Character Traits part 2
When I first composed my response to Participate 1.1.1 Character Traits Quest a year ago (before becoming an online teacher), I missed this:
Indicators of a good digital citizen include the ability to navigate efficiently, effectively, and ethically through digital information.
In my defense, I missed this phrase because the quest focuses on the character traits of a good digital citizen, and it asks bloggers to reflect on the nine elements of a good digital citizen. But as I said before, character traits are invisible, and so listing character traits is much like making a wish list: it reveals more about our own personal values than it aids teachers in guiding students to become model digital citizens.
Indicators, however, are things that measure the state or condition of something else. They inform the observer. So, if we want our ideal digital citizens – with all of the character traits on our wish-lists – we must first seriously consider these indicators: efficient navigation, effective navigation, and ethical navigation. But even then, these indicators, are not really things; they’re processes. And again, in an online environment, you’re mostly blind to the process, all you have is the output.
In a way, online teachers must act as archaeologists, who use artifacts and the surroundings to learn about specific people. Yes, this comparison ignores the fact that students can ask the teacher and that there are many channels of communication available for teachers and students. But often, when students struggle, they don’t reach out and ask for help. From their eyes, online learning is a solo venture. Furthermore, most students operate doing “good enough” work. Their process for navigating the web does offer results, so they’re not looking for ways to improve it. But to do your job – guiding online learners, sometimes more than one hundred – you must work as efficiently, effectively, and ethically as possible. Who better to help students than you?
What follows is how to diagnose the problem, how to offer prescriptive solutions, how to implement preventative practices.
Efficiency & Effectively
Navigating the web efficiently and effectively mean more or less the same thing: finding quality research, opinions, help, or tools without having to sift through much material. There is a difference between a thorough search and a fruitless search. Most work in an online class is asynchronous, so it is difficult to tell how long a student spends on an assignment or what technology that student uses and has available to them. Teachers must seek out this information first.
Access to technology is a large, overlooked factor when discussing online learning. It’s easy to make an assumption that any student enrolled in an online class will have reliable access, but sometimes this isn’t the case. If a student doesn’t regularly submit work, participate in discussions, or respond to emails, then perhaps there is a problem with technology. The online teacher must reach out. Yes, sometimes grading policies prevent extensions, and no, it’s not feasible to provide technology to students. However, the teacher can offer tech support. We rarely think of ourselves as part of the “Geek Squad,” but we are. We, ourselves, have had to trouble-shoot when technology fails us, and we know a plethora of creative solutions that our students might not think of. The prescription for these cases is a phone call and compassionate and patient care. Perhaps we didn’t plan on a thirty-minute call explaining how to take a screenshot of an error message, but the scenario is much worse for the student and family. They weren’t planning on their computer breaking either.
Phone calls work well for individual problems, but it’s also important to save time by offering preventative measures. How can teachers show students that they can offer technical assistance? How can teachers model creative problem-solving when tech breaks down?
A discussion board or shared comment space (such as Padlet) can offer a record of “if/then” solutions. Many websites and learning management systems do have useful “Help” buttons, but for whatever reason, students don’t think to go there. A more personalized help area does draw students. An online teacher can start a help forum by simply taking screenshots of tech problems and then linking to the individual help page within the learning management system. Also, the teacher can invite students to share their own creative solutions. Finally, we can praise students and share their contributions through class messages and news announcement.
How students work and navigate efficiently and effectively is harder to examine in some ways because of the asynchronous environment. You simply can’t watch your student work as you could in a school building. If the quality is equal, there’s no way to differentiate from the student who spent one hour researching and completing an assignment and the student who spent five hours. The best way to determine how students work is to run a diagnostic test early in the semester. You want to find out what kinds of resources the students use and how long it takes them.
An MLA, or APA, citation exercise is one solution. My language arts course has one such assignment where students format a document using proper MLA format. This is followed by an assignment that asks students to provide examples of different nonfiction genres and to cite their sources. On the surface, these assignments seem only to teach students how to properly set up a page and to aimlessly search the web, but they can also tell you much about how efficiently a student works. For instance, if a student’s nonfiction scavenger hunt includes examples from many different websites from .org or .edu domains, then we might assume the student can work around the web well. Another student might offer examples from Yahoo News or Yahoo Answers. Please consider this a big, red flag. With a few tweaks, we can make the two assignments into a diagnostic test:
Where can you learn about what you love?
Make a digital poster or a presentation that uses pictures, video, and links about your passion.
Choose 5 of the following nonfiction types and find an example that connects to what you love to do, learn, or see. For each type, write a sentence or two about the example, cite the source, and include a picture or video that connects to the example.
- News article / current event
- Opinion / Editorial
- Online (free) textbook
- Blog, journal, or diary
This test will hopefully reveal three types of students:
- Those who can use the internet to provide sound research and sources within a reasonable time frame
- Those who work within a reasonable time frame but find incorrect or unreliable research and sources
- Those who find sound research and sources but only after hours of frustration or searching
Now that you have identified the student who needs help working online, how can you help?
For group one, focus on offering different sites, perhaps ones that are less well known or ones that connect with the student’s interests.
Group two, however, needs help finding resources. For these students, perhaps suggest ways to optimize search results. Some students just need basic tips like how to use advance search options and how to limit searches to .org and .edu domains. These students might also need help in how to evaluate a source’s credibility – and let’s face it, many adults need help with this, too.
Finally, group three, will probably be the smallest sample, since most do not spend long completing assignments. These students are the ones who know what they’re looking for (i.e. can recognize credible resources) but haven’t yet identified enough places on the internet where they should start their search. Perhaps in addition to a lesson on advanced search techniques, these students would benefit from a quick lesson on bookmarking.
Good digital citizens also navigate the web ethically, and this shouldn’t be ignored. However, most conversations about online ethics diverge into conversations about conduct or ownership. I recommend reading my posts on Digital Rights and Responsibilities and Open Educational Resources and Creative Commons.