What Does Learning “Look Like” Online?
Assessment of student learning in a digital environment demands creativity, ingenuity, and flexibility. Learning outcomes and their assessment are often heavily dependent on some sort of observable behaviour, whether a student is asked to identify, demonstrate, describe, or analyze. In some instances, it can seem that we are getting only a second-hand version of a student’s learning as we don’t often see, first-hand, the process that brought them to their final product. Learning and teaching online can also create a filter, which makes it challenging to assess what students are learning and how, if, and to what degree that learning has successfully achieved our desired outcomes.
Technology is a remarkable tool, but online it is not a type of student. Students remain real, living, breathing, hoping, dreaming, learning beings whether in the front row of the classroom or behind the computer screen. Digital technologies offer new ways to do what we as educators take to be foundational or traditional means of teaching, as much as students can use these tools as new ways to do what we have always asked of them: communicate, discuss, critique, reflect, and demonstrate.
When exploring what learning and development can look like online, consider how learning behaviours can be seen in the digital environment.
While there will always be pieces of the learning experience missing from an online environment, we do our students a disservice when we focus on the gaps rather than the opportunities. How might technology augment or support student learning? How can these digital tools help you to create new spaces for development, collect new or different data to highlight student development, or better share assessment results to celebrate student success?
While a challenge in its own right, there is immense opportunity in having immediate and vast access to information; students and educators can keep up to the minute on a particular topic and can learn from a far more diverse collection of perspectives than ever before. Consider students now being able to search the web for news articles rather than combing through newspaper archives to complete an assignment. Their assignments and ideas are not only informed by access to this vast amount of information, but the way they may complete an assignment without or barely physically meeting with their peers offers interesting new ways to conceptualize and teach leadership. How can you lead someone you’ve never “met”? These same digital spaces then offer a means to collect new and different assessment data; leadership behaviours can be coded by words typed in chat boxes or quantified by how many times a student logged onto a forum.
Online learning often privileges text-based ways of communicating. Just as we do in the classroom, we must consider multiple ways of learning and sharing knowledge in the digital environment. Could students create video, audio, or an image that can be posted as a response to your questions? Learning will always take many forms, and the demonstration of achieving learning outcomes online will look no different.
Discussion boards, for example, are near staples of our learning management systems (LMS). While valuable tools for dialogue and reflection, they both privilege written communication and can make conversation more challenging when social cues are absent or large gaps in time occur between initial messages and responses. Some faculty have now taken to asking students to prepare both written responses and video replies to question prompts. While offering an opportunity for students to flex different communication styles, there is also the less explicit but still important benefit of helping students develop skills in verbally explaining their ideas; a skill we know to be necessary for success in job interviews and in their future workplaces.
Are students regularly sharing ideas, thoughts, and questions? What they say and how they say it may look different, but the online environment often demands an additional investment of time and energy from students. How will you encourage students to regularly share themselves throughout the learning process, rather than only posting a final thought or product? How can digital tools collect and track information that highlights progress rather than perfection?
As a participant and a past facilitator, I have enjoyed how Twitter chats can formatively demonstrate students’ development. Similar to many of our favourite theories, students will often begin their participation in Twitter chats tentatively, looking to cues from who they perceive to be experts in the “room” to agree with or retweet. Over time, regular chats help students move from agreement to (polite, perhaps still tentative) disagreement and, my favourite, a lot more questions than answers. Week to week, they may find new information to share or new peers to engage with, but you can begin to chart their growth in critical thinking and interpersonal communication; 140 characters is a messy, challenging way to learn how to collaborate and communicate without the benefit for repetitive practice and a longer page limit.
At its core, assessment is a call to action. While we are required to answer questions to be accountable to our stakeholders and our students, assessment is also, and perhaps more importantly, a charge for us to ask better questions to understand more of the deeply diverse and constantly changing student experience. What questions are we asking our students, and of ourselves? How can technology help us better shape and share those answers?
is a doctoral student pursuing a PhD in Educational Studies, Cognition and Learning stream, at the University of Windsor, where she is exploring online communities of practice as a medium for professional development for student affairs professionals. She also serves as an Educational Developer at York University and as National Chair of the NASPA Technology Knowledge Community (TKC). Her past work includes the creation and development of the Leadership Educators and Resource Network, now the CACUSS Leadership Educators’ Community of Practice (LECOP). Her work meets at the intersections of technology, assessment, student affairs, learning & development, and leadership, exploring idea(l)s of success both personally and professionally. Her work experience includes career services, orientation, leadership development, and experiential education. Twitter: @lmendersby
Assessment & You II: Coast to Coast is an ongoing series brought to you by Lesley D’Souza, featuring a number of perspectives on assessment from across Canada and the US. Join us every month as they dive into the depths of assessment knowledge and practice, building a culture of assessment for Student Affairs in Canada.
Check out our Assessment Glossary for a breakdown of terms used throughout Assessment & You, and stay tuned next month for a look into how assessment can be transformative, generate empathy, and create positive change.