A Program Begins

Posted by on Jun 8, 2009


I’m going to try an experiment here.  I recently began my work in the Johns Hopkins University, ISTE leadership program, and as part of the course work, I’m required to maintain a blog for reflection.  I pondered setting up a second blog specific for that experience, but something gave me reason to pause.  What is one of the more powerful outcomes of reflection?  I believe it is giving change the opportunity to take root in the practice being reflected upon.  I have received tremendous feedback in the past nine months from many of you in this space, and I’d be remiss to deny myself the opportunity to have you all potentially work through some of the thoughts and ideas that I’m sure I will be writing about due to this required portion of my work.  So, I’m going make my reflections very public and transparent.  And I’m going to hope that reflection sparks conversation that will cause change in my own practice, and hopefully, if all goes as it could, yours as well.

The first question of my first reflection won’t likely be of any interest to most of you.  JHU has developed its own LMS, and my first question is to state how comfortable I am with the system.  Overall, the system seems to be quite functional.  There are all the basic attributes present in most LMS, and there isn’t anything woefully dreadful or game changingly new.  It’s functional, I’m comfortable with it, and I guess that’s all I can really ask for.  Like with almost all online learning experiences, it’s the people and ideas in the system that really make the greatest difference.

The second question may be of more interest.  The question asks, “What, if any, concerns do you have about online learning?” Now that is quite a question.  This is the kind of question some writers could devote books to, and if I were one of those types, I’d imagine I could do the same.  I do, in fact, have all kinds of concerns about online learning.  For the sake of brevity, I’ll try to be concise and focus on only two.

My first concern is with the idea that many seem to espouse about online learning being a panacea for monolithic teaching.  In many places, advocates are saying that we can completely change the way we educate by moving to an online format that accommodates a greater variety of choice.  The issue I see with this is what if students don’t learn well in an online environment?  In the classroom, a teacher can immediately adjust the way a student engages learning based on the individual needs of a student.  In most present iterations of online learning, the course work and path is set.  If a student is a struggling reader, there isn’t much chance for success as the majority of online classes are incredibly text heavy.  So, I have to wonder if we aren’t taking a monolithic means of teaching, and by potentially moving the majority of classes online as many are predicting will happen, we’re simply serving to change the method of the monolith.

My second concern is one of greater practicality.  I’m somewhat bothered by the nature of a discussion board as it is most often utilized in an online course.  When I participated in my program at Walden University, I clearly recall my frustration with the discussion forums.  The sheer amount of information being created by those in the class comes so quickly and furiously that it is truly hard to keep up with it all.  You typically have somewhere near 30 people posting great insights and thoughts on an issue, and reading all of those initial posts on a weekly basis can be a challenge.  Then, add in at least two comments from everyone on other’s original posts, and the noise becomes cacophonous.  That alone is a challenge, but then add in the flat nature of text, and the issue gets even more difficult to deal with.  I’d love to see a discussion board present the option to create a quick video response to a question in the future.  Personally, I’d be much more interested in watching someone’s nonverbal cues as they explain a point, not to mention hear their inflection and personality through their words, than I would be in always reading their thoughts in text.  Of the blogs that I read regularly, I find I am most invested in those of people I’ve met in person.  I naturally find myself reading their posts in their own voice, giving their life to the words they penned, er, I mean typed.

The ironic part of my dislike for discussion forums is that I required the participation in them from the grad students I taught last fall.  Looking back, I’m really not sure why I did such.  For some reason, I forgot about my experience, and I was taken in by the idea and potential I thought a discussion forum held.  Interestingly, in the final class evaluations, the one part of the course many suggested changing was the use of such a forum.

I know there are a good number of individuals who very much enjoy the experience to be had on a discussion board.  Perhaps it’s just something I’m not that equipped to enjoy.  I’m not entirely sure, but I do think we should reevaluate the way we are presently utilizing such forums to see if they are as effective as we might think they are.

Thanks for sticking in here for this post for those of you who managed to do so.  Of course, I’d love to hear your comments and feedback on my issues with online learning.  I hope my posting of my reflections here doesn’t prove to increase the noise too much for you, and I hope you can find value in these conversations.

Thanks to aaronbeekay for the Flickr image.


  1. Ryan
    June 9, 2009


    I enjoyed reading your post. You bring up challenges with the discussion features in online courses that bother me all the time. The simply fact that we force this set number of responses is rediculous. Much like live discussions in a classroom some people have more to say than others. I love the concpet of video discussions and agree that once you meet people you begin to read them differently as they post. I think this is the power of the face-to-face meeting at NECC in DC. I’ll look forward to meeting you in a few weeks.

  2. Anne V
    June 9, 2009

    My discussion board issue is opposite to yours. What if only three people are in the class? Discussion is starting to get repetitive and viewpoints are becoming set in stone. Instead of discussing, it gets to “defending.” Not much reason to add 30 posts.

  3. Michael W
    June 9, 2009

    I thought about the JH program. I’ll be interested to hear your insights. As for the forums, compare your experience in the forum to a Twitter discussion, like the one you had w/ Will and Dean a few days ago? Different? The Same?
    I think there has to be an optimal number of people participating. Perhaps if people were broken down into subgroups, it would be more effective.

