In today’s digital learning boom, it’s easy for university educators to feel like they’re losing control of their own classrooms. As power shifts towards university administrations instead of educators, and e-learning becomes more prominent, learning content is becoming increasingly centralized. Instead of perceiving technology as a threat to their independence, university educators should see it as a chance to share the responsibility for creating e-learning content.
A good starting point is to choose e-learning tools that are simple enough to pick up and use instantly. Advanced tools go hand in hand with additional features, but they give less control to third parties who manage the content. Instead of fearing technology in higher education, nurturing an open mind towards different forms of e-learning can help educators take back control of their classrooms and content while also keeping university administrators happy.
I chatted recently with Dr. Cris Wildermuth, an associate professor at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa. Dr. Wildermuth, an avid Easygenerator user, believes that educators can use technology to regain (rather than lose) control of their content and classrooms. In this article, she talks about the journey towards digital learning in academic settings and offers some key lessons she has learned along the way.
What is happening?
I confess: I love face-to-face classes. I love the energy and unplanned uncertainty, where anything can and does happen. I love the elaborate simulations and instructional games I create. Above all, I love connecting with and getting to know my students in real time.
You might think someone like me – the incurably sociable professor – would hate e-learning. You may be surprised to hear that’s not the case. In fact, my message today is the opposite: technology is not my enemy. Instead, technology allows me to be the professor I want to be: sociable, creative and, most importantly, fluid and flexible. I would even argue that being comfortable with technology helps me keep control of my content.
I’ll start by describing a typical scenario: You are a professor who is tasked with moving your class to an online or a hybrid learning environment. Of course, both you and your university worry about quality. You are nervous about the amount of time it takes to design an online course and may feel that you lack the necessary technology skills.
Many institutions have on-staff instructional designers. These colleagues often know the ins and outs of the latest e-learning design tools. The next step, therefore, is to involve an instructional design expert, who will spend hours interviewing you and gaining an understanding of your class. Your university may also bring in colleagues to film you in a studio and record your lectures. The sound is a thing of beauty. The backdrop is lovely. As a result of all these efforts, your new online or hybrid class is now perfect.
Unfortunately, if there is one thing we know as professors, it is that a class is never either perfect or finished. Soon, you discover that the textbook used for this class has been superseded by a better one. You open up a new online assessment. You listen to one of your lectures (perfectly recorded, complete with background animations) and hate it. Uh-oh. Sorry, but you won’t be able to change your course until three years from now!
This is a common occurrence in academia, and many of my colleagues will agree that if we fail to improve our courses, they quickly become stale. The latest research is ignored. Fascinating discoveries are lost. And, as mediocrity creeps in, we lose our sense of teaching adventure. After all, university courses are like breathing organisms – they must evolve to stay alive.
So, what does all this have to do with technology? Simple. If moving a part (or all) of my course online requires an army of instructional designers and photographers, change becomes practically impossible.
What’s the solution? For starters, we need to acknowledge that technology is not our enemy! Instead, we must gain a new set of skills to help us regain control of our classrooms and content. As I worked on improving my technology skills, here are some lessons I learned along the way.
Pace yourself. Be realistic. You probably won’t have the time to learn how to code on top of all your responsibilities. Pick easy, user-friendly tools (ideally, tools that require no training) and adopt one new “toy” at a time. Pace yourself and have fun along the way!
Forget about perfectionism. Are you a perfect lecturer? Do your new discussions and demonstrations always work? No? Well, good news: your online materials don’t need to be perfect either. I discovered my students can be surprisingly tolerant of the sound of my dog barking in the background or my cat’s tail suspiciously appearing on the right side of the screen. Forgetting about perfectionism has added speed, efficiency and flexibility to my design process – not to mention, a healthy dose of fun. In fact, my students tell me the imperfections (especially my pets) make them laugh out loud and keep them awake!
It’s not “either/or”. My love of technology and willingness to try new tools allowed me to create a delightfully fluid environment for the master’s program I coordinate. My students can take the same course online or face-to-face. They can substitute a class for online activities. They get to choose. The benefit? I keep the face-to-face teaching adventures I love so much while still giving my students the flexibility they crave. My students and I have the best of both worlds.
So, here is my final message to my colleagues in academia: It’s your class. It’s your content. You are still the professor. By embracing technology, abandoning perfectionism and combining face-to-face with online options you can continue to teach the way you enjoy teaching. Happy technology learning!
To expand this conversation, we asked Professor Wildermuth for her advice to creators and publishers of e-learning materials. Here’s what she said:
Sharing information about your tools with institutions of higher education. University-wide adoption of any tool requires lengthy processes in which multiple committees of stakeholders have a say. That said, individual professors often make their own decisions and, most of the time, have some leeway to do so. The real battle, therefore, is not to get someone like me to adopt a new tool – it’s to make it available throughout an entire university.
Helping educators select a new tool. Speed and ease of learning are key adoption criteria. Even a technology-lover like me has no time for a long learning curve. I can’t afford to mess with manuals or take online courses to figure out how on earth to make a fancy authoring tool’s little buttons work when someone clicks on them. I often don’t even have time to watch a youtube tutorial. I would love to learn how to code but I teach graduate level Ethics and Leadership courses, not coding. Therefore, my ideal educational and authoring tool is easy to learn and use.
Finally, because I don’t have time to go through complicated instructions or watch videos, the ability to easily get answers to questions is also critical. I don’t necessarily need to “speak to someone” but I do need an easy “chat now” button with some helpful human being on the other side to quickly send me a link to where I need to go.
The role and future of instructional designers. Instructional designers have a very important role to play, even as professors gain access to more user-friendly tools! I see instructional designers as (a) designing for those who don’t want to design, (b) helping with the more elaborate processes (creating animations or more in-depth presentations, for example, (c) designing and maintaining adjunct courses, (d) acting as coaches and starters for professors who want to keep control of their content and (e) helping with more elaborate materials we can no longer find in online textbook collections or don’t have time to locate.
Collaborative features. E-learning students often crave social contact and interaction. Therefore, any collaborative tool embedded in an e-learning system is likely well received. For example, I would love my students to be able to see each other’s answers to select types of questions or engage in a built-in forum. Tools should also be easily and seamlessly integrated into frequently used learning management systems like Blackboard, Moodle, Canva, etc.
Advice for edtech tool vendors. One word: money. Academia is under a lot of pressure to reduce costs. Vendors need to be able to make the case that using their tools will save the university money rather than cost them more. Other than that, the thing that most differentiates academia from the corporate world is complete decentralization and “shared governance.” Making decisions is a lengthy process unless you’re talking about individual professors.
|Dr. Cris Wildermuth is an Associate Professor at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, where she coordinates the Master of Science in Leadership Development. Dr. Wildermuth welcomes comments on this blog at firstname.lastname@example.org.|