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Preparing Online Learners to Learn on Their Own

by Justin Marquis Ph.D.

While there is a certain truth to the notion that online learners are often more self-motivated and self-directed than many traditional students (Artino & Stephens, 2008), they also may come to a class without the same confidence in using technology that on-the-ground students do. Some of this lack of confidence is due to the fact that online students are often older, non-traditional learners (Community Center for Elder Colleges), and they are forced by the nature of the medium to rely more heavily on technology to complete their coursework. The combination of these two factors can contribute to feelings of being overwhelmed, confused, or even helpless.

I find this attitude in my own students, who often insist on very explicit instructions, intense amounts of support, or outright hand/mouse-holding. I am most often teaching about technology, either for education or business, and making my students reliant on me to help them learn every new software application that they encounter is not an option – I can’t accompany every one of them to their office or classroom and wait for them to need me for their entire career. What is an instructor to do? The answer is simple to say, but difficult to realize – make them self-sufficient technology learners.  Here is my strategy.

The Pep Talk
The first thing that I do with all of my students is attempt to convey to them that their long-term success with technology depends primarily on their attitude toward using technology. My learning objectives from the first class with all students are that, by the end of the course they will:

  • Feel confident using technology, particularly tools that are new to them.
  • Know that, no matter what they do, they cannot destroy the computer.
  • Know how to do basic troubleshooting themselves and to be resourceful in terms of knowing where to find help if something does go wrong.
  • Be willing to get their hands dirty. They should be confident enough to push buttons, click links, and play around with new software.
  • Realize that the tools they learn today will be obsolete in a few years, and they must be able to teach themselves new tools to replace the old ones.
  • Cultivate an interest in educational technology so that they are inspired to use it and learn about new tools as they arise.
  • Understand that the skills they learn in the class are generalizable – they can be transferred to other technologies or programs.

In addition to these learning objectives, I remind the students that they already are familiar with much technology that they use in their daily lives, like cell phones, Facebook, iPods, email, etc., and that some of the skills they have from those can help them learn other tools. There is still, however a long way to go from understanding what I want them to learn and actually learning it.

Pushing the Envelope
How can all of these objectives be met with learners who might be intimidated, resistant or even hostile to the process? There are a few key elements that help them overcome their fear and take up the responsibility of learning on their own. Because I mainly teach future teachers, I am generally very explicit and transparent with the teaching methodologies that I employ. I make it clear that my classroom is learner-centered, and that they will be responsible for guiding their path through the course. I also make it clear, from my pep talk on, that I expect them to do much of the technology learning on their own. Here is how I approach the challenge of making them responsible for their own learning:

  • Prior to the start of the course I let the students know that they will be expected to take responsibility for much of their technology learning by assigning a task in which they must teach themselves an unfamiliar program and use it to produce something that they will share with the class. I always provide a thorough list of available resources to help with the learning, and set up discussion boards where they can ask questions of their classmates and me. The pushback on this assignment is amazing – I receive emails, phone calls, and angry rants that they "haven’t been taught this, so how can (they) do it!" I am always patient with these messages and respond with, "yes, you are expected to teach yourself that," or "you just need to try and see how it goes." I always accompany these messages with links to additional resources or a reiteration of the fact that there are many available in the LMS.
  • I do appreciate that students who are uncomfortable with technology want structured support in their learning, and I aim to give that in small bursts by employing just-in-time mini-lessons as needed. Very rarely will I present a full how-to session with any program. Rather, I choose to have a brief demo session of the tool itself and some sample student products. I then have them explore the tool while engaging in a basic task, during which time they are free to ask questions or consult online materials which explain the software. Even though these are small tasks, I attempt to make them authentic.
  • During the class I always require that the students produce an instructional document, video, or website in which they teach their future students how to use software that they are learning themselves. I find that the amount of self-teaching involved in knowing something well enough to teach it generally pushes them well into a comfort level with the software in question. These instructional documents are always posted so that other members of the class can access them.

Tough Love
This process is often painful – for the students, for me, and for the program administrator. But it is worth the pain. Many students contact me after the class with messages like, "I used that whatever that you taught me in my job and saved my boss XXX$, and I don’t have to drive to Eastern Montana twice a year anymore."

The price is high though, as I often have to play dumb in the classroom to avoid simply telling them how to do something. Most often I counter requests for help with, "I’m sure the program can do that. Let’s see if there is an online tutorial video that shows how." Sometimes I will share a link, but often I will simply ask them to search for the information themselves. In this way, they are also practicing their search and information evaluation skills.

Most recently, I have taken to creating "learning playlists" on MentorMob such as the one below where I compiled instructions from around the Web which taught my students how to use MentorMob in the classroom:

Create your own Playlist on MentorMob!

By using the tool itself to guide my students in learning how to use it, I not only help them teach themselves how to use a specific tool, but also model for them a way to share information with their students. This method also demonstrates that there is a lot of information available online to use as resources in technology learning. The goal is to make my students self-sufficient and showing them where to look for resources that they can rely on to help them is a key takeaway from the course. It is akin to teaching them how to fish rather than handing them a single fish. It is harder to learn how to do it than to have something handed to you, but far more rewarding and useful over the long haul of their careers as technology fisherfolk. Once they enter the workforce, they will need to fish for themselves in order to survive, and learning to be self-sufficient technology learners is the first step in that process.

Follow me on Twitter @drjwmarquis

Image: photostock / FreeDigitalPhotos.net