Equipping Adult Online Learners to Creatively Demonstrate Mastery

We’r only a few weeks into 2021, but it’s already been a year of academic growth and exploration. With exploration often comes a sense of being lost, and that’s where I am right now, ha ha! Hence, the map image below:

Two people look at a map.
Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay

Maybe y’all can help me out. As a graduate professor and simultaneously as a graduate student, I’m learning more and more about the importance of student “voice and choice.” I believe this phrase means that students should have options for both how they learn and what they learn.

In theory this idea sounds pretty good, especially for adult learners. We’re all adults here – we all know why we’re in school and what we’r hoping to get out of it. Why shouldn’t we have more say? As long as I’m meeting the course’s learning objectives, shouldn’t I be able to align my time and effort as closely as possible to my goals?

In practice, I’m having some trouble with implantation of “voice and choice,” both as a professor and as a learner. 

As a professor, I’ve noticed that when I give students a lot of latitude on assignment directions, they don’t like it! They want to know the exact prompts, word counts, formatting, etc. What’s more, even when I assure them that an assignment will get credit so long as the submission is reasonable, they still seem hesitant. 

As a student, I find myself getting frustrated when I have too much “voice and choice” in terms of what I’m exploring and what I’m supposed to turn in. While I appreciate the sentiment, I’m on a tight schedule due to obligations with family, work, church, etc. I really want clear directions and a clear idea of how to get good grades and learn what I’m supposed to learn. That also makes me uncomfortable – not knowing what I’m supposed to focus on. If I already knew the field and the subject, I wouldn’t be taking a class about it!

These complaints aren’t insurmountable, although they do need to be addressed. First, we probably need to look at the circumstances that make my students and me-as-a-student so nervous about coloring outside the lines. We don’t know what to do with freedom, and if we have it we don’t want it. Why? Is just the time and effort required, or something else?Second, we need to look at course design. It could be that the problem isn’t freedom, but lack of a compass and map. Where are we supposed to go? Students need that, but they don’t necessarily need you to tell them how to get there (depending on level and material).

Assuming clear desired course outcomes and clean course design, then, how does voice and choice work? That’s what my DEL colleagues and I have been discussing the last few weeks. I assigned myself this question to help my own students at ACU:

“Once adult online learners have determined their learning goals, which expressions of technology would be most beneficial in helping them to achieve and demonstrate competency?”

You can see this question narrows things down to adult learners operating online, and tools related to (1) developing competency and (2) demonstrating that competency. Finally, a lot of the learning goals are self-directed. 

I’m assuming latitude without set course outcomes, in the existential sense that we have not complete freedom to do anything imaginable in the world, but the ability to make choices within whatever boundaries we do have. As mentioned above, I do think learners appreciate clear boundaries.

As my colleague Deanna Bush mentioned, clear boundaries can provide a framework for real creativity. It reminds me of the possibility within the twelve-bar blues or a simple tic-tac-toe game.

To answer the question, I came up with a few different options:

  • Help students become conversant, if not fluent, in the technologies made available to them within their program.

In my case, I teach at Abilene Christian University Online. We utilize the Canvas Learning Management System (LMS). Therefore, it’s important that students know their way around the LMS. Our ACU Adams Center has a guide to Canvas just for students, so that’s something I can share. Additionally, any integrated apps or technology I know about can also be shared with students through example. Which brings me to…

  • Give space and true freedom to allow students to implement technologies to demonstrate their own mastery of course outcomes. (a) Within LMS technically. (b) Culturally within the course, if not within the university at large, they should know it’s safe to do that.

ACU’s Adams Center also has a lot of information for professors on online learning ed tech, which of course professors can use to learn themselves and then share the knowledge with students.

However, the tech itself is useless if students don’t know it’s safe to utilize and experiment with the tech. I think setting the example as the professor is key to modeling that behavior and signaling safety to jam (see the 12 bar blues above).

Of course, it never hurts to say out loud that it’s safe to bring in new tech and experiment. From experience, it’s important to be clear about the boundaries. Let students know they can color outside the lines but they need to keep the crayon on the page, so to speak.

  • Help students stay up to date on technological fluencies they may need, as well as other important 21st Century learning skills such as adaptability, flexibility, technical prowess. Rheingold in Net Smart refers to important fluencies and observes that so much information is available that we can’t consume all of it, but more dip our hands in the ever-flowing stream.

ISTE Standards for Students #6 is Creative Communicator. That standard obligates students to use appropriate tech tools responsibly to communicate what they know. ACU has an Innovation Foundry with live and pre-recorded classes to help students do just that. I plan on sharing that information with my students so they can do things I could never think of suggesting they do.

Creative communicators don’t just consume content online (blech – the artist in loathes those words), they engage, collaborate and teach. Developing an online voice and speaking in that voice can be good for the future careers and reputation of students (thanks, Yanira). Ethically, it also allows them to contribute to positive online discourse, fight disinformation, and model good digital citizenship for others.

These three ideas won’t exactly solve the tension between freedom and desired/necessary boundaries, but I do think they’ll develop our vocabularies to better converse and articulate what it is we want to learn, teach, and express. I hope they’ll also contribute to building trust.

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