High Concept – High Touch

One of the things I love about Twitter is how unexpectedly a nugget comes across that grabs your attention.  Such a nugget arrived this weekend from Emily Hurst attending the Medical Library Association 2010 conference.


She was forwarding a remark from Daniel Pink, keynoter at that conference.  His comment resonated with me, particularly as I and my colleagues at the Center for Teaching Excellence continue our preps for our summer institute in two weeks.  We will be working with twenty faculty for an intense week of exploration on transitioning face-to-face classes on to the web.

Jeff Nugent, Bud Deihl and I have been working on this summer institute since February.  We have an institute every summer on some aspect of teaching with technology, but this is the first year that we are exploring teaching and learning online.  One could argue that we started down this road last year, when our theme was “networked learning“, but our focus this year is on the totally online class.

cover_thumbAs our White Paper suggested last May, our work with faculty members interested in teaching online has demonstrated to us the common perspective that moving a course online is primarily about designing and sequencing course content. Another example of that perspective can be seen in this post yesterday from Free as in Freedom: “Here are 6 Tips To Make Your Rapid eLearning a Success.”  While Sumeet Moghe’s emphasis is workplace training, his suggestions can be applied to online course design.  However,if the focus is strictly on design, one misses an important aspect of online teaching and learning.  Rather than design for a classroom of one, which is basically a correspondence course, in higher education one should design for a community of learners – with an assumption that the faculty member will be a participant in that community.

While quality course content is a significant factor, we believe that recent changes on the web – toward a more social and interconnected space – have necessitated the rethinking of what it means to make the transition to online teaching and learning (and our institute reflects these changes). The unprecedented changes occurring on the web are disrupting the normal practice of teaching and learning and raising questions in the minds of faculty as to whether their own practices should change.  We believe that the practice of teaching online requires a shift toward practices that facilitate learning in web-based environments. Our experience suggests that these shifts are not always transparent to those wishing to make the transition to teaching courses online.

So let me build on Sumeet’s 6 tips from a teaching practice perspective:

1.  Be Task Centered Not Content Centered

Sumeet notes that most elearning still seems to be very content focused.  He correctly (unfortunately) has seen a lot of content, content, content, followed by a quiz approaches to elearning.  So he suggests adopting an activity focused approach to elearning.  I totally agree, and would suggest that by taking a high concept, high touch approach, you will steer those activities towards relevant activities that align with your overall course objectives.  “Task” will vary discipline to discipline, but the best tasks are often those that involve the faculty member with the students.  Co-learning and co-discovery will out do busy work every day!

2.  Create Exploratory Navigation

explore2Sumeet suggests that we need to treat our learners as adults and give them the freedom to pick out the information they need.  He also suggests that providing information in a linear powerpoint rarely reflects the real world.  Sumeet is focused on the web design, but I would push this concept further.  In an age when the world’s knowledge is at our students’ fingertips, it does not enhance learning to even try and give students the content.  Rather, I would read this tip as a mandate to develop opportunities for students to explore and share learning as an integral part of the course.

For instance, in my online class, we spend several weeks exploring legal issues associated with student use of MySpace and Facebook.  Rather than giving my students a reading assignment on a legal case, I have my students explore on their own and share legal cases with each other.  This process gives them ownership of the learning…and results in a much richer flow of up-to-date information over what I might develop on my own.

3.  Mimic the Real World

Sumeet asks an important question.  How do your learners perform the task you are teaching in the real world?  No matter the discipline, the learning online will be more effective if it is relevant to the learner.  The trick is to look for those opportunities to make the learning relevant, and to get the students to reflect on the relevancy in their own world.

4.  Exploit Your Slide Masters

Sumeet in this tip discusses a technique that allows powerpoint slides to load faster.  A good technique…but not really applicable to my discussion here.  Yet, his DRY principle – Don’t Repeat Yourself – is relevant.  Using the same activity week after week gets old.  So exploit your creativity and use a range of activities to engage your students across the entire semester.

5.  Design Challenges, not Assessments

At the end of the week or course, you will be assigning grades to each individual.  So assessment is needed.  But Sumeet’s point is well taken – are we assessing what they remember – lower level Bloom’s Taxonomy skills, or what they can do with their information, which moves one up the levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy?

6.  Be Visual

visual2As Sumeet noted, learners are not going to be engaged by a course site that is loaded down with text and nothing else.  Our students are increasingly becoming used to websites that engage them – visually and physically.  Yet you do not need to be a graphic designer to add visual elements to your course.  Images – and I use a lot of Creative Commons images from Flickr – add interest to your text.  YouTube and the Internet Archive contain a wealth of videos that can be easily embedded into a course site.  Software such as SoftChalk can be used to provide interactive components to your website.

So I agree with most of Sumeet’s points – good design is important.  It is just not the only factor to quality online instruction.  The faculty need to take their design and then use it to connect with their students and facilitate learning.  While we have some neat tools and cool technologies to use in elearning, high concept and high touch remain critical to learning success.

How would you add to my thoughts?

{Photo Credits: Watwood, eflon, ~Dezz~}

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2 thoughts on “High Concept – High Touch

  1. Online collaborating and teaching can work, If you have trust and the right tools.
    I recently tried http://www.showdocument.com – good app for uploading documents and working on them in real-time.
    Most file types are supported and it needs no installation. – andy

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