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GCU expert forecasts post-virus shift to more dynamic future of learning

Dr. Jean Mandernach of GCU, an expert and researcher on online learning, is fielding questions from teachers across the country during the crisis.

By Mike Kilen
GCU News Bureau

As teachers at all levels transitioned from leading classrooms to leading online lessons in their dens during the COVID-19 crisis, Dr. Jean Mandernach has fielded questions from across the country.

The researcher and expert on online learning, as Executive Director of the Center for Innovation in Research and Teaching at Grand Canyon University, even answers questions at home, where she has worked remotely for 10 years but is now joined by four school-age children and a high school teacher husband practicing remote education.

“It used to be eight hours of just me and the dogs,” Mandernach said. “Now I’ve got 45-minute blips between their questions.”

The biggest questions from home and further afield are how to get this done with the best results, which she has been studying since 2001. Back then, the question was, “Can we do this?”

That was the beginning of an evolution in online learning, and ever since Mandernach has published books and dozens of papers on more detailed nuances of the science.

“We’ve really gotten away from these broad sweeps of, ‘Does online work?’ to really how we understand what works, why it works and in what context is it going to be most effective,” she said.

Mandernach answered some questions in a phone conversation with GCU Today, during unprecedented times that she says may forever influence higher education.

What have you learned that can apply to this current era when so many people are using concepts of online learning?

In my world, the world of online learning researchers, people are freaking out. They are saying, ‘Quit calling what is happening right now online learning.’ Because it’s not. Online learning has a science of best practices and principles. What we are doing now is emergency remote learning, which may tap into the principles of online learning, but it’s fundamentally a different experience.

Can you give me an example?

One of the fundamental things that matters in online learning is connection. Even though we will never see these people in person, it needs to feel human, and we need to feel like they care. The more they feel connection, the more likely they are to reach out for help.

In emergency remote learning, they do know each other — they used to sit next to each other in the classroom. So this principle of online learning, to what extent is it still relevant in emergency remote learning? It might be, it might not.

There are so many things right now with the current situation that we have to adapt differently. I had a group contact me to ask what they should do. I told them that when we are drowning, it’s not the time to criticize strokes. When they are drowning, anything they can do to survive is good.

So right now with schools, if you need to tape a 50-minute lecture because that’s what you used to do and it’s the only thing you know how to do today, by all means tape a 50-minute lecture.  You need to survive right now. If we are talking about online learning, never should you tape a 50-minute lecture.

What has your research found that can be helpful?

Over the last few years, my research has gone into the practical aspects of online teaching, such as online teaching time. What does this mean for faculty members and where do they invest the least amount of time to have the greatest impact on students? How do we make online teaching manageable and effective?

Lately, we have focused on attention management, which is particularly important during this pandemic. There is so much to do, so many things to focus on simultaneously, with one eye on the TV, one eye on social media, one eye on your kids to make sure they aren’t destroying things, and still trying to do your job.

So it’s this idea to tune ourselves into the things that have the greatest impact in the online classroom. How do you focus your attention on things that make a difference?

How do you do that?

The good news is we have several principles. One of them is know your return on investment. Faculty need to use their own metrics to find out.

I had a faculty member tell me they spend an hour and a half making these really good introductory and summary videos because best practices research tells me students want personal connection and they want video. I told him to glance at his analytics and showed him how to do it, and he came back to me and said he had only three people watching it. He has 75 students.

If the impact to those three students is great, keep doing it. If not, re-evaluate your time. When we asked students what matters to them, it’s interaction and feedback — study after study. What helps them learn is a faculty member who interacts with them and gives them good feedback. So faculty can shift the time spent making a video that no one used and reallocate that time into providing better feedback or more interaction.

Are there other common mistakes?

Often, we are using technology for the sake of technology. If we have a solution in search of a problem, we are wasting our time. So only use technology if it improves learning, enhances engagement or saves you time.

Research shows us that faculty members have 10 hours a week per course. That technology time is subtracted from that. So the more we can help faculty focus on engagement and feedback, the more gains we are going to get.

What has your last couple of weeks been like?

I’ve had a lot of questions from K12, who are reaching out to me at even higher levels, and faculty-development professionals asking me to boil it down on what they need to do to get through this.

I tell them let’s not get wrapped up in the best practices of online education. Let’s think about the big principles. Do students have access to content, a connection with others and timely feedback? If we can do those three things, you can get through this emergency remote learning situation.

For some schools that is literally email. Some ask me how to use a discussion board, and at GCU we giggle a bit because we’ve been doing it for so long. But for some classroom teachers this is all so foreign to them. If you can get a couple discussion boards up and figure out how to work a Dropbox, you can now meet those needs.

How does this current situation affect the future of learning?

I think this is going to revolutionize higher ed, but I don’t know that it will fundamentally change online learning. What I think it’s going to do is challenge views on what it means to be a teacher.

So much of our views as a professor are tied up into the role of content provider with a ‘I give them knowledge’ mentality. Over thousands of years of history, that’s what a teacher did. That’s why the lecture has prevailed. It’s me imparting my knowledge to students.

The internet changed students’ reliance on faculty for content knowledge, but it hasn’t changed underlying fundamental teaching philosophy. Students still walk into a classroom and see professors lecturing on topic that they could very easily learned about by watching an online video, reading an article or listening to a podcast.

Twenty years of research has shown that traditional, campus-based faculty have struggled the most to fully embrace online learning. They can’t conceptualize their role in the online classroom because their philosophy of teaching is centered around being a content provider.

We know in best practices of online learning, really our job is not to give them content, it’s to create a learning experience and to be part of that learning experience — to push them to think and to give them feedback on their thinking. To guide them through this world they live in where information overload is everywhere.

I’ve talked with a lot of traditional faculty over the last couple weeks and it’s almost like an identity crisis: ‘What is my role?’ So the sudden shift to emergency remote learning is sparking a philosophical change about what it means to be a professor.

When we get through this there is no going back. Faculty are all reconceptualizing what it means to promote student learning.

Like it or not, faculty have to let go of the notion that teaching is imparted knowledge to students. Post-pandemic, teaching is going to mean interaction, exploration, feedback and dialogue. That is learning.

I think we will see a philosophical shift — that being a professor is when we create a dynamic learning experience, not that we teach them content. I think we will see all of higher ed become more hands on, interactive, more dynamic, more engaging. Despite this pandemic disaster, I think that’s a good thing.

Grand Canyon University senior writer Mike Kilen can be reached at mike.kilen@gcu.edu or at 602-639-6764.

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