A Time to Experiment
The widespread adoption of online learning allows educators to shift from telling to mentoring and mediating.
By Chris Rogers
This spring has been rather unique in the history of education, with millions of teachers suddenly grappling with the question of how to teach students virtually. Many have embraced videoconferencing technologies such as Zoom, Webex, and Hangout, but I have found a different set of tools to be more compelling.
Videoconferencing systems, while impressive, presume that students all own computers, have robust Internet connections, and live in the same time zone. That may hold true in many cases, since schools have been sending students home with laptops, Internet providers are offering free trial months, and time zones don’t matter in most K-12 systems. There are a lot of exceptions, however.
I have seen more and more teachers think about asynchronous models for their students. Suddenly the question goes from “What can I tell them?” to “What can I put in place to help them learn?” Engineering classes are particularly great places to experiment with the shift from telling to mentoring. A fluids class can pivot from lecturing about Bernoulli’s equation to students sharing examples of venturis around their house and attempting to model the behavior. This means that the instructor now must find or create support material to answer questions students might have in the modeling process and provide a virtual area to share the results. In other words, the teacher becomes more of a mediator of discussions than a teller of information.
There are many offerings that can help turn the class from a synchronous lecture to an asynchronous learning environment. Among them: frequently-asked-question tools like Stack Overflow; communication and organization tools such as Slack; online collaboration environments, including Onshape, Overleaf, Colab, and Google Docs (or Microsoft Office 365); and the vast resources on YouTube.
At Tufts, a few faculty members have been running a four-course graduate certificate program for in-service K-12 teachers (teep.tufts.edu) online and asynchronously for the past five years. Teachers in the program take courses in engineering content and engineering pedagogy, entirely asynchronously and yet still project-based and hands-on. Using robotic kits (shipped to them) and digital video tools (like TORSH Talent), the classes discuss what students say as they are starting to think and sound like engineers. The online instruction has taken a significant investment—from creating media-rich resources to iterating grading policies and pedagogical structures that fit into the lives of busy, working teachers. However, the investment allows all teachers to participate, wherever they are, and pays dividends as elements of content are perfected and reused and instructional time is used to discuss the teachers’ thinking and ideas.
The new digital environment probably will share elements of the future workplace for which we are preparing graduates. It also presents an interesting research question about the impact on learning. Will students take a greater leadership role in their learning, or will they feel like they are drowning? How will we assess their progress? What will happen to the standard exam when people are asynchronous and remote? Will we develop artificial intelligence technology to reduce cheating? Or will we move away from questions with right and wrong answers in favor of projects and reports? Standardized exams (from state tests to the ACT and SAT) were canceled for the spring semester. Could this fuel a change in the exams or even the college application process?
Even more intriguing is the potential long-term impact of this worldwide switch in how we teach. Will instructors revert to the synchronous lecture, or will a hybrid emerge that allows students to opt for virtual, asynchronous sections? Imagine how that could change the study abroad experience; students could still take those one or two unique courses back at their home institutions in times of crisis. Athletes who need to break for tournaments would similarly benefit. And taking courses at sister schools would be easier, with more plentiful offerings. Can we do a better job of merging the asynchronous MOOC with the synchronous, hands-on classroom? Education does not seem to change fast, but I think it would be exciting if this global introduction to forced online learning served as a catalyst for more experimentation at all grade levels. The result could be a powerful new blend of in-person, online, and asynchronous instruction that empowers students to become lifelong learners.
Chris Rogers is a professor of mechanical engineering at Tufts University.