The power of choice in the online classroom
Self-directed learning has been a long-time best practice in the field of andragogy. But what does it look like in an online classroom? And how can it be used to improve an online course?
When I first began teaching online, it was very clear that what was missing from my course was accountability. I also had this sense that students had far more questions than they were asking. I started researching ways to help students be more engaged and accountable. I’ve heard the mantra “students don’t do optional” a few too many times. Yet as much as I might not like to admit it, it’s generally true. I knew that whatever I added would need to be required, but I hesitated to add anything that would feel like busy-work. Our students are already really busy. And most of them work. The last thing they need is busy-work.
What I came across in my reading was a list of best practices that would benefit some students, but clearly just be busy-work for other students. Discussions and email exchanges can be great, as long as they’re genuine and focused. Utilizing on-campus resources is great, as long as one has access. Working with an online tutor is also great, but it’s not for everyone. Doing extra homework can really solidify concepts, or bore a student to mathdeath. All of these can be really beneficial for students, but none seemed appropriate to require of every student.
With this and self-directed learning in mind, I decided to add a required participation component that allowed students to choose the means by which they completed it. I called it “Open Inquiry,” and it’s meant to be a means through which students earn credit for asking meaningful questions related to the mathematical content of the course. They can do this by posting a question in an on-going discussion board, by sharing a resource they found in an on-going discussion board, by emailing me a question, by working with an online tutor, by going to one of PCC’s on-campus Student Learning Centers, by completing additional homework problems, or by another alternative they request.
There are three primary benefits this element of choice has added to my course. The first is obvious—students get to spend a significant chunk of their time doing whatever best meets their needs and ability level. The second is also obvious—when students get to spend time on things they feel are beneficial, they do better work. The third isn’t quite as obvious though. By allowing students a choice, the rapport that I have with my students and the rapport they have with each other changed dramatically. For one, students stopped apologizing for sending me emails. I never understood why students would start an email to an online instructor with, “I’m sorry to bother you, but…” Isn’t that a primary part of our job? Once it was part of a required component, the apologies stopped altogether. Another surprise was how it changed the rapport students had with each other. Students who benefited from open discussions started posting really exceptional work, and in doing so naturally formed small groups within the class. But because not everyone was required to post, the discussion board stayed void of a plethora of “Cool!” replies.
For a few last nitty-gritty details: I weight “Open Inquiry” as I would class participation, which is at 4%. I do have to record each submission manually, but I estimate that I spend less than 5 minutes a week doing so.
Do you have other ways that you’ve implemented self-directed learning in your online course? It would be great to hear them.