Believing in Students: What Technology Can’t Deliver

Students on Computers and Phones

Today’s guest post was originally published on GETideas.


Believing in Students: What Technology Can’t Deliver

by Michelle Pacansky-Brock

I often hear faculty debate the challenges of teaching with emerging technologies at the community college level.  Community college classes are the epitome of diversity — in any given class you are likely to find a mixture of students who are learning English as a second or third language, students with known and undiagnosed cognitive learning disorders (dyslexia, dysgraphia, etc.), students who have not yet passed basic skills requirements, students at advanced levels of learning, and students who are facing unimaginable economic challenges and other forms of personal hardships.  These diverse student groups also hold some of the most stunning, life changing teaching experiences an educator could ever dream of.

Generational diversity is often cited by instructors as a significant challenge when implementing emerging technologies.  While younger students aren’t always “savvy” in technology, as trends like to generalize, older students have more fear and skepticism about technology and that can create additional obstacles for success and challenges for facilitators.  How can these be remedied?  Or can they?  What concerns can an instructor mitigate and what accountability falls squarely on the students?  And what is to be gained from having our older students overcome their technological bias or disinterest?  Will they acquire skills that will make them more employable in our digital, mobile society?

Learning from Diane

This January, as I prepare for my spring semester, I reflect on one student from my previous fall semester class.  Her name is Diane.  While I don’t know how old Diane is exactly, she is older than the traditional, 18-24 year old college student. Before enrolling in my online class, she had successfully completed many online classes before mine.  These other online classes were designed in a traditional course management system and used the built-in discussion board as the nexus of interactivity between students.  By the end of week one, I had secretly tagged Diane as a “high risk” student and I was seriously concerned that she might drop the class.

My online class is not exactly traditional. I use the course management system but only as a place for students to authenticate, access their list of course assignments and due dates, and review their scores and my private feedback.  The core of the students’ learning occurs in two external, web-based tools called VoiceThread and Ning. In VoiceThread, students engage in personalized voice and video conversations as they respond to videos and prompts I have arranged about the course content. I am present here too and leave personalized video feedback to my students, providing me with extra opportunities to expand my teaching time with them and take their learning out into spontaneous and relevant niche areas of our content, just as we would in a classroom conversation. Ning is a closed (or private) social network in which each student continuously develops his or her own blog throughout a course.  The blog, like the VoiceThread comments, are shared with their peers and commented on by others, creating learning community.

Most of my online students say, “I’ve never had a class like this one.” That comment almost always transforms into a very positive response by the end of the class, but in the first week, students are often unsure.  I work hard to support those who are nervous about these new learning methods.

Identifying and Supporting Student Reluctance

Through many years of online teaching, I’ve learned the importance of designing a high-touch approach in the early weeks of my class so I can understand the needs and challenges of my learners.  As a teacher, I refer to these early weeks as the “red zone.”  One of the simple mechanisms I have in place for week one is an online survey that students complete after reading the syllabus and reviewing some essential resources shared in the course site.  The content they review before completing the survey introduces them to many important things about the class, including my policies and philosophy about teaching, grading information, the fact that they will be participating in voice or video conversations using VoiceThread, and also creating their own blog in a closed social network referred to as Ning.
Diane, and the rest of my students, completed the online survey and I reviewed the responses.  In the survey, there is one question that I always hone in on quite emphatically.  Toward the end of the survey, I asked students, “In one word, how are you feeling about the class?”  This single-word answer was a golden nugget for me.  Nearly all students responded with a word that was either positive or neutral, like “excited, “good,” “fine,” “curious.”  But there are usually two or three students (out of 35) who reply with something more concerning like “overwhelmed,” “scared,” “nervous.”  These are the students I reach out to.  And this is the group that Diane fell into.

