Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Problem solving in an online constructivist classroom.

Notes from the field:

Recently an intern in UW-Stout's E-Learning Practicum said "In the course I'm teaching, there is a lot of interaction and questions that the students want to share and inquire about.  Some of the questions, I can't answer and some I can   I think it is important to let the student know I am only the facilitator and not the expert."

This online instructor in training got it right.  If you come across a question you can't answer, be honest. Don't bluff or portray yourself as an expert when you aren't. Instead model the collaborative skills you've developed and work together with the student to solve problems. 

It creates an intolerable pressure whenever an intern or an instructor attempts to know it all (or wants to appear that they do.) 

It's a much more sensible stance to accept the teacher as co-learner approach. You are knowledgeable, but you are here to teach and learn with the class.  This is especially true when you work with students who display wide variety of technical abilities.  Some will always know more than you do. Great! Make them allies and get them to help the others. 

By sharing power you enhance the learning community.  This is truly the way you move off the stage and become the guide on the side.

When I taught middle school I'd sometimes come across a kids with advanced technical skills, I always recognized them and make them lab assistants.  This was a win win. The student enjoyed the respect of the class and I had one more person I could learn something from. I also was able to foster the cooperative learning atmosphere that makes computer labs interesting places to learn.

When I get stumped I try to verbalize the problem and readily admit I'm working on a solution by asking for help from the group.  Doing this publicly doesn't erode your credibility if you can model a problem solving approach. 

Here are some problem solving tips.

(Folks please expand and add to this?)

1. Wait time.  If the issue isn't on fire, and the answers are covered in the course work, wait a bit.  Provide some time for other students to answer the question or for the student to answer it for themselves. (This assumes the question is asked in a public forum.) 

If a student provides another with help, follow up with subtle praise or more detail.  This helps build mutual interdependence in the class, which is at the heart of a constructivist environment.  It never hurts to thank a student publicly for providing you with a new resource or teaching you something new.  Hopefully this will encourage others to step up as well.

2. Admit when you're uncertain.  Next clarify and verify.  Coax the person asking the question to be as clear and specific as possible. (Which browser? Which Operating system? etc.) You need evidence to investigate a problem. 

When you understand the problem try to verify it by reproducing the circumstances. This means taking the student point of view to look at things.

Remember that instructors see things differently in a learning management system. Impersonate the student and try to see it their way.

Remember that some problems are browser based.  Things look and work differently depending on which operating system and browser you are using.

3. Practicum Interns should consult with your cooperating instructor on anything that might get sticky. This is a judgment call, but mainly it relates to grades and personality issues. Be proactive about about potential problems. 

Take the initiative. If you need help ask. I call this understanding the chain of command.

In an internship,  go to your cooperating cooperating instructor first.  

When you're teaching online for a company or university use the chain of command. This  means keeping your manager or program director in the loop if you see a developing problem with a student. It also means finding colleagues who can be informal mentors. 

This is always a balancing act. Don't flood your supervisor with minor problems.  Instead protect them from ugly surprises and check when you're uncertain what to do.

4. Use your search skills.  We teach information fluency in E-Learning for Educators for a very sound reason.  The answer to many questions is just a keyword search away.  If you provide an answer based on a keyword search share the keywords as well as the web addresses for your references. (Model the act of independently seeking information via search.)

Problem solving is an ongoing process.  If have advice about problem solving in an online environment please post and share it?

~ Den

PS:  One way to deal with problems is to avoid them in the first place.  See our NEW Checklist for Online Instructors for a comprehensive guide to best practices in e-learning!