One of the initial problems a distance designer faces is how to get students engaged. The reason that this is such a problem is that people who are new to the process assume engagement while designing instead of building engagement into the design. It’s natural. When you teach in a classroom, you have an assumption that you can get the wallflowers to speak up. In the classroom, a teacher equates cued response with engagement and they transfer that assumption into distance delivery.
The problem with this is that cued response is only the most superficial level of engagement — engagement with the teacher. Ideally, you want your students engaged with you, with the content, with their peers, and with the process. The challenge to the designer is how to foster that level of engagement.
Historically, teacher-prompt has been the touchstone of teacher-student interaction. The teacher asks and the student answers. That goes for simple in-class practice to more elaborate writing, quiz, and testing. Some of those practices — for example, the “research paper” — are intended primarily to contribute to engagement with the content, but they serve teacher-student engagement as well. Unfortunately that’s rather a one-dimensional level of engagement. By maintaining only surface level engagement, the teacher cannot take advantage of deeper levels of engagement.
In this class, for example, while I use the teacher-prompt strategy to engage you, my goal is to ask you questions that challenge your thinking processes and not just your knowledge. I set up situations that make you uncertain. I am trying to engage your system of thinking in such a way that what was an orderly process of thought — a stable system of beliefs — becomes less stable. While this may seem unnecessarily cruel, the reality is that I’m working toward a goal of leaving you at the end of the semester with a stable but reshaped system of beliefs which will guide your practice long after the course is over. That goal requires a certain level of destabilization because stable systems cannot be changed. They’re stable because they successfully resist change. As a result, simple teacher-prompt doesn’t really cut it as an engagement strategy. I’m required to put you into situations and to propose problems that require you to face discrepancies between what you think and what you see, then getting you to resolve those discrepancies.
The upside of this strategy of teaching through cognitive dissonance is that I’m usually able to get engagement with content, peers, and process directly from the simple “strategy of aggravation” as students frantically search content sources, consult with their peers, and embrace new technologies in an effort to deal with the discord. The downside is the hyperventilation. It’s axiomatic that students (and teachers) want to “feel safe” when they learn. Teachers are trained to wrap students in cotton batting. They’re instructed in the best ways to make students feel secure in their environments and to make sure they understand exactly what’s expected of them to cut down the amount of dissonance they experience in the classroom.
The problem with this axiom is that it makes learning difficult by taking away the incentive to learn. Out in the world, there’s usually some incentive to learn that goes beyond the comfort. In fact, there’s usually some pain that learning can alleviate. Whether it’s learning about buying a house, or learning to ride a bicycle. You learn because you want to be able to do something well enough that it doesn’t hurt any more. In the classroom, grades are the primary — and arbitrary — pain we inflict on students to get them to “learn” but grades just doen’t last. That usually only lasts until the final exam. To get real learning, we have to make the pain personal by challenging self-image, by promoting professional competence, or by demonstrating an inadequacy.
Now, please, don’t get all deSade on me. I’m not advocating hurting students in the physical sense — or from any notion of self-gratification or -aggrandizement. What I am advocating is something more akin to equivalency theory where what we endeavor to accomplish in education (classroom and/or online) is more like equivalency to the ‘school of hard knocks’ without the direst consequences often meted out in what passes for Real Life. As teachers we do have an obligation to make sure our students are not harmed.
But that does not necessarily mean we have to make them so comfortable that they have no incentive to get beyond the grade.