that comes from teaching efficiently and conscientiously.

In the next post, I will break down the obvious and hidden benefits of proximity, suggesting intentional alternatives.

Anecdote:

confusedRecently I began working with a veteran face2face instructor on his first online course. Being pleased with his initial progress, the developer cheerfully informed me that he had “completed module one.”

The content he provided consisted of five PDF articles and a PPT slide deck (without narration). With these materials in hand, this experienced instructor could walk right into a face2face classroom, instruct his learners and engage them actively in a discussion of the readings. But, this content was wholly inadequate for an online class.

These materials were rooted in two of the faculty mentioned above preconceptions:

  • Instructors are unsure how and to what degree, face2face skills are applicable in the online classroom.
  • Learning Managements Systems are designed to engage students and simplify instructional workflows. As such, these platforms will intrinsically motivate students, keeping them on task.

Working from years of experience, my instructor had created materials on autopilot. As such, the instructor did not consider how a lack of proximity would impact his teaching regimen.

I related the following story to the faculty developer.

Question: If all students in your face2face class had this experience, would the majority of your class: a) contact the instructor asking for clarification/direction, b) drop your class, c) complain to the dean or d) All of the above?

Conclusion: I told the instructor, this is what you’re doing in your virtual classroom. By not providing context, direction, and detail, you are in essence failing to show-up for class. Your students are working in an empty classroom.

To be clear, no instructor would ever teach a class by periodically dumping files on students. Overestimating the differences between the two classroom environments, our hesitant instructor has just relied too much on the powers of the LMS and ID.

Analogy Application:

This stark “empty classroom” analogy forces instructors to consider what aspects of their face2face courses are driven simply by physical proximity.

Suggested Checklist:
If you left materials in an empty classroom, would the content you provided:

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  1. Outline your learning goals?
  2. Allow learners to reach these aims?
  3. Detail the dangers of not reaching learning goals?
  4. Explain your expectations?
  5. Contain mechanisms for accurately evaluating student performance?
  6. Indicate the relative importance of concepts and information?
  7. Suggest pathways for moving through or approach the material?
  8. Supply the context need to understand how the lectures, assignments and reading fit in with the lesson, module, and course?
    Ie.would the materials explain why they are doing what you are asking them to do?
  9. Address common “pain points” that you have seen teaching face2face?
    Ie. In all subjects there a places where students routinely struggle. Do the provided materials address and fully support these difficulties.
  10. Contain opportunities and strategies for creating meaningful social interactions?
  11. Detail all logistical considerations such as due dates, upcoming milestones, etc.?

References:

1Study: Online Learning Outcomes Similar to Classroom Results
2New Learning: Re-visioning Education
3Skills Teaching Online vs. Face-to-Face Classes
4Online Or In Class: The Shifting Educational Paradigm
5The Trouble With Online Education
6Face-to-Face or Online Instruction: Face-to-Face is Better
7Practical Advice for Going from Face to Face to Online Learning
8Why Tech Training for Faculty is a Waste of Time

By | 2017-01-09T23:09:20+00:00 July 25th, 2015|

About the Author:

Composer, Music Educator and Instructional Designer, Stephen Wilcox received a B.M. in instrumental performance (tuba) and a B.M. in music theory from West Chester University, a M.M. in Composition at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, as well as a Ph.D. in Composition at the University of Pennsylvania. Most recently, he has been creating online music theory courses for Rutgers University and working as an instructional designer at UC Berkeley.

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  1. […] more, read my previous post on the nature of the online classroom. **Faculty Developer: An instructor engaged in the online […]

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