  4. wmchamberlain
    June 9, 2009

    I think on-line learning can be really beneficial for some students, but not everyone. There are a lot of questions that need to be addressed as well: What age is appropriate to begin on-line education? Where do students that have no computers or internet access go to do their lessons? Who pays for these centers? How are new teachers (just out of school) hired to teach them? What kind of support do they get and who gives it to them?

    The need for human interaction, forget for a minute socialization, is incredibly important. Babies that are not held enough often end up with psychological problems. Inmates that are put in solitary confinement often develop problems as well. I teach in a 3-8 grade building and I have many students that come from single parent homes. The only male or female role model they have contact with may be a teacher at school. Where will these students meet those needs?

    Again, I think on-line learning can and should be a viable option for some students. I don’t think it will work for every student just as I don’t think a traditional classroom will meet every student’s needs.


  5. Kristin
    June 9, 2009

    I have always thought an online element is great as a portion of the course, but I’m also old-fashioned in some ways. While it’s wonderful to have a program like blackboard to access a syllabus/calendar from anywhere, with the isolation technology presents that critics scream out against, this system only furthers promotes that problem. Some of my best social contacts came from the small day-to-day interactions in a classroom, learning together, discussing secondary issues that class brings up (topics that don’t make it on the discussion board), as well as learning how to interact with other human beings. In environments where it’s much more common to chat online with a classmate than face-to-face, getting all the in-person interaction possible is critical. I have nothing against some form of hybrid classes, but as you stated, not everyone learns the same. Some will not and cannot thrive in the maze of online learning. Self-motivation and discipline are key elements for a good match, and not all students excel in these areas. Others need a more independent approach. I think branching out into the realm of the online classroom as an option, rather than a requirement, is a wonderful addition to what we have established already, but as a replacement, it lacks in far too many areas.

  6. Britt Watwood
    June 9, 2009


    Nice post. I have a couple of thoughts, having just finished team teaching an online course with Jon Becker.

    First, regarding your statement about the panacea for monolithic teaching, I would suggest that many F2F classes teach to the middle and ignore both the brightest and the hopeless. The flexibility of online venues give you an ability to impact multiple learning styles and learning speeds.

    Second, I love discussions boards, and in a class of 25 typically have over a hundred posts a week to keep up with. But first I do not wait until the end of the week to read, but read and respond daily. Secondly, I require in my rubric that original posts be posted two days before the “discussion” period ends, so that there is actually time for followup discussion. My students respond favorably to my social presence in their discussions.

    Having said that, I am considering revamping the discussion portion of my course to develop more global and deeper questions, and require the students (like you) to blog rather than post in discussion boards. I think the richness of outside conversations over keeping conversations inside the walled garden will add to the class.

    So I will be interested in how your blogging experience turns out!

  7. Kelley
    June 9, 2009

    On-line courses so indeed add an additional opportunity for learning. I am just as sure that total on-line learning cannot replace the personal touch of in person discussions where, body posture, infection and that element of connection. While I have many I follow on twitter I a always thrille to meet them in person and am often surprised by the real person.

    My district just decided to close the alternative education schools and instead purchase Novanet. Alt Ed students will be plugged in computer course work with one teacher per 60 students. The school board actually said that that while one HS teacher could not be highly qualified in 5 subject areas-they weren’t concerned because the software is “High;y Qualified”.
    Instead of using technology as a tool professional educators use to bring learning int the 21st century-they are replacing people with machines-and they expect this to raise achievment.

  8. Chris Aldrich
    June 18, 2009


    I found your blog through a twitter search and am of a like mind to yours when it comes to online learning.

    There certainly must be some better way of accomplishing a discussion board. I haven’t played with it too significantly, but perhaps a tool like Seesmic might provide you with some of the actual discussion and visual hints about which you spoke? They have a relatively decent set up and are easily embeddable into other platforms (including comments sections to most blogging platforms.)

    As another option, I’ve been playing around in the last six months with Livescribe.com’s Pulse Pen as a note-taking and learning tool for online related presentations. I’m curious if you’ve had a chance to take a look at it with relation to your topic of discussion here?

    I’ve also been enthralled with the technology behind the online tool at http://www.flowgram.com, but alas they’ve recently announced that their service will be closing at the end of June 2009. Perhaps you might take a peek at it before it disappears.

    Johns Hopkins last president William Brody has frequently noted that one of the few areas of life which hasn’t been able to take advantage of economies of scale since the start of the Industrial Revolution is the University system. As a result, the cost of providing an education has only risen over time rather than becoming cheaper and easier to deliver. Surprisingly online learning still hasn’t managed to help overcome this problem either. Is there a solution to providing a better and more ubiquitous learning environment for less money?

    I look forward to reading your continuing thoughts and the responses in the comments sections here.

  9. MJ
    June 25, 2009

    In my opinion, web-based training has more advantages than a live face to face teaching as big companies can centrally managed their global workforce. By the way, I have recently came across one website, its actually eleapsoftware, an online training software which makes you enjoy the flexibility, simplicity and customization of a system that will not financially drain smaller organizations.


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