Over the course of the last six months I have been examining the history and practices of online education. Were I not an online teacher nor in a master's program, I highly doubt I would have ventured down this research path. But since I have found myself on a journey that requires me to both teach and learn online, the topic could be not be more pertinent than now.
What I have taken away from all the research and my personal experiences is that online instruction is much more time consuming than most people would imagine and that there is a greater need to for relationships to be built in online classrooms than most people would expect. In addition, I have learned that Spiderman's famous quote, "with great power comes great responsibility" can take on a new meaning when one considers the "power" the tools of technology and training in best practices of learning and instruction. I feel I have been put in a place of great responsibility because I have the "power" of knowledge and the tools of technology, but just as Spiderman faced opposition, I too face a lot of obstacles in utilizing this power and channeling it into creating the best possible virtual learning environment. But when I face opposition that questions some of my practices I keep in mind some of the articles I have read during my review of literature reading and writing process.
One such article was, "Empowering knowledge-building pedagogy in online environments: Creating digital moments to transform practice (Barber, Taylor & Buchanan 2014)--see file below. The following quote sums up the heart of the author and the goal of implement “Digital Moments” in an online learning community: “Working and living in the digital landscape requires that we do more than just build knowledge that is measured, assessed and framed by what we currently know. It requires us to step into worlds as yet unknown; to create new knowledge, and to use that knowledge to begin to address some of the complex social problems that exist” (p. 136). Barber, Taylor and Buchanan’s philosophy on the important aspect of online pedagogy align with the views I have, in that they put a very high emphasis on the creating of safety, trust and positive emotional connections among students and between students and the instructor. They point out the importance of narratives, and know one another’s narrative: it creates bonds and allows students to be more engaged and invested in the classroom. The emphasis of this article is on “Digital Moments” (which were never clearly defined in the article) that I gathered to be activities and assignments that draw students in to the lesson by including them in an activity each week that allows them to share something about themselves: ice breakers and community building activities. They argue that without these activities as foundations to the class the content may not be absorbed and students may likely lose interest more quickly. These activities get the students onboard and involved from the start, and then keep them involved because of the connections they make with one another.
Another resource that empowered me to seek after creating a healthy online learning environment was
Hockly and Clandfield"s book, Teaching online: Tools and techniques, options and opportunities (2010). This book of just over one-hundred pages is chalked full of ideas, resources and explanations of how to effectively implement both into an online or blended course. The authors, Hockly and Clandfield (2010), walk the reader through the process of how to set up an online course. They heavily emphasize the creating of an online learning community with a positive dynamic. Thus, many of the activities and resources offered adhere to these two aims. Much of the focus is on language learning but the activities easily lend themselves to modification. Regardless of the topic at hand, most of the activities can be used as warm-up activities that draw the learners together as a community. Most often the activities have a dual purpose: to practice a skill or learn about an online tool, plus, encouraging interaction among members of the class.
This book remained on my desk throughout the semester. I was able to read through all of the activities and label the week I plan to use them in my research writing class. I made a plan of when to use each activity on a document to be able to easily keep on track with my plan for usage, as well as for posting to my VLE (virtual learning environment). I was very excited to start the year with at least one, if not two, learning activities ready for each week of the course. This source is well worth the paper back purchase.
From these sources, and others, I determined to research if the inclusion of community building activities in my online classroom would build relationships among students. I was also looking to determine if students making connections with one another would aid in them completing work throughout the course.
Now that the semester has come to a close I am ready to go back through my surveys, the students' grades and the tracking of student participation to determine if the efforts I put forth in community building had a positive effect on the students' experiences and learning. We'll see what the data says...
Teacher Incentive Pay
One of the hot topics in education as of late is the seemingly inevitable establishment of "performance-based" pay. In my preparation for this post I came across a well put-together article that shows a balanced view of this topic: Pay for Performance: What are the Issues? (written by Ellen R. Delisio). I then compared what I had read to my current situation (a situation I have been frustrated with for the entire semester).
Here is what I see as a challenge in creating a perfomance-based incentive program in education--sometimes the silliest "performances" are measured and then the entire system can become a joke rather than a catalyst to move teachers toward better teaching practices. Let me give you some examples from my experience, because I think the point will be quickly seen through them.
In my current teaching situation I am a part of what is called the "Earning Excellence: Incentive Program for Teachers". I have no choice about my involvement in the program, even though the name would likely lend one to think of it in that way. All teachers are given a list of activities that must be done to earn points toward a letter grade in their grade book. (Yes, each week I get an email giving me a letter grade for my progress as a teacher.) Which, if it were based on actual teacher performance in the classroom, and was included with some thought-provoking comments or helpful advise, I think I would be all about it. Rather, the weekly grades are based on whether a teacher attends the faculty meeting and answers a one question quiz following the meeting. Often times, the question is simply, Did you attend the meeting today? Which seems hardly worth my time, incredibly impersonal and shining as a hoop to jump through, not an incentive for becoming a better teacher. Other ways to earn points in this program include posting all assignments a week prior to the upcoming class (and a few other deadline related postings), turning in receipts for stipends, and then simply being present in your classroom at the of your class (No evaluation of what is being taught is done. The department head simply signs in to class, unannounced, checks to see that you are having class and signs out.). Because these point earning performances seem so far removed from my actual instruction, I have a hard time taking the entire program seriously. Instead, I feel like I am in middle school and having to do busy work to avoid getting a letter sent home with a horrifying letter grade displaying my worth as a student. To be fair, self and advisor evaluations are a part of the incentive program (that earns you $25 at Amazon and your name entered into a drawing for more gifts cards), but they only make up a small portion of the points and a grade is not given out for them, simply, "A" if you do it, and "F" if you don't.
Delisio, in her article points out that some of the issues with teacher merit pay are, making the evaluation objective, the process worthwhile and the incentives based on actual performance. But coming up with a system that meets all these requirements takes time and money, both commodities that most administrators and school districts don't have. And in the end, will it all be worth it, or will teachers find themselves feeling like students being handed a report card each grading period -- feeling less professional, rather than more professional? That is definitely what I am experiencing. Granted, the system that has been designed to be an incentive is clearly flawed, but is it really reasonable to believe there will be a system that will not be flawed? What if the culture simply saw us as professionals because we are professionals. We have earned our professional title through degrees, and continued education standards already required by the licensers in our states. Is it really necessary to stack more on top of this to encourage teachers to "perform" at a higher level?
I don't think so. I think what would make the biggest difference in teacher motivation would be if our profession wasn't the spotlight for political and government debate. If teachers were seen as professional enough to govern the systems that are used to both educate students and teachers. And if the stigma of the teaching profession was one of honor and gratitude. If we got paid more, great! But I think most of us would agree that appreciation for and recognition of our value in the society would likely have a greater return than investing time and money in an evaluation system that will no doubt have flaws and blind-spots.
Links to all the, Go and See Study, sessions.