As an instructor of online courses, I must confess, I didn’t immediately jump at the idea of teaching in an online classroom. My primary arguments against online learning were very legitimate.
- There’s no way that can work for continuing education of medical interpreters.
- The quality of the instruction will be compromised.
- I won't know if anyone is paying attention, not to mention learning the concepts.
- The online classroom will be too intimidating for the students and for me.
With all that enthusiasm and optimism, I dove right in – kicking and screaming – and proving myself wrong the whole way.
It really can work.
But is has to be designed well, facilitated well, and the learners have to have a desire to learn. Sounds like face-to-face, brick and mortar classrooms, right? It also has to use a platform that is meant for online learning. The class should not be designed based on the limitations of the online classroom; the online classroom should come equipped with the features needed to allow the students to achieve the learning objectives. There’s a reason why you don’t see a lot of classes taking place at the food court at the mall. It wasn’t designed for that purpose. A web-based platform that is meant to conduct a sales pitch or host a board meeting will not work well for an online classroom.
There are many companies that provide online classroom platforms. They key to selecting an online classroom is finding one that allows the same type of interaction that you’d get in a live classroom. The online classroom that Connecting Cultures uses is Citrix GoToTraining, which allows us to run our classes as if we were all in the same room. . . except that students have to provide their own coffee and pastries. I haven’t figured out a way around that one.
The quality of the classroom experience isn’t compromised.
Adult learners are not empty cups. They have life experience, professional experience, previous academic experience, on-the-job experience. You get the idea. The facilitator shouldn’t read a bunch of stuff off of slides or hog the microphone when in a face-to-face classroom, and this shouldn’t happen in an online environment either. Adult learning principles don’t disappear just because the class takes place online. Among other things, the content needs to be relevant, and the format needs to be engaging. This can be achieved in on online classroom.
We don’t refer to the people who sign up for classes as attendees. The term we use is participant. Attendees attend (passive). Participants participate (active). More than a motto, it’s the way the online learning is facilitated.
How do we achieve active participation in our online classroom?
We use a variety of interactive tools. Our classrooms have open-mic policies. Students are not only allowed to talk, but they are required to do so. How else can they demonstrate the skills they are learning or share their responses to an ethical dilemma? And, let’s be honest, interpreters like to talk. Plus it’s a more effective way to learn than passively listening. Audio is not the only way for students to interact and contribute to discussion. Open chat boxes, polling, and shared whiteboards are just a few of the other tools that enable a collaborative experience. The trick is to use the tool that fits the learning objective, and that falls to the facilitator to facilitate.
Our class sizes are limited. Can you imagine being in a lecture hall with 500 other students? Neither can I. That’s why our class sizes are limited to 15 people. Yup. 15 people maximum. Why? Because smaller class sizes allow for more individual participation and collaborative feedback. These things add up to a meaningful learning experience. Watching a computer screen for an hour or two doesn’t usually yield high learning results.
I will know if people are paying attention and learning the concepts.
Before I get into the details on this one, let me just say that if people aren’t paying attention, then maybe there’s a disconnect in a critical area. If the content is not relevant or engaging, then I can’t really fault the student for checking out. If the student, who is a working interpreter, gets an unexpected call to respond to an emergency and leaves the class early, I’d give him an A+ for critical decision-making skills, and we’d figure out another time to make up the missed class content.
So, how can I tell if people are paying attention when no one is in the same room?
I’ll let you in on a little secret, as long as you promise not to tell anyone else. . . The online classroom has monitoring tools that tell me if a student is distracted by other things. (Don’t worry, no privacy laws are broken.) More important than the built-in monitoring tools, the level of individual participation and interaction that takes place throughout the class time allows me, the facilitator, to make sure that everyone is connected and engaged. As an instructor, I can check in with students individually, in much the same way as facilitators in face-to-face classrooms do. If someone has signed on at the beginning and walked away from their computer, I will know. And there will be consequences. (Queue ominous music.) But seriously, the last thing I want is for the class to be a waste of time, so designing relevant learning experiences is priority number one.
Each class is also designed with some way for each person to demonstrate that they’ve “got it.” Depending on the particular course, this might be in-class demonstration of skills, a knowledge test administered after the class ends, or a small project to submit within a certain timeframe after the class ends.
The online classroom is not too intimidating.
You don’t have to be a computer programmer to be able to navigate the online classroom. In fact, it was designed to be easily used by people who are not software engineers. While the classroom comes equipped with fancy tech features, we carefully select the tools we use based on what’s best for the learning at the moment, never for the sake of showing off what the (albeit very cool) classroom can do. That said, “Trust me! It’s easy!” isn’t all that convincing. So, we offer opportunities to check out the online classroom first-hand with our Try It Out! demo sessions. During these demo session, participants have the opportunity to make sure their device (a.k.a. computer) connects well and practice using the fun tools, all under the guidance of the instructor(s) who facilitate the continuing education courses. Oh, and it’s free.
Are you ready for online learning with Connecting Cultures? Come Try It Out!
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