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Online Teaching and Learning: From Independent Study to Immersive Collaboration

Educators attend a conference presentation in a traditional space in an immersive environment, via avatar representations.

I come across an article several times a week that describes a K-12 district or a state’s efforts for offering the opportunity  for students to “learn online”.  Higher education has been involved with online/distance learning for a longer period of time and those articles are more about reforming and broadening access.  E-Learning, online learning, distance learning, virtual learning are all used to describe learning where students use a computer from a remote location to participate in a course of study.  Upon examination of specific “online courses”, it is clear that online teaching and learning experiences are not equal.

I first took an online class about 10 years ago. I logged onto a website and followed links to complete the task of reading information,  lots of it.  There was a syllabus breaking the content into modules by week.  Sometimes there was a movie to watch or audio clip to listen to and always an assignment to work on, independently.  Each week of reading was followed by an assessment of some kind, usually a multiple choice test.  With the exception of the computer, these online classes were similar to how my mother took correspondence courses many years ago.   My online classes did offer some interaction with the instructor and fellow students,  posting an answer to the instructor’s question and then responding to 2 or 3 fellow participants (a requirement that was sometimes contrived) and e-mail, as needed, typically to solve a technology issue.  At the high school level students are typically required to call instructors, via phone, once a week.   The online learning experience was useful for those who could not fit a class into their physical life schedule and promised “anytime, anywhere” access.  Individuals were typically motivated to complete the course and did so, earning the required credits.

More recently,  I have talked to colleagues completing a degree program online.  Their experience are similar to the one described above, with the addition of collaborative work with fellow participants required.  The work is generally some sort of project that necessitates research, writing, consensus building, and splitting the work up to be done independently with a final collection of the independent work to be submitted for a “group grade”.  The groups meet synchronously or asynchronously and communication is generally in text via e-mail, google docs and sometimes Facebook.

At the most engaged level, students meet as a class in a synchronous setting.  It can be in a webinar with video, a Skype group session, a Google Hangout (limited to 9 people), or an immersive environment.  There is a specific time and the place can be anywhere a person can get an Internet connection.  Synchronous sessions online provide personal interaction that online participants often report as lacking.  Webinars allow video cam of both instructor and participants and Immersive environments provide for avatar representations of people.  Communication can be either text, voice or both and in immersive environments (virtual worlds) participants may be in any type of environment from a traditional classroom or auditorium setting to a planet in space or a fantasy location.

For individuals who dismiss online, e-learning, virtual learning as a “read – memorize – test” process that does not require a teacher, I suggest investigating the inclusion of  engagement technologies described above.  An instructor/facilitator is ALWAYS necessary to guide the learning and monitor for understanding.  Online teaching requires some technical knowhow but depends largely on good teaching intuition and communication that motivates participants to engage.

Asynchronous Online Learning Synchronous Online Learning  

Online Learning in Immersive Environments 

Level of Engagement with environment
  • Access variety of online resources
  • Independent Interactive activities
  • Access variety of online resources
  • Share video, documents, screens
  • Full engagement with immersive environment
  • Interaction w/virtual physical space
  • Access to variety of online resources
  • Share Video, documents, screens
Level of Engagement with others Independent
  • Live online sessions via webinar or chat space
  • Collaborative
  • Synchronous sessions “inworld”
  • Collaborative
  • “Physical interaction” and proximity via avatar
Communication
  • E-mail
  • Forum
  • Voice
  • Text
  • Video
  • Voice
  • Text
  • Video
  • Physical movement w/avatar representation

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