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Metacognition and Omnipresence

“The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”

Martin Luther King, Jr.

When Elizabeth and I volunteered to be the pioneers in facilitating the online discussion for our class, I only knew that we wanted to get the assignment under our belt early.  I didn’t really know that this week’s module – Interactivity and Learner Engagement – would be ABOUT facilitating online learning.  It was an interesting ‘meta’ experience in that regard.  According to Palloff & Pratt, this was a successful example, for me, of online learning in that it “focused squarely on the learning process; the metacognitive process of learning how to learn.”

We began the lesson agreeing that Elizabeth would take on advanced reading of the content, development of the discussion question, and early in the week facilitation and I would take on the end of the week facilitation and wrap-up as she was about to leave town.  We decided the best way to facilitate this would be to have a three part discussion, all due on different days, but relating to the same question.  Elizabeth suggested the use of the assigned readings of Seven Principles for Good Practice in Undergraduate Education and the subsequent reading Implementing the Seven Principles:  Technology as a Lever by Chickering and Ehrmann as the anchor for the discussion, assigning each member of the class a principle to discuss and defend.

As we created the question and discussion, I suggested having the second post be a challenge post by another class member and the third being a reflection post on the challenge – how it felt to be challenged in discussion, and if this was a good way to learn.  (In reality, this is how I learn best – by asking questions and challenging assumptions – often to the chagrin of my coworkers and classmates.)  Elizabeth agreed this would be a good strategy.

It wasn’t until I did the readings later in the week that I was pleased to discover that my instructional background and previous coursework (along with Elizabeth’s prereading) were most likely behind the design of the discussion question.   Palloff & Pratt state that “it is the responsibility of the instructor to help contextualize learning and facilitate needed paradigm shift for the learner in order for learning to have the greatest impact.”  One way they suggest to do this is by creating a double loop in the learning process – or promote multiple voices in the discussion.  They suggest that collaboration can grow significantly when the students discuss with one another rather than the instructor and that “opening to possible challenge as well as support is the essence of collaborative work.”  Anderson, in Teaching in an Online Learning Context concurs that ‘cognitive dissonance’ is critical to intellectual growth.

I have to admit I was surprised when I logged on later in the week to begin following what students and teacher had posted.  The discussions seemed a bit weak to me, not reaching far outside of the Chickering articles or reflecting on individual experiences that related to the principle, particularly in the challenge posts. I was further alarmed by Palloff & Pratt’s statement in chapter 8 that “poor or minimal response to a question indicates that it has not done the job of stimulating a level of thinking that excites the learners and compels them to respond.”  So, was this the reflection of the question itself or of the impending holiday weekend?  Of course, I felt compelled to do something about that by countering with more guiding questions in my responses rather than let the students continue their own conversation.  Facilitating meaningful discourse is, after all, the outward sign of ‘teacher presence’ is it not?

Student responses in the final reflective post indicated that we may have hit the target closer than I thought:

“Having to disagree with someone’s post or having someone disagree with my post is much more thought provoking than simply having a post which reinforces what I’ve written. It’s an exercise that should be encouraged as part of the discussion process. A sort of on-line debate of sorts. Thanks for the assignment!”

“It is good to have someone disagree with what I have to say.  It often helps me to think of things I hadn’t considered before and to expand my understanding. In-person you can usually see by peoples faces or body movements if they agree or disagree with you.  In the online environment it is much more difficult and can feel like nobody agrees or cares about what you say if there are no responses to your posts.  A good balance of discussion with people both agreeing and disagreeing with each other and expanding each others points of view is great!”

“I liked the exercise of having to disagree with someone else.  Considering others views is important even if they do not agree with me, it allows me to think about a situation in a different light.  This exercise reminds me of the capstone class where we had to use questions instead of opposing views in order to understand where the other set members were in their train of thought.  Each question or opposing view changes the direction of the exercise or steps taken to reach the outcome.”

“Having a chance to read opposing viewpoints is valuable because it provides a chance to reflect and even adjust your thoughts. That has certainly happened in this case. A number of people challenged the idea that technology helps learners spend more time of task but they raise an important point; it only works if the technology works.”

Successfully promoting collaborative learning through online discussion is an important skill for online instructors – and a new skill for many, including me. The readings this week all very clearly indicate that meaningful online teaching is hard work.  The responsibility, to me, seems a bit overwhelming in terms of managing all the components AND including the use of effective technological tools, what Anderson refers to as, ‘getting the mix right’ that is “appropriate to student needs, teacher skills and style, and institutional technical capacity.”  In a sense, the online instructor must be omnipresent, the ability to be present everywhere at the same time, or ubiquitous. (In my work over the past ten years, the term ubiquitous has been (over) used in educational facility design to describe instructional technology – an interesting connection.)  I experienced the stress related to being ‘omnipresent’ just with attempting to stay current on the discussion board – so I am concerned that ‘getting the right mix’ for a full course will be a challenge for me, yet feel it is the perfect stretch for my teaching and learning styles.  I think a motto of ‘omnipresence in moderation’ is a good one to adopt.

I also believe it is important to not reinvent the wheel.  The podcast we assigned: was a simplistic, yet useful reminder that the Internet provides a great resource for teachers.  This was not available to me as abundantly when I left the classroom in 1992.  These simple ‘strategies’ recorded at a conference for online instructors, gave me hope that ‘omnipresence in moderation’ is achievable (and desirable).   A few of the suggestions I found helpful were:

  • The reverse cascade – when instructing a large group, break them into discussion groups and then let the discussion groups determine the most important points for continued discussion (great idea for promoting collaborative learning and lightening the workload for the instructor).
  • Save/Gets – a repository of responses to student emails for reference to future emails – while you want to personalize the email, the bulk of the message may be the same.
  • Student digital portfolios serve a purpose to the learner, but also to the instructor – all work is in one place and can be assessed for growth over the course of the program.
  • Using technology tools such as Meebo as a communication aggregator, Articulate for online PowerPoints and audio feedback to written work, and Adobe Connect Meeting.
  • Use a ‘student lounge’ to post questions rather than individual emails – other students are most likely going to answer questions for the instructor.
  • Introduce a new technology each week and build toward use of multiple technologies for final portfolios.

While this theory about online learning may not be new to others, I’m learning about learning in a new way- and thinking about learning in new ways.  Thanks to Palloff & Pratt I even have a new vocabulary word in the mix to add to my previous post discussions:  heutagogy, the study of self-determined learning (an expansion and reinterpretation of andragogy!)  Huetagogy places specific emphasis on learning how to learn, double loop learning, universal learning opportunities, a non-linear process, and true learner self direction.  More on this in future posts.

“Unless you know everything, what you need is thinking.”

Edward de Bono


3 Responses to “Metacognition and Omnipresence”

  1. I too ran across the term Heutagogy in my Andragogy and Adult Learner research. I’d heard all the Heutagogy terms except for Double Loop Learning. Thank You for the information. I’ll be looking forward to your future posts.

  2. Kathleen – tell me more about your research. How are you finding posts such as mine for review?

  3. jm, sorry it took so long to reply. (Thank Goodness for Priority Inbox : )

    I first found your post when I was just starting my Blog – Perpetual Andragogy Adventures of an Adult Learner. That was in February of this year. I searched for Andragogy Blogs and scoured until I found you and a few others.

    Most recently I’ve been introduced to Linkorado. You may like this. It’s a new, free link exchange.

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