Library Learning Goes Online: American Libraries Live Episode

Today I had the great pleasure to participate in an American Libraries Live episode on Library Learning Goes Online. Dan Freeman, Online Learning Manager for ALA Publishing, organized and pulled together the session, Sarah Steiner moderated, and John Shank and I were on the panel. As someone with an interest in online learning, I have to say, I really like the format. It’s easier to have a conversation via Google Hangouts than most standard web conferencing packages, and though we participants didn’t get a chance to participate in real time, there was an ongoing chat, hashtag on twitter, and facebook conversation related to the session.

The conversation was wide ranging, but here are some of the things that I noted to be sure to cover in the conversation:

When we talk about online instruction today, what are we talking about?

Instruction covers a broad spectrum of issues: training, library instruction/one-shots, workshops, courses (either those we teach or those we support), and MOOCs. As John pointed out in the session, even meetings can fall into the domain of online learning.

There are three main models of instruction:

  1. Synchronous, which instruction conducted in which participants engage at the same time, is conducted using web conferencing software like WebEx, or Adobe Connect, or even Google Hangout. 
  2. Asynchronous, which is instruction conducted in such a way that participants do not have to login or participate at a specific time. Learning Management Systems, blogs or wikis, or any interactive website can enable these learning environments.
  3. And, finally, hybrid or blended, environments which combine the two.

And finally, when talking about online instruction today, I think you also have to talk about the methods of online learning, which I’m not sure I had time to bring up today, which I was thinking of in terms of the learning theory and/or pedagogies to support good learning, the technology tools you use to create the learning environment, and the literacies your audience has (for example, how much do they know about how to use the various tools you plan to use in your instruction).

What are the similarities and differences between in person and online learning? How might they work together?

Fundamentally, I believe in person instruction and online instruction are more similar than different. Both are about attaining learning outcomes. In both you want to get the attention of your students. Both are about the people in your class and being really good at communication.

That being said, the main difference from my view is that in an online environment you have a lot more variables to consider when designing instruction than you do in a traditional face-to-face environment. And the decisions you have to make depend on your knowledge of tools that are ever-changing as well as other variables such as whether you need to design instruction for a synchronous environment.

But most interestingly to me is that online instruction can inform face-to-face instruction. Designing online instruction takes intention in a way that face-to-face doesn’t always require. With more variables and more tools, you have to think more carefully about what you’re doing and why. This reflection and intention can transfer back to traditional teaching. Further, gaining familiarity with online tools can provide tools that can be useful in hybrid settings or even as supplementary activities in face-to-face environments. And finally, if you create content for online instruction, you now have content that you can reuse in other ways: in tutorials, in virtual chat sessions for reference, in flipped classrooms, etc.

What are the opportunities and costs associated with online learning?

Some of the most often discussed opportunities are around issues like the ability to fit courses into difficult schedules, freeing up classroom space, reaching students you might not be able to reach otherwise, and sometimes that online learning can be a more authentic learning experience for some courses (for example, a class about online learning should probably be taught online).

Specifically, what’s gained and lost depends on the structure and purpose of the course. For example: if the course is designed to maximize the number of students, you lose the personal connection. If you design online instruction to maintain or improve personal connections, you cannot scale to massive numbers. To know what’s gained or lost, you have to think about what you’re designing and why. And, in the end, you should be able to design something that that is better for what you’re trying to do, and what you lose in the tradeoff should hopefully be something that wasn’t critical to your instruction in the first place.

How do you keep students engaged online?

I really do feel that it’s the same as in face-to-face instruction:

  1. Make the content interesting and useful
  2. Provide opportunities for interaction: with you, with classmates, and/or with the content itself
  3. Tie the instruction to a real world need: whether it’s a graded assignment, a need the community has, etc.

As John pointed out, thinking carefully as you plan activities, such as chat, polling, etc, allows you to engage people with content as you work through it. And providing those activities to students allow them to actually do something rather than just hear it.

What are good assessment strategies?

It’s pretty clear that in the field, we often use “assessment” to mean a wide umbrella of things, most of which falls into one of these categories:

  1. Evaluating affective aspects of the class
  2. (Formative) assessment to test how the instruction is going to allow you to pivot or shift instructional strategies if the audience needs it
  3. Assessing whether the class’s designated learning outcomes have been met

You’d do this in any class–hopefully–but in an online class it will often look different. For example, talking to a room full of people, you can see when people get bored or when they look engaged. That’s formative assessment data that tells you whether you need to speak more casually, do more demos, or keep up the good work you’re doing. In most cases, you don’t have that same head-nodding feedback online, so you have to create opportunities to get that feedback as part of your instruction.

And, as John so correctly pointed out, you can easily design the instruction to include feedback in any activity you have students do, and in that case you are able to assess any time students are actively participating (whether polling, working in small groups, doing an assignment, etc.).

One of the questions raised was about assessing behavioral changes vs. learning skills. That’s hard whether it’s in person or not. And like in person, if you have a really good relationship with the faculty member, in a college setting at least, you might be able to see final projects or get some indication through that lens. I always hype the friendly librarian and how to get in touch, and then focus on transferable skills. I’m more interested in can an undergraduate student think through choosing a good topic and generally evaluating resources rather than which of our proprietary databases to use and how to make use of advanced searching within it. The more transferable skills will be used again and again by the student, giving them opportunities to reinforce the lesson, and is a technique that is grounded in brain-based learning.

Thoughts for the future

In the immediate future, I’m following: MOOCs and Open Educational Resources, as well as the related competency based education discussions. Though not new news, I pay a lot of attention to Personal Learning Networks as another piece of the “informal” learning environment.

In the longer term, I’m thinking about learner analytics. The systems we use for instruction, in many cases Learning Management Systems, can provide amazing data to let us know how learners are interacting with content, how long they’re staying on the site, and who isn’t engaged at all. That data is powerful, both in terms of helping the instructor know what’s really going on in the classroom as well as as another data point in designing the next go round of instruction. However, I’m watching with a tentative eye, because I worry a bit about the potential dystopian future  that it points to, removing some of the humanity from education and possibly the creativity of both the students and the teachers.

One more thing

After the talk, a colleague asked for a few Instructional Design related book recommendations, so here are some I particularly like:

I had a great time in the conversation, and really appreciated reading the twitter conversations later. Thanks to Dan for inviting me, Sarah for the excellent moderation, John for the great conversation, and the American Libraries Live crew for the opportunity to participate in the event!