I reached out to Diane after week one and mentioned, in an e-mail, that I had read her survey response and I wanted to assure her that I’d be here to support her through any questions she might have.  I asked her to elaborate on her response and to help me understand her reasons for being “nervous” about the class.  She wrote back and explained to me that she had taken many online classes before and she had been successful in those classes too.  But none of those classes had been like this one.  She was not comfortable with the idea of speaking in the VoiceThreads and also shared at one point that listening to her own voice was like “nails on a chalkboard.” She was not familiar with VoiceThread or Ning (by the way, I do not expect any of my students to be familiar with these tools) and she was skeptical about the value they would bring to her experience.

Fading Out

I soon also began to learn that Diane also was a very busy woman.  She worked more than one job and these extra technologies were intrusions into the flow of her life, intrusions that weren’t planned and weren’t exactly welcomed with open arms.  I candidly shared with Diane why I use VoiceThread and Ning and just how valuable they are to my online learners in creating community and motivating students to learn in relevant contexts.  I asked her to keep an open mind and wait three weeks.  By week three, I assured her, things would settle in.

Well, by week three, Diane was blossoming and I could begin to scale back my high-touch support.  In her VoiceThread group, she was quickly becoming a leader to her peers.  And on our voluntary “check in slides,” she was candidly reflecting on how surprised she was to be enjoying the VoiceThreads so much (sigh of relief!).  On Diane’s blog, not only did I observe thorough, critical writing in response to my prompts, but she was actively enhancing her blog with non-required posts that were “inspired” (her word) by our readings and other course content.  She was reaching out and engaging her peers in dialogue by leaving valuable comments in their blogs that both engaged them in critical conversation and encouraged them for jobs well done.  Diane was emerging as a community leader in the class, a role that is filled to some degree each semester by one, two or three students and she was really flying to new heights.

Reluctant Student Transforms Into Newspaper Blogger

Diane had been faced with a risk. Rather than running away from it, she tackled it head on.  As a result, she grew in new and unexpected ways. And one more unexpected outcome would arrive soon too.  Diane, apparently, was a budding freelance writer.  After conquering her unfamiliarity and fear of technology, she acquired the skills and the confidence to be hired by a major newspaper as a blogger.  Wow! My class — an online, History of Photography Class at a community college — resulted in a reluctant, older student securing a 21st-century journalist position.  Quite an unexpected outcome, I’d say?

As Diane completed her journey in our 17-week class, I invited her and all my students to record a comment on my Wisdom Wall, a special VoiceThread in which I invited departing students to share advice with incoming students.  This tradition is a great way to end a class and provides a beautiful, warm entrance experience for my next group of nervous, reluctant learners.  Please take two minutes to listen to Diane’s reflection by clicking on the video below. (Shared with permission.)

Michelle Pacansky-Brock is the author of Best Practices for Teaching with Emerging Technologies, an online community college instructor, a faculty-development specialist, and a doctoral student in Educational Leadership and Management.

The Golden Rule: “If you do not believe your students can do it, you are right.”

Teaching with the right technologies is essential when you are teaching online.  As an online educator, you are always limited to to quality of the learning environment that your toolkit enables you to create.  For example, if you are teaching a visual discipline like art history and your environment is text dominated, you have a problem.

Beyond that, when you’ve adopted emerging technologies into the design of your class, you are the key to your students’ success.  Technology, no matter how powerful it may seem to be, will never replace the emotional value of a human mentor in a learning experience.  When you have students who are reluctant, overwhelmed, and nervous, only a person will be able to shepherd them through that experience successfully.

Thus, the success of these “reluctant learners” comes down to you. If you do not believe your students can do it, you are right.  If you are skeptical about whether or not your students will succeed, they will smell your reluctance and they will not perform.  You must be a strong, motivational, inspirational, leader.  Look within yourself.  If you don’t believe that your students can and will succeed, you need to adjust something in your class.  If you exude confidence in your online students and do so through warm, video communications so they can know who you are (something that can’t be obtained through text), they will be more likely to be motivated to want to make you proud.


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