As teachers we have two skill sets that we’re continuously trying to revise and adapt and improve.
The first of these is what I call “presence”. That is, the ability to deliver instruction in real time, to engage with the students, to interact with the students, to listen, to respond––to deliver instruction in ways that make sense in that particular context. That’s what I call “presence.”[i]
The second set of skills that a teacher needs to continuously update and revise is management. That includes the skills of planning a curriculum, delivering it in a sequenced way that makes sense, keeping track of student progress, keeping track of the feedback that we give to students, and reporting this. And it also includes getting along with our colleagues, the director of our program, and any third parties who may be involved in the overall educational situation.
Now this second aspect of teaching, the management side, has developed quite a lot, particularly in the past several years, in terms of what we now call “learning management systems.”[ii] And, in fact, it’s the development of learning management systems that has really allowed e-learning to flourish. What I’d like to do is share with you a brief story about how I became interested in learning management systems, well before the current types of learning management systems that we know were available.
This was back when I was teaching at Arizona State University[iii] in an intensive program and in this particular class I was team-teaching –– or two teachers had paired up to share the four-hour curriculum. And what we had decided to do was give the students a regular assignment of working on keeping journals.[iv] And what we soon discovered is that Jackie, my teaching partner, and I had very different ways of responding to how the students did their work in the journal. On this side is sort of a typical response that I would give: kind of a global response to the entry, and maybe one or two or three sort of inquisitive responses about “What do you mean by this?,” “What do you mean by that?” Jackie, on the other hand, would give feedback in this sort of format: you know, the bloody red pen with lots of corrections, lots of errors identified, lots of suggestions made for how to improve directly at the surface level.
Now there’s a great deal of research on this whole notion of corrective feedback[v] that I don’t want to go into right now, but what I want to point out is that, as a colleague, Jackie and I differed in our approach. And in fact I even remember very clearly because it was a painful experience that Jackie accused me of not doing my job correctly. She said, you know, it seems like you’re not doing your job if you’re not correcting all the students’ errors.
What this pointed out was a need for us to develop some kind of learning management system, to see how, over the course of the six- or seven-week course, the students were progressing, and to do this in a reliable way. So what we developed is literally a “portfolio system,” where the students would photocopy and keep one representative writing assignment every week. We also developed this so that we had structured interviews and they could keep a recording of their interview literally in their portfolio.[vi]
So this gave rise to my interest in learning management systems. Now today of course, learning management systems are software that we use in conjunction with our curriculum that enable us to upload content, to create study plans, to reveal content in a way that corresponds to our plans in the curriculum, and also to keep a portfolio of students’ work, to track their progress, and to give them assignments, to communicate with them, either personally or as a group, and also allows us to reveal and give assessments and keep records that are more reliable than we may be able to do otherwise.
So learning management systems now are in the form of public domain systems such as Moodle® or Edmodo® or ChalkTalk®, or Pearson’s Open Class®[vii] system that enable us to support our teaching management with software that allows us to focus more on the “presence” side of teaching when we’re with our students. So even though learning management systems can do all of these things and give us all of these extra supportive options, I think it comes down to two questions:
Does this help us teach better? Does the learning management system support and enhance our teaching?
And equally importantly: Does the learning management system help the students track their learning, appreciate their learning options more, and become better learners, more satisfied learners? I think those are the two questions that we always have to ask ourselves about any learning management system.
[i] The term “presence” is used in different way in education and in communication theory. Some educators have talked about the notion of “presence” as a kind of classroom management style and explain how a teacher might go about developing it. For an example of this approach, see:
• Maddern, K. (2015) How to develop teacher presence and command attention in class New Teachers. http://newteachers.tes.co.uk/content/how-develop-teacher-presence-and-command-attention-class
Here I’m using “presence” to refer to authenticity or a “personal style” in which the teacher is able to apply his or her knowledge of content and methodology in a natural way. Here’s a reference to an article on teaching methodology I wrote that is based on this idea of “presence”:
• Rost, M. (2015). A holistic approach to communication. ETA Roc Conference Proceedings. http://latcomm.com/2015/01/holistic-approaches-to-teaching-communication/
and an article exploring this concept:
• Rodgers, C. & Raider-Roth, M. (2006) Presence in teaching. Teachers and Teaching: Theory and Practice, 12, 265–287.
[ii] The first “learning management system” I am aware of is PLATO (Programmed Logic for Automated Teaching Operations), which was developed at the University of Illinois in the 1960s. Since 2005, the most notable developments have been “SCORM” (Sharable Content Object Reference Model), a kind of programming language that allows different types of e-learning software to interact with other e-learning software, NACON’s patented “distance education system,” which allowed users to manage their learning environment via a browser, and OLAT, which unveiled the AJAX technology to build dynamic web pages for clients.
[iii] I began teaching during the formative years of the program. I’m happy to learn that the program, now called the American English and Culture Program, is still going strong https://aecp.asu.edu.
[iv] I was influenced at the time by the Progoff Intensive Journal Method for developing awareness as well as writing ability. This method emphasized “holistic” reading of and reflection on a person’s writing, with little, if any, criticism or direct suggestions for “improvement.” http://intensivejournal.org/index.php
[vi] Use of portfolios in teaching and assessment promotes positive student involvement. As students create their portfolios, they become actively involved in and reflecting on their own learning. This increased “metacognition” generally exerts a positive impact on a student’s self-confidence, facilitates their expanded use of learning strategies, and increases the student’s ability to assess and revise their own work. Here’s a link to a short white paper on this topic by the National Capital Language Resource Center in Washington, D.C.: