It is important for teachers new to online instruction to consider the degree to which traditional classroom instruction is founded on the authority of the instructor whose presentation of material is often performance-based. The phrases “sage on the stage” and “guide on the side” are often evoked in reference to the shift from a traditional to non-traditional learning system though often without significant explanation or exploration.
The instructor is often positioned in the front of the class, as on a stage, arranged to be viewed and heard by all students simultaneously. The voice is projected, and at times amplified. We could easily view the traditional classroom as a technology that favors certain forms of instruction and reproduces the authority of the instructor by creating the conditions in which students focus primarily on the presence of the instructor. The architecture of the traditional classroom—the manner in which the chalkboard, screen and podium cluster around the teacher—creates conditions in which students’ attention focuses on the figure of the instructor. Furthermore, the distribution of space reproduces the authority and importance of the instructor. Students do not speak while the instructor is speaking, and request to be recognized when it is appropriate for them to ask a question or make a comment.
The role of the instructor shifts in the technology-mediated modalities from authoritative, knowledgeable presenter to an expert whose knowledge is transmitted or channeled through various media: text, visual and auditory. The shift in space, time and channel necessarily changes the interaction.
With the lecture as its preferred mode of address, the traditional classroom carries with it a predictable decorum that reliably regulates the conditions of class discussion. However, in online discussions, students often quote from the course readings on their own, with no prompting from the instructor. They also tend to address their questions and concerns to the entire class, not always directly to the instructor. Imagine students in a face-to-face class raising their hands and asking other students for assistance in understanding or grasping a concept or term. Students also share and circulate materials that they believe enrich or clarify the topic at hand. Imagine students in a face-to-face classroom passing out an article they found to supplement assigned material, or that they found more accessible or informative than the assigned reading.
Techniques for effective online teaching emphasize learner centeredness. Online courses are generally more learner-centered and often require more active participation by students. Faculty also find that they are no longer limited to a specific block of time on a certain day of the week, which provides for more flexibility in the design of assignments, discussion and projects. Without the structure of weekly classes, students are generally expected to take a more active role in their own learning. When learners interact with one another, with an instructor and with ideas, new information is acquired, interpreted and made meaningful.
Such interactions form the foundation of a community of learners. If students feel they are part of a community of learners, they are more apt to be motivated to seek solutions to their problems and to succeed. The challenge for distance educators is to develop strategies and techniques for establishing and maintaining “learning communities” among learners separated by space and/or time.
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