Real Online Course Design Part III - Reviewing relevant literature

During an initial series of brainstorming sessions I listed all possible learning objectives and methods of achieving them. I recognized some areas of uncertainty and ambivalence, and have consulted with a few scholars and deceased educators whom I admire for guidance.

Malcolm Knowles's Learning Contracts

Malcolm Knowles was an adult educator who studied at University of Chicago while Carl Rogers and Art Shedlin were there. He was inspired by the person-centered approach of the psychologists there, and adopted his theory of adult learning (Andragogy). Knowles believed that, in order for adults to learn, the learning must be self-directed; they must know why they are learning something; they must see the relevance of what they're learning to their lives; it must be self-evaluated; and so on. In other words, In Knowles's opinion, sitting and getting doesn't work for adult learning.

To structure the learning process, Knowles recommended learning contracts. I have talked about these before. In a learning contract, students choose their own objectives, competencies, activities, and evaluation strategies. In other words, they design their own syllabi. In the past, I didn't have very much luck with learning contracts because I didn't spend enough time introducing them or giving guidance to my students. If I were to use them in an online class, then I would devote a whole quarter of the semester to introducing why I have chosen learning contracts and inviting students to explore theirs creatively.

But I began to wonder if they might be useful for me for helping students to organize their own online learning. So I reread the book, with special attention paid to the chapters on academic settings and independent studies. What I found, however, was that the learning contract examples were far too complicated to keep my interest, and I doubt very much that distracted Zoomers would be able to design their own. I do like the learning contracts, but I would have to reinvent them by taking the principles described by Knowles and, pairing them with student temperament today, create a new format.

Existential - Humanistic Learning Theory Online

I have been writing a lot about existential and humanistic learning theories. These are the objectives that concern self-knowledge, authenticity, responsibility, well-being, affective awareness, emotional intelligence. These are of course important to intellectual learning, but the latter seems to get all of the attention (e.g., with courses organized around informational 'content'). In a face-to-face classroom, there are many opportunities to pay attention to EH--making process comments, reflecting on my own emotion, reflecting on students' emotion, recognizing when learning is easy, difficult, fun, stressful, etc. 

In online courses, I don't have many points of contact with students outside of e-mail. So I am always careful about how I interact with students via e-mail. But what about structured learning? Is it possible to organize an asynchronous course with EH objectives?

(After reading a half dozen boring or uninspiring articles) I happened upon an article by David Ward about the French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty (MP) and online learning. MP believed that learning is always an embodied and affective event. When we learn how to drive, we first learn basic rules (informational content) about when to shift, how to brake, etc. But eventually we absorb these rules into our bodies--we feel them. The same is true for reading/revising an essay. We reach a point where we can read something and get a feel for what the right word is. There isn't always a rule for the right word, but a skilled reader/writer can feel it.

"The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter—it's the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.” -Mark Twain

Ward spends much of the article responding to another philosopher who thinks online learning is a waste of time/dead end, but in the end he describes designing courses with students in mind. This is nothing novel, and it is a fundamental part of Autonomy Supportive Teaching. But it is a new way of thinking about (indeed, it is feeling about) online courses. 

I have sent Ward an e-mail to ask if he has employed this or other strategies in online courses, and am awaiting his reply. Until then I will go back through my brainstorming sessions and think about these affectively.

Read Part IV


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