The Importance of…
Duane B. Karlin
Whenever I see a play or watch a movie, there comes that distinctive moment near the end of the production when subtle music begins to play. It may be the soft chords of a piano, a mellow acoustic guitar, or even an orchestra fading in one final time. When I hear the music, I know the end is near. Something grand has happened. Changes have occurred. We’re not the same for having witnessed this event.
Depending on what I have seen, I either feel optimistic, frustrated, relieved, enlightened, elated, or melancholic. These simple one-word terms usually (with accuracy) describe my thoughts at the conclusion of two to three hours of entertainment.
Right now, in my mind, the musicians are getting ready to play their final piece of the night. We have seen the opening act and been subjected to the problem of the story. Characters and subplots were introduced, complicated, and perhaps resolved. The tension mounted as the story wove all of the essential elements together into a cohesive, but hopefully thought-provoking narrative. We observed the heart wrenching, revelatory, or shocking climax. And now comes the final moments of the dénouement. Our time together, sitting alone in the dark and watching the actions of others unfold before our eyes, is about to end.
But this is no ordinary exhibition. I have not been idly watching and making mental conjectures while the real work was taking place in front of me. I have been working to decode and understand the magic, but that magic isn’t some force guided by the actions of others. It is a tangible fount of knowledge that I have been able to manipulate and apply to my life.
So before the house lights illuminate the world and bring us back to the immediate reality, we have a moment to pause and reflect on the actions that brought us to this place in time. Specifically what I learned throughout my courses in educational technology.
Where I live, to renew my teaching certification every five years, I need to take at least four semester credits. It’s not a heavy load and with the availability of online learning prospects and access to a local community college, it is relatively easy to choose a class in which I would like to expand my knowledge. Depending on the number of credits, I usually take one or two classes to fulfill my requirements. I have been repeating this cycle since 2001: finding a class, learning something new, and then placing it on a dusty shelf in the back of my mind. It has worked for me, but at the same time, I began to feel restless.
Shortly after my last renewal in 2006, I began to research the idea of earning my master’s degree, but there were several issues I needed to answer before I could seriously commit to this endeavor. Ideas such as: What would it entail? How much time would it take? What would I study? Would it be worth it?
Since writing is one of my passions, I considered working towards an M.F.A. in Creative Writing. I love to generate worlds that mirror many aspects of our own and populate them with interesting characters that are a slight reflection of myself. (Perhaps more outgoing or adventurous, but you get the idea.) However, after really learning about various programs, I was not convinced that this was the path I needed to take. I am certain it would have been a challenge, but my bigger concern was whether an M.F.A. in Creative Writing was economically feasible. I work in teaching as a Title I Tutor, so what could I do with a master’s degree in creative writing? It was somewhat disappointing to turn my back on this idea, but at the same time, I could not see its value with my current teaching assignment.
I continued to research schools, looking for that gem that would offer me the learning experience I wanted, one where I could apply this new knowledge in my teaching, and where it would benefit not simply my ego, but how I was able to integrate this content into my students’ lives. I also wanted to find a school where I could complete my education online. Not a very tall order, huh?
When I discovered the Educational Technology master’s program through Michigan State University, I knew that this was the challenge I needed. Applying for and participating in this program has been one of the most positive and best decisions I have ever made. Not only have I learned an amazing volume of information pertinent to my teaching profession, I have also come to understand the importance of collaborative learning, valuing the journey toward a final project, and the necessity of continually challenging my thinking.
And now, here I sit, writing one of my final papers for my online master’s degree in Educational Technology, and asking myself one simple question: What have I learned?
Before I began my classes, I considered myself technologically savvy. I have worked with computers throughout my life and my professional career learning different applications and operating systems. I have also taken several online courses. However, with these initial offerings, the classes were designed as independent study. I did not have the advantage of working with other students and therefore, could not gain insight from their ideas and perspectives. In other words, I did not feel actively engaged with other learners.
My coursework through MSU has enabled me to become an active member of a learning community. Even though we are all separated by great distances and scattered throughout the world, those distances are inconsequential as we participate in synchronous and asynchronous forums or discuss ideas through video chat. This demonstrates how connected our world is and that meaningful educational experiences are available to everyone.
In CEP 810: Teaching for Understanding with Technology, taught by Carolyn McCarthy and Dr. Sandra Plair, I learned how vital and important it is to have a collaborative group of learners in which I can share my knowledge and gain insight from their perspectives and experience in the process of learning.
One of our major projects in this class was to create an informative presentation within an assigned group. This was entirely new to me because I had never worked with a group online. We had to coordinate our schedules, decide on a topic, research that topic, and then design our presentation.
As I reflect on our introduction to podcasting project, I am still amazed at the equal amount of work we each put forth while never actually meeting face-to-face. If five strangers in 2011 are able to collaborate and complete a project when separated by great distances, I can only imagine what the future will provide for our students.
Already schools are using Skype and other video chatting services to conduct interviews with authors and meet other students across the globe. With this connectedness of technology, students are able to see how their particular expertise can be shared with other students outside of their school.
