I should say from the outset, that this isn’t about Flipped Learning™ as understood by most educators, but I couldn’t resist the reference to it as a catchy title!
So, entitled sense of rage aside, I am currently enrolled in an education course that is taught primarily online. I find this particularly interesting, since in my previous life as a Learning Technologies Coordinator in a Victorian high school I took a keen interest in the possibilities the online space afforded learners. I had lots of theories about how engaged and self-motivated learners would be when given the opportunity to work at their own pace with online material, rather than having to go at the pace of the lessons planned by a teacher, or at the pace of the slower learners in their cohort. Now I am the learner it is great to see it work out in practice.
I think it does have the potential to work well. My course is offered in the ‘blended’ mode, which means we have short, face-to-face intensives, synchronous online workshops, and asynchronous learning modules, made up of readings, video clips and discussion forums we are expected to participate in. As this is a Master’s degree, we also have access to academic journals and books, mostly available online or through the bricks-and-mortar library. So all of the elements we need for our learning are available for us, pretty much whenever we need it. There is also a number of Facebook groups that popped up, which was a student led initiative, to connect people training in the same teaching methods, and one for all those enrolled in the course. Even our assignments are offered in a differentiated, highly engaging and technology rich way. I was surprised to learn that for my Master’s degree I would be submitting multi-modal, multimedia mash-ups for some of my actual, graded coursework. I’m quite enthused by this, as it really ‘walks the talk’ of modern education theory. The schools I have worked in are yet to have the real freedom to do this for ‘serious’ assignments, like year 12 English SACS, for example, because ultimately it doesn’t look like the final exam and so is not trusted as adequate preparation for the final assessment. But I digress. In short, everything I would expect from a well organised teaching team and a well motivated student cohort is in place.
There are aspects that are already working well. This is the first time the university has run this particular course, so there are a few creases to be ironed out as they launch everything and try to engage us in these methods for the first time, but there is a lot that is a success.
Firstly, many students have really engaged with the ‘suggested’ learning activities. These are things we are not graded on, but they are designed to guide our learning and point us in the right direction. My experience with junior kids in the classroom is often that if something is not ‘on the report’ they tend to have very low motivation to do it. Obviously, you try many things to overcome that initial feeling, but it has been the ‘default setting’ of many of the kids I’ve taught. I guess most Master’s students, particularly Master’s students training to become educators themselves, are more intrinsically motivated to complete these optional learning tasks.
The asynchronous aspect of it is a real benefit as well. I get emails every time someone posts to the forums, and some of those emails are coming in a 12am or 3am! Absolutely crazy times, but times that for whatever reason obviously suit those particular students. I did experience this with senior students in the classroom, too, but it was more alarming to see a 4am submission to our class blog than these MTEACH students doing it, because my kids had class with me the next day and trying to teach them when they’ve pulled an all-nighter to meet their blog post quota was a nightmare. I had one kid that would literally have to sleep in class because of the way he worked through the night on his assignments. I don’t think that’s what Flipped Learning™ is supposed to look like.
I’ve noticed a number of frustrations bubble up as we’ve entered into this method of learning as well, though, and it would be remiss of me to ignore them.
Many of the students are super-engaged. I’m one of them. We were accessing the LMS (Moodle…*shiver*) before the commencement of the course and during the first week of face-to-face lectures hoping to get access to all of the material so we could dive in with our studies. This simply wasn’t available. There was an unspoken expectation on our part that we could learn at our own pace, and we intended that pace to be fast, furious and starting right now. The lecturers had an unspoken expectation that we would commence with the online studies after the intensive. In fact, some of the online modules for week one were still not completely uploaded and usable yesterday. This seems like a small point, but it’s worth considering that your most motivated students will demand access to everything and if you don’t intend to make that available, you should communicate that clearly up front. There were a number of forum posts along the lines of people feeling in the dark about what was going on. Like I said, this is the first time this course has been delivered, and this is just one of those ‘creases’, but the take away for me has been that when students are asked to engage with material online, it may cause some confusion and fear, and timely communication that anticipates their needs is crucial to keeping them onside.
Another issue is that, as I just intimated, there is some fear and confusion coming from some students. This is the first time many of us have had to learn this way, and as it is such an alien experience to many they want to be reassured that they are capable. There have been some follow-up offers of assistance in response to some of these issues from the lecturers, but I think in future versions of the course they’d be better prepared to meet that kind of resistance face on at the beginning.
The final issue that I’ve noticed is that a great number of the students have not yet engaged with any of the discussion material online. Now, obviously there could be a great many reasons for this. We all signed up for the online model of the course presumably because we needed the flexibility it afforded, so many of the students simply may not be available to participate yet. Students may also be working more strategically, diving into the material in unseen ways, doing the readings and simply ignoring everything that isn’t direct work towards the assignments. I get that. In fact, I wish that was the approach I was taking, but I have been so immersed in the theory surrounding this method of learning for so long now, I can’t help but get engaged in the slower, more discussion based methods – even though I have 9 years of experience and literally nothing that we have covered yet has been new information to me! Whatever the reason, though, I think the lecturers would likely have mixed feelings about the levels of engagement, and there must be some students for whom there are more negative reasons, be that laziness, difficulty in motivating oneself, or simply struggling to manage the workload without feeling overwhelmed.
I’m excited by the course at the moment, but mainly because it feels like a huge experiment in online learning from my perspective. I will, no doubt, offer more analysis of this as the months progress.