remember that early cartoon of the duck with a mallet about to break his computer?
The pandemic has forced many organizations pivot to online training. Facilitators have quickly adjusted their in-person sessions to the age of Zoom. Perhaps, too quickly.
Technology has a reputation for making things efficient. Should I want to message a friend, I pick up a phone and text. They will get the message instantly. Before phones of any kind, my only hope was to mail a letter. Of course, the efficiency isn't always for the better. Social networks have proved, time and time again, to be harmful to mental health. Yet, many of us find ourselves losing time doom scrolling. In my experience with online training and learning through the pandemic, I feel like efficiency is getting in the way.
The school model is based on a factory. Thus, we all get arbitrarily sorted by age, instead of ability. A physical classroom and interaction with a teacher allows for some clarification and one-on-one instruction when time permits. Whereas, online learning has an opportunity to meet us where we are at. Many LMS (Learning Management Systems) allow those of us looking for new skills to go at our own pace. We choose a lesson and work at our own time, not that of the others in the class or the system's expectations. Learning online in this way may work for many, but others may struggle without the valuable interactions of other students. Furthermore, deadlines are often motivators for people.
Mental Health Learning
My experience with online training has come in the form of wellness groups and education. In my case, the courses I did had live instruction and work in an LMS. Through Coursera and Thinkific I watched instructional videos and slideshows. I filled out assignments and quizzes. Live instruction was give by facilitators to a group of us on Zoom. I have been in classes of a dozen people and over twenty. There were breakout groups and class discussions. Every facilitator stuck to a 90 minute rule. The idea of a 90 minute max of online class time seems to be a recommendation to those in the field, but I am unaware of its source.
I did find 90 minutes to be suitable, but facilitators became slaves to the clock. For example, I had a course on crisis intervention that was about 12 individual lessons in the LMS. The live instruction was 10 sessions. The facilitator had 90 minutes to present important material from those 12 chapters, take questions, allow for group discussions, and give us feedback on our work. With only 10 sessions, the facilitator just didn't have time for meaningful discussion and feedback. We could barely accomplish the assignments in the group breakouts. As this took place during the pandemic, our class was the first to try this new online format. So, I do not begrudge the organization or the facilitator.
A simple letter was typed on a typewriter and that was messy. You've got ink to deal with, white-out for mistakes, maybe carbon for copies, envelopes, stamps, and multiple file draws to store copies. Today, we sit down, tap the computer keyboard and hit send. Computers have made things easier. In the early days of computers, I remember getting a call from aunt who had a question about spreadsheets. I had a reputation for liking computers. Thus, I must know how to do a spreadsheet, right? No. That is to say, computers are not a magical solution. A computer is a tool and we must figure out how to use it. Yet, we see the computer, and the internet, as this miraculous answer to our problems. You want to sell those antique roller skates? Put it online. Surely, you'll get an interested party to buy it. You need a logo? Make one on the computer.
In reality, to sell some antique roller skates, you may need to find collectors. Simply screaming into the void that is Facebook may result in absolutely no interest. There's too much out there. You need to spend some time finding the right web communities. Making a logo requires some knowledge of drawing and designing using an application made for that purpose. Likewise, taking a 10 day, 3 hour course and compressing it to a few Zoom meetings and an LMS is not going to be as easy as we think. On paper, it sounds cost-effective and doable. After all, video is just like being there, right?
Much of communication is non-verbal. As a presenter, or teacher, you can look into the audience and see if they are engaged. Did they understand the material? If you see confused faces, people scrambling to take notes, or people on their phones, you may need to spend more or less time on a subject. On Zoom, everyone is compressed into tiny, icon-sized squares. Plus, the presenter gets to see themselves on their screen. How distracting is it to get to critique yourself on the fly? When attending an in-person presentation, you can take cues from the presenter's body language. In the example of time constraints, I may reserve my question for after class since I can visibly see my teacher is eager to move on. Or, I may notice the others in the room are clear on the topic and I want to wait to ask my question in private. These forms of communication are missing online.
Learning is different for everyone. There is no magic pill we can swallow to know Kung-Fu, Neo. I feel if online courses were effective, we wouldn't need them. After all, why not just learn straight from the textbook? Youtube tutorials are a textbook of sorts. They have all the bias that a book does-- Here's how to do this. As a reader or viewer, you do not get to seek clarification, ask for the information to be presented again in a new way, or question the content. Thus, prerecorded slideshows and videos are only dictating information at us.
These hybrid courses created during the pandemic that are part studying in an LMS and part lecture and discussion need more flexibility. Our expectations and goals when using these methods need to change. The way we use the technology will likely need to change as well. For example, could my live instruction on Zoom simply have been discussion, questions, and interactions with other learners? The facilitator could perhaps have led discussions on the reading materials, rather than going over some of it again. Though, I have been attending another course where the facilitator does give time to answer questions and get input. In that course, the facilitator is also only doing 90 minutes and ends every Zoom saying we are behind. Furthermore, that course has no workbook or LMS. So, will I actually get all the content intended?
Of course, I am not a teacher. I do not believe many of the people leading this sort of learning online are. Teaching is an art form and a profession. Scanning a workbook into a slideshow and recording myself talking is not teaching online. Online learning is different than what is happening during the pandemic. The short explanation is that online learning is designed to be online. What is happening now is an ad-hoc transition from a face-to-face situation to online.
Presenting information in-person gives facilitators a chance to get to know us. Why is that different through a flat image on a screen? How many times have you seen someone's photo avatar on LinkedIn or in a program at a speaking engagement and the real person looks nothing like them? My clothes, hair style, accessories, and facial expressions say something about me. Compressed video the size of a business card doesn't allow for me to be seen on Zoom. If a facilitator has a better idea of who I am, they may understand how to teach me when I am having difficulty. Furthermore, we get to know our classmates. There's a shared sense of belonging in groups. In the movie theater we laugh more at a comedy because others are laughing. At home on the TV, the same comedy does not illicit laughter. Humans are social animals.
There is no doubt the future, pandemic or not, will mean more online learning. We love money more than anything on the planet and online learning looks like it would save us money. Even though we've been thrust into remote learning, why bother to specifically design online learning for schools or mental health organizations, like I am working with? It's good enough as it is, right? Whether you are part of a mental wellness organization, a teacher, an employer, or another group sharing information, we need to have a discussion about the future of learning with this technology. I am all for finding better ways, but let's not let tech companies bully us into terrible learning models. When we wanted better ways to get around with interactive maps the trade-off was giving tech companies our location 24/7. While I may disagree with that on a personal level, we should all be concerned about what we give up if we allow technology a larger role in education than that of a tool.