Collaboration opens the door to new ideas and enables students to share information and receive immediate feedback. I had not been a huge fan of group projects, but this introduction showed me the inherent value of seeking help from others. It does not show a character flaw. Rather, by working together, we are encouraged to share our strengths and strengthen our weaknesses, thus enabling us (and our students) to become open to positive outside influences. Additionally, we begin to understand the importance of working together, while sharing information and knowledge.
As I completed my Personal Learning Reflection for this course, I marveled at the nature of distance collaboration. A comment regarding collaboration by Dr. Plair held particular resonance for me. In it she says,
“Who knew a group of people could formulate an idea and produce a product without ever seeing one another? It still amazes me. Having the tools to do this is very exciting in and of itself, but finding people to actually work at making this happen is even more awesome.”
I agree. It is awesome! As technology continues to streamline our lives, I can only imagine how small our world will become.
Out of curiosity the other day, I entered my name into a search. Many of the initial entries were pages for websites in which I am a member (LinkedIn, MERLOT, and Classroom 2.0 to name a few), but one entry that came as a surprise was not even written in a language I could immediately identify. After a quick copy, paste, and translate, I found my work had been translated into Hebrew and referenced on an Israeli site! To know that my work has indeed found a global audience validates the power of collaboration and technology. Even though we may be unaware of our Internet presence, by contributing, we are maintaining and adding to a vast library of past, present, and future knowledge for all the world to access.
CEP 810 also introduced me to the idea of using social media as a tool for collaboration. When I began this course, I had a Facebook account that I checked periodically. The newness of reconnecting with distant friends had lost its shine, so other than reading updates I could see no practical use for a social media platform in terms of education. However, as I began to explore the role of social media and how it impacts the lives of so many individuals, especially our connected “digital natives,” I came to see its value.
Aside from creating specialized groups or sharing pertinent links and articles via Facebook and Twitter, I recognized the inherent significance of a platform such as Ning, particularly The Michigan Association for Computer Users in Learning, or MACUL Space. What a marvelous tool that can be customized to reflect the knowledge a person or group wants to share, and then have users contribute to the content, thus making it a living entity that continues to grow and thrive with ideas and substance! It truly embodies what it means to create, share, and remix.
Collaborating was not simply a practice I used in CEP 810. Rather, this was my first real experience with it. But, it did not stop with this initial course. It became an integral learning component throughout my coursework. I plan to continue using it in my teaching and life because what good is a great idea if it cannot be shared?
This was not the only way in which my thinking changed over the course of earning my master’s degree. Another important aspect was to consider how I learn.
I envisioned CEP 820: Teaching K-12 Students Online, taught by Michelle Schira Hagerman, Ammon Wilcken, April Niemala, and Sean Leahy, as a course that would provide me with an understanding of how to teach students in an online environment. I thought that the material covered would be best practices of how I could share my message and convey deep, relational understanding. I had not intended to have the opportunity to synthesize much of the content that I had been taught and create an actual learning experience. However, as the course began and I realized the goals and expectations, I was excited at the prospects. What truly appealed to me was that I was being asked to create an actual learning module. Not simply a mockup, but the creation of something that was personally meaningful and supported by concrete pedagogical choices. CEP 820 enabled me to analyze what works when creating an online course and what does not work.
Our educational system has long determined that a student’s success depends on a final grade. Like many educational professionals, I believe that grades are a necessary step in the learning process. Theoretically, a grade demonstrates what was learned throughout the course of study, but a better measurement of student success would be for students to relationally understand all of the necessary steps and work involved to arrive at that point. If students are pressured to finish a project simply for a grade, then they are missing the main point of learning the content. The learning process needs to be emphasized rather than simply focusing on the end result so students are able to use the information studied throughout a course and apply it to future learning challenges. Thereby incorporating new ideas into their existing schemas and remixing the information to create (and learn!) something new. One of the greatest lessons I took from this course was the emphasis of process over the final product.
This approach to building my course module enabled me to continually update, change, and challenge my own thinking to discover better ways to engage students in the learning process. I want them to be conscientious of their progress, but focused on what they are learning and how it could be applied and/or reconstructed in different situations. Hence, they will be able to use their newly acquired information after the class is complete.
Another practice of importance that I would like to incorporate into my teaching is grading. In this course, the instructors were very forward about grades. They encouraged us to experiment with different learning/content management systems, reply to questions and prompts, to ask our own questions in our developer’s notebook, and to not worry about “wrong” answers or failure. The rationale behind not emphasizing grades is that students will want to focus more on their work (and the process) rather than simply trying to write the correct answers to satisfy a question or a piece of a rubric. While I openly accepted this idea as a student in CEP 820, I had difficulty integrating it into my teaching module.
How could I assess learning if points were not assigned? I want students to understand that some components are more important than others, so those assignments should be worth more points. This reasoning made absolute sense to me, but at the same time, I had difficulty justifying it.
