Sunday, November 28, 2010

Distance Learning That Changed My Teaching Style.

A friend wrote to me recently and asked about "correspondence courses."  I had forgotten that term and yes, the course I took on Abnormal Psychology while I was in the Army would have been called a correspondence course.  I had forgotten that term.  Universities used to have a department in charge of correspondence courses.  I suspect today that department is renamed "office of Distance Learning.

Today we can deliver a course or lecture by YouTube, computer and DVD and not have to go near a classroom.  But there can be negatives involved.  A student taking a distance course HAS to have high internal motivation.....or some form of external motivation like "I have to pass this course to get credits for a pay raise."

Some years ago I had a chance to teach a Distance Learning Course via the telephone line.  It was fascinating and in the end changed my teaching style.  Let's start at the beginning.  That State of Washington was in one of their "cut back modes" in working on the state budget.  Someone had decided that the legislative members as well as other state workers were traveling too much for committee meetings and such.  So some in our state capitol decided to install a dedicated phone system throughout the state where people would come to the phone station closest to their home and participate in the meeting by phone.  

Because it had a dedicated line, good microphones, fairly large speakers (and a number of them) plus a main unit for dialing in a room had to be almost dedicated as well for its use.  At the time it was decided to locate the one in my area at the university.  As it was, my university was short of classrooms and was not interested in holding our one classroom for this "phone committee system" and so it came to pass that the whole mess was hooked up in one of my learning laboratories.  I had a laboratory where education students came to learn how to thread projectors, focus overhead projectors, play with slide projectors and so on.  It had about fifteen learning stations that they had to complete and when done take a test administered by a graduate student.  We had a bunch of carrels where students could work on the assignment.  Somewhere in the room was a large table with multiple chairs that we used for testing purposes.  The powers to be had decided my table was just the thing for the phone system.  

So for the first month or so, it just sat there.  Not necessarily in the way but just not used.  Every time I looked at it I wondered who else had a setup like this and were?  A bit of nosing around I discovered that in every major city, university and area was one of these setups and that by scheduling it any person in the state could use long as there were others in the state with the same purpose.

So I decided to give it a try.  I got my distance learning department to advertise a three credit class in "Learning Packets."  This was something hot in the K-12 teachers' world where they would make a learning packet for some unit of learning for their class curriculum.  It was so designed as to be pretty much self contained and a teacher could set it up in the corner of the room and students could work on it when they had spare time.  This type of learning packets was pretty popular with the intermediate teachers in a grade school.  One could have a geography unit about their neighborhood, or how to look for something in a reading unit.  I know of one high school chemistry teacher who almost entirely taught her class with learning packets.  Kids could come into her class and do a packet that included tape recorded instructions, materials to get, materials to read, and photographs of the end result so that the student could compare his/her work to the photographs.  Pretty amazing stuff.

So I set up a class on how to design learning packets.  

It turned out that I had enough students sign up--if I remember correctly, around fifty-eight students, mostly fifth year (BA or BS graduates working on a fifth year certification) all around the state of Washington.  I had one experienced teacher in Spokane, two teachers in Walla Walla, about six or seven teachers in the tri-city area of Richland, another eight or nine in Longview down on the Columbia River, and about twelve teachers in Olympia at the Evergreen State College.  There was only one sign up in Seattle. I almost forgot.  I had six students in Bellingham, all undergraduates but major in education.

I had a list of the students in front of me when I first turned the phone system on and my six students had a phone in front of them.  We had two speakers set up around the table.  While the rest of the laboratory functioned as it always had, we started our learning packets class.

The first thing that I did was to introduce myself and tell the objectives of the course, what the requirements would be.  Then I started around the state: "Hi Spokane, tell us about yourself."  And she did but mentioned that she was late getting there because the room that she was using was on the top floor of the Bon Marche, a then great department store in that town.  I teased her about shopping on the way up and she mentioned something like she hoped that we could get out early so she could pick some stuff up.  Nice banter.

