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Theory VS Practice

“In theory, there is no difference between theory and practice.

But in practice, there is.”     Jan L.A. van de Snepschaut

I spent the day today interviewing elementary school teachers who have participated in a year long grant program.  The interviews were to summarize their experience as part of the grant evaluation process.  Several themes emerged as one after another they told of their experiences:  1) the content was relevant to them because they could apply it immediately, 2) the pedagogy of the grant provided a large variety of experiences and materials and 3) the instructor/manager/coordinator of the grant knew the right fit for these teachers and how to make things work for the learner.  The program had what the framework described by Mishra and Koehler in an earlier course reading refer to as PCK (Pedagogical Content Knowledge).   The participants were more than enthusiastic about the experience – you could hear it in their voices and see it in their faces. As this experience picked up exactly where my ‘social presence’ paper left off, it totally changed the direction of this course summary post, allowing me to continue the thought process regarding eLearning professional development for teachers.

What stood out to me in these interviews was what was missing in the equation – the integration of digital Technology in the learning process.  And this was a blatant reminder, at the end of a semester’s worth of study about Theory and Practice in eLearning that theory is one thing and practice often quite  another.  It seemed to me that this course has a proven successful f2f design, so what would be the effect if we purposefully transitioned this highly learner-centered instructional model into the TPCK framework? How could the course evolve using emerging technologies to its advantage?  Using Garrison, Anderson & Archer’s Community of Inquiry model that includes the three presences – cognitive, social, and teacher – as an anchor, I thought about such a transition and the theory and practice in eLearning.  The following is the Reader’s Digest version of these thoughts.

Cognitive presence:  supporting and developing the growth of critical thinking skills

In practice, teachers don’t often think of themselves as learners, even in a professional development environment such as this.  George Siemens’ theory of connectivism asserts that ‘learning is a process of growing connections.’  Many of these teacher/learners started with the goal of expanding their knowledge of the content and pedagogy.  In practice, this was a highly personalized experience – they grew their ‘connections’ through reading, exploring  other sources of information, learning about instructional strategies, going on field trips, and processing their experiences and sharing implementation planning in an f2f environment.  In theory, this experience could have been amplified simply by using technology to capture and organize their experiences, to broaden their net for sources of information, to connect to additional experts and perspectives, and to share beyond allotted f2f time.

In our class’s practice, while there was redundancy in the time spent on adult learning theory, it was a new application for the process of connecting to eLearning design, and this was important for me.  The ‘theory’ of connectivism was also introduced, and the experience of Skyping with the expert was a highlight of the course.   I believe all students in the Adult Learning program should be required to take this course, as online learning is only increasing in popularity and practice.

“It is the function of creative man to perceive and to connect the seemingly unconnected.”     Samuel Osgood

Social presence: the sense of support, comfort and safety to express ideas in collaborative context

In practice, we rarely consider social presence in a f2f environment.  For teachers, a learning community had developed over the year long process.  One individual even described the point where he realized he wasn’t just from one school any more; he was part of the county’s teaching community.  In practice, though, this was due to the common experiences and f2f social environment.  While he felt a part of this community, he did not connect with them other than the monthly meetings.  In theory,  “the development of community becomes a parallel stream to the content being explored”   (Palloff &Pratt).   By introducing something as simple as a discussion board or a Wimba site, participants could have built their learning community between f2f meetings.  In theory, the past participants in the county’s grant and, better yet, participants in the grant in other localities – all with different experiences and strategies – could have extended this community far beyond just the county’s teaching community for the participants.  Imagine, in theory, the power of this professional development to affect student learning.

Despite the clumsiness of the Blackboard platform, the weekly discussions in our class did a great deal to connect the readings to reality.  Some students went out of their way to include links to further learning or exploration, and the week spent specifically evaluating some of the online technologies was extremely helpful for me.  All of this extended the learning beyond our group of 12, but, as for the teachers, not yet enough into the broader community.

“We human beings have often been referred to as social animals.  But we are not yet community creatures.”      M. Scott Pack

Teacher presence:  design and organization of learning experience of learning community

In practice, the teacher/learners LOVED their instructor – not because she was at the front of the room, but because of her role in their learning.  In practice, they described her role much like the teacher was described in the student connectivism YouTube video: the learning architect, the learning concierge, and content expert, the one behind the scenes that managed everything so they didn’t have to.  In theory, it is the teacher presence that provides structure AND process. In theory, through the use of technology tools, the instructor could also be the network Sherpa, the synthesizer, the community learning incubator, the change agent.  While the goal of teacher presence is to transition students, through process, to greater student-student interaction, in practice, I feel that takes time.

In our class, I really missed the online teacher presence once the student-student interaction began.  It was just too early.  I noticed the amount of posts dropped in last couple weeks of class, which  could have been a reflection of the end of semester, but I had to wonder if there was also a ‘if he isn’t there, I don’t need to post so often’ mindset.  The fact that we used a great deal of our f2f time to continue the discussion may have also become a reason to not post as much or to critically reflect as much online, as we were able to do this in class.  I have mixed feeling on whether this was time well spent.

What is keeping great eLearning theory from becoming predominant practice? How can we deny the apparent and proven affordances of technology to take instruction to the next level, especially for adults?  Does online learning, in practice, just not look and act different enough?  My guess is I share one of the biggest concerns and barriers for current educators and content experts – technological efficacy.  I just don’t feel a personal sense of competence and comfort with the tools —- YET.  But I have several more under my belt after this semester including a textbook on NOOK, Google wave, Wimba classroom, and open online university experiences.

“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities,

but in the expert’s there are few.”     Suzuki

I like being a beginner.

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