Why would I consider obtaining images and correctly citing them less important than a reflective blog entry? Each takes a certain amount of skill. One may require the learner to find the appropriate information and attribute credit while the other may necessitate that a thoughtful response is written in the appropriate format. If I want students to value all of the elements of an assignment equally, then I knew I needed to eliminate the point value system and simply allow them to explore and focus on the content, not the final expectations.
By relinquishing control, I thought that students would lack direction and motivation. But as I considered my view regarding points and grades at the beginning of this course, I actually had a greater sense of learning and accomplishment. My focus had subsequently been geared toward the content, and the process of learning, not simply the final project. In that respect, content and the process became stronger pieces of assessment rather than a comprehensive examination/project.
As I resume teaching in the fall, I want to continue with this logic. I want students to appreciate what they are learning and how it can be used to create more than one specific type of project. I also want to emphasize, with their learning, that even if a concept is initially frustrating, it can be a powerful source of instruction.
This pedagogical approach to teaching and learning can change the manner in which we confront difficult issues. Ultimately, it will assist not only our students, but also guide our own learning as well.
Yet with any new experience, whether it is graded or not, we risk failure. However, failure enables us to learn and grow from our mistakes. It is a natural part of learning, but not necessarily a pleasant experience.
When I began CEP 822: Approaches to Educational Research, taught by E. David Wong, PhD and Sandra Sawaya, I effectively moved beyond my comfort zone. Learning how to integrate technology into my teaching and engage students in the content were concepts of which I was comfortable. Identifying a technology issue in education that could be interpreted as beneficial or a hindrance and then constructing a proposal to study it was a monumental undertaking.
Having never conducted my own independent educational research, I was unfamiliar with most of the terminology. In many aspects, it was akin to learning a new language. I was asked to write a “Focus and Rationale,” conduct a comprehensive “Literature Review” with annotations and summaries, and compose a “Research Design” for my issue. If presented with this entire assignment at once, even with detailed notes, I would have been lost, overwhelmed, and resigned to failure. However, the assignments were broken into smaller, more easily understood segments that placed emphasis on a specific section at a time rather than the entire proposal.
Working through this course and gaining an understanding and appreciation for educational research expanded my confidence in reading, comprehending, and debating research. Since my understanding of the language was enriched, I can formulate important questions that open the figurative doors for debate. I am not satisfied with an answer simply because it is an answer, but I would like to know about the issues.
What makes an educational program effective?
How much do our students understand?
What defines understanding?
The word “understanding” became more than knowing about something. It became a word with a dual meaning, a word that was truly introduced to me in this class, but one that resonated throughout my program. As part of the vocabulary, I learned about instrumental versus relational understanding.
Unfortunately, with the structure of many subjects that we teach and learn, because of time constraints, we often resort to instrumental understanding. This branch of understanding basically deals with no more than the acquisition of knowledge. It does not teach learners how to apply this information in a broader context. If the right circumstances are given, then an answer can be derived.
However, with relational understanding, learners are provided with the why and how something works. Providing a student with relational understanding gives them the required components to thoughtfully consider a problem. Using prior knowledge, they can deconstruct the problem, upset their learning schemas, and ultimately integrate the new information into their learning thereby expanding their comprehension. It is relational understanding that we, as educators and learners, should strive to instill in our students and ourselves.
To accurately demonstrate the differences of understanding, we discussed many learning misconceptions. Watching videos and asking questions enabled me to think about the material and internally query whether I was teaching instrumentally or relationally. This course expanded my thoughts about what it truly means to process and understand information. I upset my familiar teaching schemas and was compelled to change my thinking in order to foster meaningful discussions that would promote relational understanding.
It is this richer definition of understanding that I applied throughout my coursework to gain deeper knowledge. Relational understanding holds significance not simply for one project that has been completed, but for the process that can be reused and remixed on countless other endeavors throughout my learning and teaching.
As I take this time to pause and reflect on my coursework and learning experiences through MSU, I realize the importance of this activity. Often our lives are so rushed that we move from one moment to the next, never taking the time to stop and think about how things are going.
How can we appreciate the big picture if we don’t see the little details?
Education is currently in a state of flux. If we do not reflect on what’s working for our students (and ourselves) and piece it together into a cohesive amalgamation of ideas, then we are guilty of instrumental thinking. We need to be progressive agents of relational understanding. We want our students to comprehend the lessons we are teaching, but we need to spark the elements of engagement and motivation to truly inspire them to think bigger than the final project. We need to challenge our students and not impose limitations upon their learning and goals.
It does not matter if I am watching the passing scenery in my rearview mirror or living my Rushmore, I need to remember the steps that brought me to this amazing threshold. As Dr. Koehler stated, “[we] are in the vanguard of those who will pursue more and more of their education in online environments…” We need to take the initiative and lead other progressive individuals and our students into this technologically oriented future. We are among the first, and we will certainly not be the last.
The lights will soon fade, and the curtain is about to fall. The orchestral music has been cued. It’s time to stand with our colleagues and take a bow.