I then went to another part of the state--Walla Walla or Richland, I don't remember but this continued for about two hours as we visited each classroom attached to this phone system.   They were talking to me, asking questions, telling other teachers in the class some ideas they had used in the past and so on.  It took the entire two hours of phone time to get most of the distance learners taken care of.  When we shut down the system, I then talked to my six students directly in front of me.  Good kids.

The next week was pretty much a mirror of the first week except that students all had to describe what they had done over the week and where they were with their learning packet.  I liked the way that other teachers would offer suggestions and in a couple of cases actually sent materials to the teacher working on that subject packet.  There appeared to be more give and take among the class members then I would have expected in a classroom of fifty-eight students.  Because it was a phone system, you had to talk to get attention, no raising of your hand here.  And there was lots of give and take.

The course proceeded pretty much as I had planned with the different steps in the completion of a learning packet.  I had to schedule the last two classes pretty much for each person to describe their packet, goals, tasks, materials, etc.

Almost every week someone would be describing what they had done and in telling the rest of the class would say something like, "...then I want my student to go to...oops, I need a section here for the kids to go to.  I'll work on that his week."  It seemed that everyone from time to time would talk to the rest of us and find something that had neglected to take into account.  Or if they didn't find the problem, someone else in class would say, "how are you going to get the learner to this area?"  It was immediate feedback all the time.

The class continued for ten weeks (one afternoon a week for three hours) on the phone system.  I have to say that many of the projects were exemplary.  Outstanding.  I was more than pleased but so were the students.  Several made copies of their packets for others to use.  The final was a descriptive questionnaire that I sent to all students in the class (except the six in Bellingham) that they had to fill out and send back to me.  It would have been too expensive to ship the entire packet in some cases to me to review and then to ship back.  I could foresee the department chair going berserk on the budget.

 Feedback indicated that the students were highly supported of this style of learning.  But coupled with it was the fact that they didn't have to drive far to attend the class.  The dedicated phone system really worked!  They also said that it was one of the more valuable courses they had taken so far in education. Whoa!  Why was this?  It seems that in many education classes a student sits, takes notes, takes tests and that's it.  More likely in upper division courses, students do talk and exchange ideas and philosophy but it is theory.  Certainly necessary.  But in this learning packet class we had much discussion on how a young student learns and what materials might encourage that student to move ahead in learning.  The packets were great but the thinking AND talking were invaluable. 

An interesting aside.  That year at graduation I was walking around the master's degree candidates looking for some of my graduate students and I was stopped several times by someone who would say, "I was in your telephone course."  It was funny--I recognize the voice, not the face.  

EXCEPT for my six undergraduate students at the university who took the course with me in the laboratory.  They all agreed that it was "great" course.  But I realized that I should have had them describe their packets on line to everyone else rather then to me alone.  I think their work would have been even better with the experienced teachers talking to them.  I think all six of the them said they really "...learned how to teach" in this class.  They learned this by listening to experienced teachers....not from me.  

How did it change my teaching?  I made an effort that in my classes I would listen more to the students explaining their work.  Shut up, Les and listen to what they are saying.  As an example, in later work where I was teaching a 'Computers in the Classroom' course with thirty students at computers, I would hand everyone a CD of Time magazine from their beginning to almost the present.  Every issue.  Then I would ask them to find the first person of the year that was not a man.  While there are several ways to seek an answer and there are several answers to the question, I learned to say when a hand went up, "what was your answer and how did you find it?"  While they told me the process they used you could see most of the class banging away following that approach.  Almost always there would be someone who would say, I did it a different way and I'd let them give out their answer.  It seems to me that I got more learning in when I used everyone in class to help teach.  Then it was a logical step to asking (or giving an assignment) "how would you use this in your classroom?"

There is a statement that Winston Churchill once said that I like very much--I repeat myself from time to time so I apologize in advance if I've already told you.  Winnie once said, "We shape our buildings, then they shape us."  How true.  Given the great advance of technology why can't we teach and learn in different ways--why can't we have distance learning for those that need this approach?  We all don't have to be in a classroom.

I'd like to thank all those teachers who took my learning packet course so many years ago on the telephone system.  It was a fun time.  And thanks for teaching my six undergraduates how to teach.  Have you thanked a teacher today?

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