2020 - A Year on Fire


In March of 2020 there was a shift in the way we live and learn. Since I have been engaged with online education for over 10 years this shift to remote/online learning was not catastrophic for me, however I have watched others suffer with the move from the traditional classroom to teaching and learning in a virtual world.

It is now August 2020 and I am tired of all the negative views surrounding remote/online education. Can we take some time to be thankful that we have an avenue to “keep on keeping on”? I agree that isolation, social distancing and the Internet can be a drag, but there have to be some upsides to the situation. Isolation has allowed time us to spend time in reflection and with our families. Social distancing (and masks) has allowed for us to be healthier, not only from COVID-19, but from other illness. And finally, the Internet…this technology is constantly being attacked by the media, the politicians and well, everyone. Yet it is an avenue that has allowed us to stay connected. It is far from perfect, but what is? We often look at what was and long for it, even though it has just as many issues as what are currently experiencing. It is like the door that closes, and we keep looking at it instead of turning around to look out the window or find another door. Life will always throw us curves, and this is a big one, but we must learn to adapt and survive…maybe even thrive.

Let’s take a look at that window or other door. I am often asked the explain the benefits and challenges of learning online which got me to thinking about our current situation. In March 2020, we were thrown into what is being referred to as “remote learning” which is very different from the planned online education approach. On one of my social distancing walks I thought of an analogy of how to compare online education to remote learning based upon my experience with traveling.

Travel Agency (The expert-planned approach)

Have you ever engaged a travel agency to guide you in planning a trip? They have the knowledge, experience and resources to help you plan a trip. I recently experience this when we traveled to Chile. We worked with experts on how to navigate the country and through weeks of conversations we mapped out a plan. It was expensive and it took time, but the results were phenomenal. As a traveler, the stress of the day to day planning was fully outlined and my traveling goals were accomplished with ease. We had translators, hotels and guides at every location. It was an amazing experience.

The pinnacle experience in online teaching preparation is to work with a guide who can help you navigate the pedagogy and technology of online learning. This is the same type of experience instructors have when they work with instructional designers, instructional technologies and user experience experts. The process will take time, but the course will be easy to navigate, the student/faculty experience will be engaging, and the learning outcomes will be outlined for student to accomplish.

Trip Advisor (The self-planned approach)

Most of us who travel chose this approach, because it gives us lots of freedom and is less expensive. We look to the Internet to find resources like Trip Advisor. We also ask friends and find experts who may have travel to these places before us. It does take time, but the pre-planning assures that we will be prepared to make the trip an enjoyable one.

This is the approach of a faculty planning an online course alone, which is where most faculty feel the most comfortable. They may reach out to find resources on the Internet or turn to the teaching and learning center on campus, or even have those most important hallway conversations with colleagues who have already ventured into the online classroom.

Road Trip (The on-the-fly approach)

The road trip is for those of us who crave adventure and hate to plan. It can be a rewarding journey if you are prepared to roll with the pitfalls of not knowing what lies ahead. On a road trip, we usually have a destination in mind, we just don’t have a clear map of how we will get there. This does allow for side trips and unexpected turns that can lead to fantastic experiences. Honestly, this is my favorite way to travel and I have the stories to prove it.

This can be accomplished in the online classroom as long as the faculty keeps the students on track to achieving the learning outcomes or arrive safely at the destination. The key is a well-constructed syllabus with a defined plan so that students don’t get lost along the way. Much like a map on a road trip. Just try to keep the twist and turns to minimum on this experience. Most faculty or graduate students are thrown into a road trip situation. If it happens to you, I would advise the KISS rule – Keep Is Simple Simon (sorry I don’t like the word – Stupid).

The Bus Tour (The at-scale approach)

This is not my favorite way to travel, but does apply to the online classroom these days, so I will include it. This is when you don’t have much time or money and want to see as much as humanly possible in a non-personal way. I have to admit that I have traveled this way and I got out of it, what I put into it. The best examples are those big city bus tours where you jump on and jump off at locations all over town. My first experience Big City Bus Tour was in London and I really wanted to ride on the double decker buses. I have to admit it was a blast, but I will warn you to not sit in the front seat up top unless you want a real thrilling ride.

Online courses that are packages by experts and then passed off to anyone with the credentials to teach them are becoming more common. If you are engaged to facilitate one of these courses, I would suggest you try and get to know the students as much as possible to make it a more human experience instead of a course full of content. Think of yourself as the tour guide on the bus, walking up and down the aisle getting to know the passengers and answering their questions. You will find that the students who put the most into the course by engaging with an open instructor and other students will get the most out of the experience…others will sleep and only get off the bus when told to by the driver.

House on Fire (The “remote learning” approach)

This is the final way that we travel, and it is not really traveling, but being forced to leave your comfortable home, take as little as possible and survive on the road. I wish we had all prepared in some ways to think about delivering education online before this crisis hit. It is like having a bag packed and ready to go or having that passport even though you never anticipate leaving the country or making sure you have the car tank full of gas. You may never have to use that bag or passport or car, but at least you are ready.

My image of remote learning is the instructor at the wheel of the car, with the students in the backseat trusting that their instructor will guide them to their destination safely. In this situation, we need to reassure students that we care about their learning experience, we are navigating as best we can, and we will all survive and even thrive in this situation. Just remember to always keep your eye in the rearview mirror to make sure your students are still onboard. You may even find there are some good backseat drivers to help you navigate the bumps on the road.

Teaching and learning in the online world maybe new to some and old hat to others. As we move forward and conduct research on the success or failure of online learning during this period of time, I hope that online education will not be defined exclusively through the lens of the remote learning scenario. As I have pointed out, there are as many ways to conduct online learning as there are ways to travel. Don’t decide not to travel or learn at all because one way does not fit your style.

I encourage everyone to support one another as we take this journey. Remember it is fun to travel but it can also be exhausting and overwhelming. I think the same can be true as we learn. Make sure you enjoy the experience wherever and however you chose to travel into the world of learning.

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