My own experiences taking on-line courses has definitely helped me to appreciate the difficulties experienced in setting up on-line programs. The overall goal, in my opinion, especially working with young teens- which is my first project- is having them feel a part of something that is sufficiently dynamic but with just the right balance of ease and challenge so that their confidence and motivation can work together to ensure the best possibility of sucess (as in the Vygotsky model of ‘scaffolding’).
Drawing from my experiences as a outdoor program facilitator for school aged children (7-16), I find that initial observation of the students is critical in order to assess their learning styles and passions before I formally decide on my final lesson planning for the semester. I think, therefore, without that initial contact, that it must simply be a given, for an on-line learning model, to assume that I have multiple intelligences (based on Howard Gardner’s model of the 7 intelligences) and multiple learning styles among my students; including introverts and extroverts, right and left-brain learners.
One of the most interesting teaching experiences I ever had was teaching ESL in a kindergarten in China (1 and 2 yr olds who were just beginning to learn language in their mother tongue!). The school principal, who was British, worked with the 7 intelligences model and had worked out a curriculum whereby every lesson (which was repeated for 3 weeks for the baby class, 2 weeks for the 3 and 4 yr olds, and weekly for the 5 and 6 yr olds) included words, visuals, kinetic activities, music and songs, working in groups and one-on-one. It was because this experience showed such visible results that I am able to see those learning styles in students now, even when they have been subverted by spending years in a classroom.
Critical to success, then, seems to be the inclusion of aspects of all the styles of learning; through visuals, music, video, social networking, physical activities and challenges. Keeping in mind also that some like to work at their own pace, and some enjoy a little peer competition, a balance of social networking in a variety of creative ways, including breaking up into smaller groups according to passion-based topics that they can co-create may satisfy the higher end learners who don’t like to be organized (I deal with a lot of ADHD, Asbergers, and other learning disorders, including dyslexia; students who like to think and do outside the box).
A significant difference for me as an on-line teacher will also be the fact that I cannot monitor the body language of my students in order to direct my facilitation- but will have to wait for them to initiate feedback. Therefore, a forum for feedback needs to be another one of the critical factors, as well as a forum for everyone to have a voice- especially at the beginning of a course- in the initial start-up process so that everyone feels welcome and included.
It can seem at first, especially to those non-abstract learners, and especially those new to on-line learning, that because they are ‘invisible’ their participation is in fact, less personal. It seems to me that setting up the perception of community and ‘visibility’ in the beginning should be the first goal. Some students require more interaction that others and will benefit from the invite, whereas, others can choose to remain less visible overall and still benefit from the communal environment. Ironically, posting on-line can actually, from my own experience, be a beneficial medium for introverts- those who, in the conventional classroom, don’t often have the same ‘opportunity’ to get involved in active discussion.
In terms of synchronous vs asynchronous communication, I would say that the point where synchronous communication is useful is when a group of participants are working together on a project and need to speed up and brainstorm amongst themselves. I would say that in terms of on-going topics, asynchronous learning is more useful, as it gives participants a chance to think about their responses as well as to work around their own learning schedules.
In terms of the programs I am planning, the synchronous component will happen in various ways. Initially upon sign-up, and at the end, as a celebration. The intention is to get together as a group in a weekend camp situation where the students can make real-life connections and share experiences together. The on-line learning would then have a pool of experiences to draw from. The program also, will consist of interacting with the real world and real experiences as part of the research components (nature-mapping, collecting data, observations, photographs, nature drawings, etc). The students will then post on-line and compare ecoregions as a way of sharing their three-dimensional learning experience with each other. An on-line weekly synchronous activity or chat room could also be fun for those who need more peer interaction.